Thursday, February 9, 2012

West African Drumming & The Study of Rhythm

Thanks to Morgan Childs who hipped me to this amazing footage of some Ghanaian drummers performing a style known as Brekete:

Recently, I spent a year studying with Ghanaian Master drummer Kwasi Dunyo (including variations of the piece demonstrated above) while I was attending the University of Toronto. It was an incredible experience.

I was first introduced to West African drumming while attending the Banff Jazz Workshop in 1997 where we were fortunate to work with the great Abraham Adzenyah for one summer. Dave Holland was quite instrumental in bringing Adzenyah to the workshop initially during the mid 80s (while Holland was the programs artistic director) and he insisted that what Abraham brought to the workshop was just as important as any composition, contemporary improvisation or harmony masterclass. I am willing to bet that Adzenyah's participation in the workshop during that time was one of the things that made it so special and unique. Just ask anybody who was there!

I highly recommend that anyone, and not just a drummer or Jazz musician, who is interested in deepening their personal understanding of rhythm to spend some time studying the rich rhythmic language of West African music and drumming (and dancing for that matter!) Your feeling for pulse, meter and subdivision will take on a whole new meaning.

And there have been many famous Jazz drummers that have recognized this and taken their personal study of the drums and the rhythmic nature of Jazz music back to its roots in African. Ed Blackwell is one notable example of someone who was able to integrate some of those rhythmic concepts with his New Orleans/Max Roach-influenced style of modern Jazz drumming to a very high degree. In particular, check out his great playing on Mopti or Togo with Old and New Dreams to hear what I mean!

There are many, many others worth mentioning as well, of course, but Billy Martin of MMW fame really stands out for me these days as someone that has done their homework. I was fortunate to spend some time working with Martin last spring, playing together in one his homemade backyard practice shacks located in the middle of suburban New Jersey (although I felt like we were in the middle of the mountains back in Banff!) Martin has a very deep and rich understanding of rhythm on the wider scope and I think this allows him to play with such a deep pocket, no matter what style or direction he chooses. Fundamentally I believe that a study of any cultures music from a rhythmic perspective can only help you play your own music from a deeper place. Similarly, other musicians such as Steve Coleman, Dave Holland and Ronan Guilfoyle (and I could go on here as well!) have all figured out how much a serious and in-depth study of rhythm can enrich their own music.

All great examples to follow, whether you are a drummer or not!


  1. Don't forget Royal Hartigan. He not only studied with Blackwell, but also wrote THE book on Westafrican rhythms for drum set that Billy Martin cites as his inspiration.
    check his youtube channel:
    Highly inspirational!

  2. You can hear some of these bottom notes in Greg Hutchinsons bass drum patterns