How to Play Djembe, Secrets of the Hand, & A Rhythmic Vocabulary

    -- Alan Dworsky and Betsy Sansby, Minnetonka: Dancing Hands Music.

In these three excellent workbooks Dworsky and Sansby lead the reader slowly into feeling, understanding and performing complex rhythms and meters. First, the reader learns a concept; then looks at the music that is written by the authors; and finally, practices and plays the music. The easy-to-follow notation is the ‘TUBS’ system common to African drumming.

Sometimes the reader plays with a rhythm provided on a CD included with the workbooks. At other times the authors guide the reader in playing with his or her own personal music collection. There are plenty of helpful suggestions for how and when to practice. Also included are helpful tips on subjects like “How to keep people in line with you from being scared when you are stepping, clapping, and singing three different rhythms at once!”

Many good pedagogical techniques are used in conveying this material, so even in the complexity, the reader should usually feel ready at the right times for the next step or rhythm. Interesting cultural notes are thrown in to provide context to the music.

How to Play Djembe: West African Rhythms for Beginners

This book teaches West African rhythms to people who are beginning to play djembe. Even if djembe is the first instrument you have tried to learn, this book should be easily understandable.

This is not a highly technical or detailed book. Learning djembe in West Africa is a rigorous process—it’s not uncommon for students to learn to hate their teachers! But in this book the focus is on learning some West African rhythms in a fun, easy way. The reader is taught very quickly how to produce each tone, and then he jumps right into learning authentic rhythms. The book comes with a CD recorded by Sidi Mohamed Camara, a master drummer from Bamako, Mali. The CD is geared to help the reader learn and play along with the rhythms. At the end of each learning track, Camara plays a master drum part for the reader to accompany by using the rhythms he has just learned. This makes playing the rhythms really fun and challenging.

The book also teaches the new djembe player to feel 12/8 rhythms. One way that this skill is practiced is by including rhythms of different cycle lengths in the same song. Other important skills are taught in this book : how to play 3 over 2, how to tune your djembe, and how to recognize the bell part and the 3 common breaks, which are the signals the master drummer uses to begin or end a piece or to change tempo.

Seven standard pieces are notated and taught, including “Suku” (or “Soukou”). A video is also available.

Secrets of the Hand: Soloing Strategies for Hand Drummers

This book is written for the more advanced hand drummer who would like to gain more skill in soloing on congas or djembe. This book assumes that you have a solid understanding of rhythm, including an understanding of how cross-rhythms and polyrhythms work. This background is available in the other two books in this review, especially A Rhythmic Vocabulary. What Dworsky and Sansby are teaching here is, in their words, “to play complex solos using simple sequences of hand strokes.” And while the sequencing of the patterns is very simple, the patterns themselves add a great deal of complexity and interest to an ensemble. The book is organized in two sections: the five basic hand-pattern strategies, which teach the reader to play to his or her strengths, and five strategies for creating the illusion of speed. The patterns taught in this book are typical African and Afro-Cuban lead phrases, or phrases based on them. Be ready for a challenge when you pick up this book; your western sensibility toward rhythm will be stretched beyond all recognition. A CD is available.

A Rhythmic Vocabulary: A Musician’s Guide to Understanding and Improvising with Rhythm (208 pages)

This is a fantastic book. Whatever the reader’s musical background, it can lead him into a deeper understanding of rhythm, giving him a new sense of how deep and wide the world of rhythm really is. Starting at a very basic level, the reader is taught to use his or her own instrument to learn and practice rhythm, and any musician can follow along. From this basic level, the book progresses to help the reader understand an amazing level of rhythmic complexity. To give you an idea where this book will lead you, here are the titles of the last three sections: “Three groups of four beats in six,” “Cross-rhythms,” and “Polyrhythms with uneven grids.” Yes, this book will even have you bending patterns between four and six, and you’ll learn concepts and techniques to help you create your own rhythms. A double CD is available.

I would highly recommend this book to all who call themselves musicians or composers. More than almost any western music program, it will give you much more freedom and lead to much more creativity in the rhythmic sphere. This would be a great textbook for formal study! I would recommend it especially to anyone who studies musics of other cultures, because any music you study has its own rhythmic sensibility. As you seek to understand the musics of the world more accurately, it will be invaluable to you to have the deeper understanding of rhythm and the breadth of the rhythmic world that you will gain from this book.

These books are all available at bookstores or through or

    --reviewed by Drew Kelly, long-time drummer with experience in East Africa

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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Artists in Christian Testimony