A Cultural Kaleidoscope

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Beat The Drum

I wander past wind chimes, stacks of psychic literature, and wooden statuary from the Far East as soothing New Age music emanates throughout Seven Rays Bookstore. Passing through beaded curtains and woven hemp tapestries, I enter a small room behind the store, and a tall, graceful African man greets me. His dark skin contrasts with his white teeth and multi-colored Kente print dashiki and matching Kufi hat.

The man introduces himself as our teacher, Este Nyadedzor (but prefers to be called David). He welcomes me and several others to his class with a grateful tone and a large full-tooth smile. He speaks slowly in English (with a thick West African accent), choosing his words with great care. He grins and laughs deeply throughout his entire presentation on his native culture of Ghana.

Upon David’s encouragement, those who did not bring their own drums (only me, of course) should borrow one from the pool of extras at the center of the room. I select a medium size djembe – a wooden drum shaped like a large goblet with tribal carvings along the base and an animal hide playing surface attached to the top by strands of rope.

I take a seat in an uncomfortable metal folding chair next to a white guy with dreads and tribal tattoos on his forearms, says he is also an SU student. We bring our chairs into the circle to join the other five people in the group – an elderly couple who frequent the class, a middle-aged man visiting from Vermont, a young female Yoga instructor who is also a Seven Rays employee, and David.

I notice that everyone in the room is barefoot except for me. After a fleeting moment of embarrassment, I remove my shoes too.

The teacher instructs us to place the drums between our inner thighs (near the knees) and tilt them forward toward him. This is the proper ready position. I tilt my djembe a little too far forward, and it topples to the floor. “This is not the ready position,” David says as he chuckles.

By 6:30, my dignity is still somewhat intact, and we began with the basic methods of striking the drum. First, with our fingers relaxed and spread apart, we learned to hit the outer edge of the drum (just above the rim) with the palm to make a high, sharp sound called the slap. Then David taught us how to play the lower bass note by hitting the center of the drum with our palms while holding our fingers firmly together. These notes were somewhat familiar to me from participating in parking-lot drum circles at String Cheese concerts. I also previously tried to play the introductory percussion rhythm of Ben Harper’s famed song, “Burn One Down” at a friend’s house (both attempts failed).

We practice counting and learn several different patterns that involve mixing the two techniques. The two elderly folks with their loose fitting khaki-colored garb and unkempt gray hair perfectly execute each song and are clearly veterans of the Seven Rays drum circle. They seem to be irritated with me and the other SU newcomer (but mostly me – at least the other guy brought his own drum and looks the part of a drum circle participant). David stops several times to help us regain the rhythm and catch up with the rest of the circle.

We repeat after our teacher, saying, “Anke dje, anke be.” This means “Everyone gather together.” The group chants this in English and in the native Asante language.

The patterns become more advanced, perhaps to suit the needs of the impatient old timers of the group. I struggle to keep up. I stop often to watch David’s hands and count with the group until I find the beat again. He explains that it takes weeks of practice to keep up with this fast pace, which makes me feel better about my poor performance.

My hands start to get sore, and I am exhausted from counting beats and singing. I’m also tired of the old lady drum vet glaring at me and telling me not to think about what I’m doing “but just to feel the energy through the drum.”

As much as I love the sounds of percussion instruments (especially the African djembe) and appreciate David’s kindness and patience, 8 o’clock could not come fast enough. I thanked him for the lesson and paid my $10, put my shoes back on, and walked to Alto Cinco for a beer. The laid-back environment I had been expecting at the drum circle was instead waiting for me with the Westcott hippies next door.


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