African Drumming: Kids Deserve the Best

By Jim Banks, Co-Founder of Hooked On Drums™

Jim Banks with youth and adult students, end-of-year Park District recital, Chicago, 2004

Kids make the best African drumming students. They learn faster than most adults. They're better able to comprehend complex polyrhythms and how they “swing.” They convey their understanding to audiences joyfully. They progress faster than most adults, achieving a professional level sooner than you'd expect.

I've been studying the drums of the Malinke people from Guinea for over a decade. Played on a set of three bass drums called dununs or dunduns, and two or more hand drums called djembes, this is some of Africa's most energizing, melodic and dynamic music, and it has taken the world by storm.

The djembe and dununs were introduced to Europe and North America beginning in the late 1950s through the world tours of Les Ballets Africains and Guinea 's other national performing ensembles. Up until the 1980s, only a few non-African musicians and students were able to learn these instruments. But since then, the master drummers of the djembe tradition have been able to travel, perform and teach freely, beginning in Europe, then coming to North America in the mid-90s.

Thousands of people in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia have been introduced to these drums. But relatively few have the dedication and discipline to learn how to make great music with them. The superficial thrill of just “banging a drum” gets in the way of really experiencing what happens inside the music. Such labels as “primal,” “tribal” and “primitive” close some people's ears to music that is no less rich, varied and intricate than jazz, rock or classical music.

Drum students at Kennicott Park, Chicago, 2004

Students performing at Vaudeville Underground, Chicago, 2003

What's exciting about working with children is that their ears are wide open. Expose them to the best in djembe and dundun drumming, and they'll quickly grasp how special it is. They'll absorb it like sponges. And they won't accept any watered-down, free-form or half-baked substitutes.

Some of our best youth students have gone on to perform with professional drumming ensembles—including our adult group, the Chicago Djembe Project. We just added a 12-year-old drummer to our band who has been taking our classes since he was six. Watch the “A Different Drum ” Video and you'll see some amazing young musicians trained by Dr. Lilian Friedberg.

For me, the opportunity to work with drummers who can play this music the way it was meant to be played is a dream come true. Djembe drumming can change a child's life without being over-simplified or having its authenticity compromised. In fact, that's the only way it can work. Because our children demand—and deserve—nothing less. 

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