African beats heating up winter nights
Drummer has students warming up to the rhythm of the djembe
February 6, 2013, 4:54 PM AST
Last updated February 7, 2013, 9:26 AM AST
The beat is hypnotic.
The bass notes press against your chest and gently vibrate your diaphragm.
Ten people gather in a circle and rest a djembe, a type of African drum, between their knees.
Most have little to no drumming experience and are here to learn the basics of African drumming.
Instructor Chris Kennedy, owner of The Goatworks African Drums, leads the rhythm.
Bass. Slap. Bass, bass, bass, slap. Thwap. Slap. Bass, bass, bass, slap.
The rest of the circle follows; heads nodding.
The rhythm floods the small fourth-floor room of the Rosaria Student Centre at Mount Saint Vincent University and spills out into the hallway.
Sharing the tradition
Kennedy has been teaching African drumming for about 10 years.
“Once I got all the technique down and once I learned a few rhythms and hung out with my teachers, who are from Africa, I realized that you get a certain amount of [credibility] with them,” says Kennedy. “They know that you can play so they don’t mind you regurgitating it as long as you teach it properly.”
After gaining his teachers’ trust, Kennedy felt he had to pass on the knowledge.
“When you show somebody how to play properly and when they just start to get it, you can just see the veil lifting,” he says. “It’s African music before that, but it’s djembe music when they start actually learning to play the notes properly and they start understanding about the history and the technique behind it.”
Extending the rhythm
Megan Nolan, a student at Mount Saint Vincent University, has no drumming experience.
“I like to get my rhythm going,” says a laughing Nolan. “I like learning the African drumming and the background to it.”
“When I find that I make a mistake, I watch somebody else play the same thing and it usually gets me back on track,” she says.
Nolan brought a digital recorder to the session to help with practising at home.
“It’s a lot different when you’re at home playing because it just doesn’t sound as cool,” she says. “By yourself it sounds pretty silly.”
Mount Saint Vincent student Lindsay Hines also has no drumming experience. She says she enjoys playing with everyone and feeling the beat of everyone playing together.
“I’m a beginner and I’m not very good. I mess up all the time and I get confused, but [Kennedy] is great because he just stops and gets me back on the bass notes,” says Hines. “The other people don’t really have to wait for me because they get to keep playing and doing their thing.”
Mark Fakhri doesn’t have a lot of drumming experience either. He too enjoys “being in the room with a whole bunch of other drummers, feeling the rhythm and the pulse.”
Kennedy says there are dozens, if not hundreds, of African drums, but the djembe is the most popular. He says it was invented about 800 years ago in Mali, when Mali was an empire, and then spread throughout West Africa.
“I have two shops there now. One in Guinea and one in Ghana. These drums are made there,” says Kennedy pointing to the classroom.
Drummer for life
Kennedy has more than 30 years of drumming experience and has specialized in African music for the last 15 years.
Kennedy first started playing the drums when he was 10, when he got a drum set for Christmas. He began taking a lot of lessons and over the years has played nearly every genre of music including rock and roll, jazz, country, punk, fusion, reggae and metal.
He fell in love with the African drum djembe around 15 years ago because of the “sound, tradition, history and difficulty.”
He was introduced to the djembe by a friend who was more in tune with world music.
“He just played a couple songs that he liked and it went from there,” says Kennedy.
“It’s so old, so rich in tradition. I like to pass that on. It’s fun, it relaxes people. It gets people out on a freezing cold February Tuesday,” says Kennedy with a laugh. “You can play on the beach. You can play in a snow pile.”
Learning the African drum
The sessions, which are held on Tuesday nights in the Rosaria building at Mount Saint Vincent University, usually draw between 10 and 12 people.
For now, the price is $90 — or $70 if you have your own drum — per session. Each session consists of four one-hour classes.
Kennedy is scheduled to teach every day from now until April 15. He started getting calls about African Heritage Month back in August.
“If African Heritage Month were four months long, I’d be booked every single day,” says a smiling Kennedy.
“I’m obviously not of African descent, but I pass on the rhythms and I pass them on properly, the way they were taught to me by my teachers in Africa,” he says. “The technique, the cultural relevance, the drums are traditional.”