Core Djembe Parts

If you only ever learn a handful of djembe parts, make it these...

The following are four core djembe patterns which are so common that knowing them all means you can at least play something in many rhythms:
[where B=bass, O=open tone, S=slap, .=rest, r=right/best hand, l=left/other hand]

1 & 2 &
      $
B.OO..S.   ("Ride bicycle") in Kuku and many other rhythms
r.rl..r.

      $
B.OOB.SS   ("Woodpecker, Woodpecker") in Djole, Makru, etc.
r.rlr.rl

Notice how these two parts share common notes, just adding a B and S. There are many variations on the above, often repeating the pattern but omitting one note the second time around, etc.

1 & 2 & 
S..SS.OO   ("Fly away, cuckoo") = 'Rhythme Populaire'
r..lr.rl

This very old rhythm dating back at least eight centuries is known nowadays as 'Rhythme Populaire' because it's so commonly used in 4/4 rhythms. It's also called 'Passport', as it's said that once you can play it, you can travel West Africa and be welcome anywhere :-)

1&a2&a
S.OS..   ("Round the back" / "Pam-pi-tam")
r.rl..
S..SOO   ("Fag, 'avin' a ...")
r..lrl

This pair of patterns appears in Soli Rapide, Sorsonet, Kedju and countless other 12/8 rhythms, including all Dununba rhythms.

Hand-to-hand technique

All of the above rhythms use traditional 'hand-to-hand technique'. This means playing as if your hands were alternating all the time and filling any rests with silent 'ghost notes' whose duration is the lowest common denominator required by the pattern: usually this will be semiquavers (sixteenth notes), like in the Batman TV series theme music. This means that all (odd-numbered) strong beats will fall on your strong hand, and rarer (even-numbered) offbeats on your weaker hand, which makes sense for both power and accuracy.

You don't actually need to play the ghost notes (although doing so helps solidify your timing, especially with syncopated parts) just as long as you understand where the ghost notes would be. How easily you take to ghost notes often depends on whether or not you've been tapping tabletops for years. If not, just practising playing slowly with ghost notes may seem mechanical, hard work, and initially infuriating, but it's worth persevering. Just think of ghost notes as another kind of sound along with bass, tone and slap.

1 & 2 & 
SttSStOO   = 'Rhythme Populaire' with ghost notes
rlrlrlrl
12345678

Normally, you need to make sure that your ghost notes stay quiet, and aren't as loud as tones and slaps. However, some songs like Samba and Afrocubanites utilise the ghost notes as 'timing notes' to give feel and groove to a sparse pattern which would otherwise be lifeless and devoid of rhythmic clues to keep other players in time. Another major benefit of playing hand-to-hand is that you never need to ask which hand to use for which note, as it'll be whichever hand's turn it is at that moment.

Next hand technique

The opposite of this is called 'next hand technique', where you use the next free hand to play the next note, and just wait during rests. This was developed by players in the Ballet who had to play very hard and fast for dancers for many hours, hence they needed to try and save as much energy as possible and spread the load evenly between their two hands. This might work for rhythms containing even numbers of notes, but odd numbers of notes mean either reversing the hands on every repeat, or some repeated strokes with one hand. The latter is preferable, but not always possible in fast, busy patterns (which unfortunately are common in Ballet music). An even bigger disadvantage is that your timing now depends on how accurately you can pause for exactly the right amount of time during rests. Rests are much harder to play (well) than notes. My advice would be to ask you two questions:

  1. "Are you playing very hard and fast for dancers for many hours?"
  2. "Is your timing exceptional, down to tiny increments of microtiming?"

If the answer is yes to both, then consider employing next-hand technique, otherwise play hand-to-hand in most rhythms along with the rest of us, unless a teacher declares an exception - some rhythms like Part 1 of Jeti Jeti require next-hand technique for speed. Compare these examples - only the first favours next-hand technique; later examples become increasingly awkward:

1 & 2 &
      $
B.OO..S.   ("Ride bicycle" using hand-to-hand technique)
r.rl..r.   OR:
r.lr..l.   (alternative handing using next-hand technique)

      $
B.OOB.SS   ("Woodpecker, Woodpecker") in Djole, Makru, etc.
r.rlr.rl   (using hand-to-hand technique)
r.lrl.rl   (using next-hand technique)

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
              $
B.OOB.S.B.OOB.S.   ("Strawberry ice cream") in Moribayassa
r.rlr.r.r.rlr.r.   (using hand-to-hand technique)
r.lrl.r.l.rlr.l.   (using reversing next-hand technique)
r.lrl.r.r.lrl.r.   (using repeating next-hand technique)

Why this matters

The handing is critical to get right, as many other rhythms are derived from these basic patterns; learn correctly initially and you'll have no trouble expanding your repertoire with new variants, but learn it wrongly, and you'll find each new pattern poses new difficulties, making it very hard to progress. Once you learn bad technique, it can be hard to unlearn it, so take the easy way and do it Right First Time! Some parts do take a bit of practice to master, especially 'Rhythme Populaire', which often feels wrong when your hands are in fact moving correctly, but seems OK when they're actually doing it wrong. Mamady Keita is very strict about people only playing this pattern with the correct handing, because folk have played it this way for a thousand years for a reason, and that reason is that it gives the correct feel and helps to keep you in time. You can do what I (and no doubt many others) did, and try other ways of handing, but in the end after much effort you'll realise that the masters were right all along, and that's why we do it this way... :-) So save yourself the bother and stand on the shoulders of giants - they will support you! Yes, it does take some initial effort to practise, but it is worthwhile. It often helps to sit on your own and just move your hands v-e-r-y   s-l-o-w-l-y (you don't even need a drum) in the right way, while you observe them moving, until you can gradually speed it up to normal tempo. Of course, when you play on a drum, you should never watch your hands, as you should be seated with back straight in correct posture and head held high, beaming out energy at your audience. If you need to watch anyone, make it your teacher.

12/8 exercises

1&a2&a3&a4&a
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl

This requires a continual swapping of hands, and is thus a great way to warm up when playing atop cold mountains, as the swaying motion gives your internal organs a nice massage as you play. Once you master the handing technique, try accenting certain notes, such as every 6th note, or every 4th, every 3rd, every other, to see what effect that has - some will be strong beats, some offbeats. Now try accenting the 2nd note in each group of 6, then the 3rd note, the 4th, the 5th and the 6th, like this:

1&a2&a3&a4&a
 >     >
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl
  >     >
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl
   >     >
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl
    >     >
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl
     >     >
BOOBOOBOOBOO
rlrlrlrlrlrl
123456123456

Once you've done that, instead of accenting certain notes each time, try playing them silently as rests (but still keeping the hands moving rlrlrl with or without ghost notes). This yields a vast array of patterns and cool syncopations.

More advanced techniques

1&a2&a3&a4&a
OSSO..OSSO..
rlrl  rlrl

OSSOSSOSSOSS
rlrlrlrlrlrl

The first pattern is a good stepping stone to master the second, a tricky exercise in rudiments which is used in many solos and as an echauffement in many 12/8 rhythms. It takes skill and practice to get the tones to sound clearly distinct from the slaps, so start with the second exercise s-l-o-w-l-y and don't even think about speeding up until you can really keep those tones consistent - you'll probably find the left-hand tone is hard to control. Use your mind. Choose which sound to play on each note, and eventually your hands will do as you ask.