August 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Beat up

By Kate Holden
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In a lilac-painted acupuncture studio on a chic inner-urban shopping strip, a bunch of white folks are banging the crap out of some leather. There is an almighty clamour in a very small, shadowy room; sparkly earrings jiggle, hands slap away. Welcome to the ‘new yoga’ – African drumming: a remedy in demand by corporate managers, stressed nursing-home staff, festival organisers, cancer researchers, new mothers, aromatic hippies, earnest young creatives, happy housewives and the disabled. Ancestral to West Africa and popularised by world music recordings, this intricate bass, slap and tone technique is now bringing health and release to those looking for ‘something different’ – drumming is middle Australia’s latest cool.

The majority of new recruits are women of middle years, and the two young blonde teachers I meet give the distinct impression of assured health and easy amusement. Simone and Kate each run workshops and classes in St Kilda, Melbourne, after travelling to Africa to study their art. I was, I guess, expecting Africans at the sessions I sit in on, but the groups that I meet – though diverse in age and personality – are entirely white or Asian.

At Drummergirl that Thursday night, the beginner students sit with their djembes – a traditional West African instrument about a metre high – between their knees. “Are we good? I’ll call myself in.” Simone raises her eyebrows, starts up a beat. Someone follows. There is a convincing pattern audible, they’ve learnt this one before. In moments the tiny room is crashing. There are three people on dun duns, taller drums from which they gravely pomp out a bass beat; others smack away deftly on djembes, their hands moving as if stomping out dance steps. Simone grimaces, grins, jerks her head to conduct. “Fra din din fra din din, din din din bada bada ba,” she shouts. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 … din din din!” They pound through a piece that lasts 15 minutes, its steadiness hypnotic, its patterns inscrutable and insistent. One woman pauses to rub her stinging palms. Smiles quieten to solemn concentration; shoulders moving mechanically, hands slapping away relentlessly. In this cold room everyone is looking hot from the exercise. “Gid in gadinki, gid in gadini, gid in gadinki … Chhhh.” They get towards the end; Simone nods her head rapidly. They finish in single-note concert – “Bada bada bada bada, ba ba ba.” The room is abruptly silent. Clapping would be redundant after the great applause of the drums.

“Don’t panic or worry if you don’t know, it’s always better just to listen,” Simone reassures her students. They compare notes on how their circulation has improved since they started drumming. Pam, a middle-aged lady with fabulous earrings, loves drumming for its infectious beat, since she doesn’t read sheet music. She wanted something new, has always admired things African, and has now been learning for a month. Rocia, who is originally from Latin America, is a dancer by inclination. “I knew I had the rhythm, but I don’t know how to play.” If you have a heartbeat, they say, you can drum.

There is a great pleasure to be had in whacking something. “One day I had a really bad day at work … ” Rocia says softly. Pam interjects, “It’s for letting off steam!” Drumming has been ascribed many benefits, including stimulating energy, settling brain-wave frequencies, toning muscle and relieving stress. “You can’t play drums and be thinking about what you did for work that day,” Kate tells me. This activity is much sought after for corporate team-building activities.

Women especially, it seems, appreciate the chance for catharsis. In traditional drumming in Africa, it is mostly men who captain the drums in a fiercely competitive, macho display of prowess and stamina (“If you hurt, hit harder”), while women are given shakers, or dance. Here at the African Drumming Centre for West African Music and Culture, though, the studios are full of nice ladies hammering out their frustration. “Men don’t think they need lessons,” Kate says dryly, while women tend to like more guidance, and enjoy mastering the complicated rhythms. At the Saturday afternoon jam session held at this shop, which specialises in objets Africains, the men quickly take the lead in improvisation. Michael, an affable bloke with a greying beard and wearing a windcheater and jeans, raps out a stiff flurry of ornamentation above the loose jumble of regular beats, his face closed with concentration before he looks up with a grin and repeats his flourish. Other men pause thoughtfully in their djembe ministrations before essaying a variation, stiff with dignity or perhaps just effort. The women tend to maintain the beat. The drums clatter, slap, cough, cackle, clunk, crackle, whack, tintinnabulate, snap, echo, rattle, rap, giggle, and thunder. In the background Kate wanders off to sway in dance amid the store merchandise. One piece stutters to a close, then the jammers begin another; people walking past outside peer in through the shop windows to see what’s making the racket. It is almost incredible that this group of mixed honkeys are making such an enormously sexy sound.

The Visitor, a 2007 US film, memorably showed a depressed university professor being introduced to the djembe by a Syrian friend, and, by extension, to a new comprehension of migrant issues. Here the ‘exotic’ sounds of a relatively new migrant population are accepted without demur; while many students are interested in African culture, it’s the drumming that matters most. One account of the word ‘djembe’ derives it from anke dje, anke be: everyone gather together. The players casually use the names of certain rhythms, like pago and jensa (in the sense of, “Does anyone know jensa?”). Who’s to say that soon these words will be any less familiar than ‘sonata’ and ‘tango’, ‘asana’, ‘barista’ or ‘dolmade’? “I just want to take the clothes off and put the beads on!” says Pam’s friend Jude, when I ask her why she drums. At the North African-styled bar to which the ladies have repaired for an imported beer after the class, she winks at me and goes on loudly practising slap and tone on the coffee table, a look of absorption on her face. The drums are beating: hear their call.

Kate Holden

Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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