African Drumming is not bongos!

"We don't just sit there and go bongo bongo bongo all day. I think at one time that's what Europeans thought of it: it was obviously that noise that was made up in the hills - you know - when you were on safari on holiday. It wasn't the kind of thing you were encouraged as part of your safari to go and do with the people who lived there. No, it was something you heard in the distance and you were always told "they're doing their thing" - that's how it's always been. But now, through social cross-fertilisation or whatever, it's clearer now that look, I'm not a dumb human being who's just going bongo bongo; I'm doing that because I get results. And the results are this, and you've been missing it for four hundred years, and if you really want a bit of it, I can show you."
- Master Drummer of Africa Nana Tsiboe on a 1993 Radio 3 documentary called "Talking Drum"

[ Djembes are not bongos ]

Bongos are from Latin America

Many people think that any drum you hit with your hands is a bongo. While bongos did originate from similar small pairs of drums in Africa, it was more the Cuban tradition that popularised them in The West. (Don't get me wrong here, bongos are very cool instruments and I'm not knocking them in the slightest... well, maybe a little tap now and again :-)

Sadly the confusion remains, but I am gradually working to correct this: a slogan of the band I was in was "I can't believe it's not bongos!" :-) When I teach in schools, I take in a real pair of bongos and show the kids the difference, getting them to repeat the names of djembe and dun duns so that they don't forget. It is tragic that despite many children nowadays playing djembe many times in school (kids today don't know how lucky they are!), they are not even taught the proper name of the instrument. This is often down to poor knowledge by teachers with insufficient training in the subject, but obviously most music teachers cannot be specialists in all fields. So without further ado, for your information we present...

Different kinds of African drums

The above drums are not for sale, but here are some good places to buy African drums. More pictures will be added soon... And here are lots of them altogether to get an idea of scale.

[ Kpanlogo, djembes, seourouba, dun duns (behind) and bongos ]

Other popular misconceptions about African drumming

The worldwide popularity of the djembe has produced many aspiring novice djembe players around the world, who don't realise that it is only an accompanying instrument to the dun duns; the djembe is also played by the lead drummer who is generally a virtuoso. So people see the leader and think: "Hey, that looks cool - I want to do that!" without realising that it takes years of dedicated practice to reach that level. Hence we now have many people who, just because they play other (hand) drums, think that that they can play (and perish the thought, even teach) djembe, without knowing the full story.

The next generation of English children (in my region at least) will have a better clue about this wonderful tradition of Mande music, which, far from being an historical curiosity to be labelled, pigeon-holed and preserved in aspic, is a vibrant and living artform, under constant development by the master players.

There are those who say that indigenous music should only be played by people from that indigenous culture. But this is really just thinly-veiled racist propaganda. Surely if that were true, we should have no Early English lute music, since the lute was copied from the Middle Eastern oud; there would be no Bach French Suites; no Cuban music which was derived from its African roots; in fact, most music can probably trace origins in the early human societies of Africa.

[ Keep cool! ]Music is a melting pot: artists are influenced by all they see and hear on this Earth and Elsewhere, and that richness will be reflected in their art, which knows no national boundaries. As humans, we are all charting routes through essentially the same existence, albeit on our different paths. The djembe welcomes everyone.

 

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