Levels of djembe playing

The road is long...

In any field of human endeavour, different people learn at different rates. Some folk progress much more quickly from one level to the next, particularly if they already have a headstart from a musical background. Regular playing will help, and it also depends how much practice you do as well. But it's not about how long you've been playing for, so don't despair if you stay at a particular level for years, while watching other people advance in a matter of weeks. Many people remain at Improver level (which is fine) and just enjoy playing, and the majority of (even keen) players aren't girlie-swot enough to bother with all the extra learning and practice required to go beyond. Do you really want a hard life, or just to have fun?

My weekly classes cater for Levels 0-3 below. If twice a week is not enough, or you can't make it to them but are still keen to develop your playing, I also offer one-to-one and group tuition tailored to your needs.

My levels described here are like karate belt levels in Glasgow - you've got to pretty hard to make the next grade, and insanely dedicated to reach the top, as each level gets harder and logarithmically higher than the one below. For reference, I'd say I'm Advanced (sometimes glimpsing Expert), Justine is an Expert, and Mamady and Famoudou Konate are the only Grand Masters I know of on the Earth currently, although Sidiki Dembele may become one eventually as he has such energy. After all, there can only be a few legendary players in each generation, and the Gods survive for millennia...

  1. New Starters - you've never played a drum before, and possibly never played any kind of musical instrument, but that doesn't matter! Some level of rhythmic awareness is necessary though: you need to be able to clap in time and feel a beat. Private tuition is strongly recommended to avoid getting into bad habits early on which are hard to shake off later.
  2. Beginners - you've played a drum before but haven't had that much experience of traditional rhythms. You know what bass, tones and slaps are, but don't yet have much distinction between your sounds. You recognise the Signal used by the leader to call changes, and can act accordingly. You can follow other players playing the same part as you but are not so strong at holding a part on your own.
  3. Improvers - you play djembe quite a bit and have now gone beyond Beginner level, and are getting used to how to learn rhythms even if you can't remember them all! You have a good grasp of the core djembe parts and bell parts, and know quite a few traditional rhythms from memory (perhaps some need a bit of prompting from your teacher!). You also play some dun dun parts to gain a better understanding of the djembe parts and rhythmic structure from other viewpoints. You can hold a simple part on your own, and have some experience playing breaks in unison with other players.
  4. Intermediate - you can play all the core rhythms well, with pretty good elucidation of tone and slap. You can call signals clearly and know where to place them in relation to the other parts, having gained a feel for the structure of the rhythms by playing all the dun dun and bell parts. You already know many traditional rhythms from memory, and some traditional solos. To widen your repertoire, you read notation and/or record patterns for learning quickly by ear, to practise on your own to extend your technique. You can internalise rests and downbeats to play offbeat parts without losing the beat.
  5. Advanced - you've been playing djembe and dun duns for a long time and are probably teaching too to share the love. Mind-bending offbeats no longer phase you and you're mastering the subtleties of microtiming. Your tone is admirable and you perform regularly at a high level.
  6. Expert - you are known as an authority on African drumming, and your teaching is sought out by the discerning student. Your performances, compositions and recordings are equally in demand throughout the land.
  7. Djembefola - translates as "one who gives the djembe voice". A pretty good player. Similarly, a very fine dun dun player is known as a Dundunfola or Dununfola.
  8. Master - your wide knowledge includes all the traditional rhythms from your region and the surrounding areas, along with the songs and dance moves, and the solos that accompany them. The term "Master Drummer" is not proffered lightly, and is passed down from teacher to student when the student has acquired all her teacher's knowledge.
  9. Grand Master - your legendary reputation precedes you as one of the finest Masters who ever walked the Earth. Mere Masters cower and fall at your feet to worship your beautiful tones and perfectly composed solos.
  10. Drum God(dess) - Your mythic musical talents have evolved to the point that You've acquired the power to bend SpaceTime, and Your drumrolls have been known to induce Supernovae. Hence You are careful to play only for special celestially-aligned circumstances, to which people travel from planets far and wide.

The following photo, which I took at African Drum Village in Scotland in 2007, contains one Grand Master, at least one Djembé Fola (a few others were nearby), and a whole lot of experts in the making...

[ Famoudou Konate djembe workshop at African Drum Village in Scotland, 2007 ]