(last revision 07/16/99)
HANDING: A DUNDUN PLAYER’S PERSPECTIVE
[Author's note: This is the third generation of this essay. The initial
ideas were contained in a message I sent to the original djembe-L responding to someone’s comments about the teaching method of my first mentor, Baba Olatunji. At Happy Shel’s request, I then developed that message into an essay for the djembe-l FAQ entitled “If you can say it, You can play It.” I have now revised that essay for inclusion on the Mande and Djembe Resource and Reference Page under the title: “Handing: A Dundun Player’s Prospective.” This title focuses on a basic question that has existed since I wrote the initial message to djembe-l – how does a person who plays almost exclusively dundun justify speaking out about “handing?” The answer to that question lies in the ensemble nature of the Malinke orchestra. The more I understand my own role in playing dundun (and particularly sangban), the more I understand the feel of the music as a whole. The true magic only happens when each part is singing in harmony.]
I have encountered several different approaches by African drum teachers to teaching handing (or sticking, as the trap drummers call it), which is when to use the strong or weak hand while playing a specific accompaniment or lead phrase. But though at first glance they seem contradictory, each approach can help the student of the drum achieve the ultimate goal of "feeling " the music.
Mamady Keita, one of the foremost teachers of traditional Mande
djembe/dundun rhythms, is a stickler for "sticking." And with good reason. As Michael Wall once wrote in a message to the djembe-l, "the traditional handing may have been worked out generations ago and have the proper feel imbedded inside it." In my experience, Mamady always emphasizes using the traditional handing.
In my opinion, the serious student of Mande rhythms should always attempt to learn the proper handing. This is one facet of learning to play with proper “movement.” Other factors include proper hand placement, posture, and developing hand speed. There is no substitute for a disciplined practice regime to help master these basic tenets of good playing. Such dedication will take you a long way toward’s finding the correct feel of this music, an often frustrating but ultimately rewarding experience. This discipline will help the serious djembe player master complicated off-beat accompaniment
parts, as well as complex lead phrases.
On the other hand, sometimes it is necessary to play a modified handing for some parts to play at fast speeds. For instance, Mamady teaches the first part of Kuku with the bass played with the strong hand. He says that the note marking the One is almost always played with the strong hand. However, it requires tremendous hand speed to play both the tone and the bass with the same hand at the speed that most good West African dance teachers want Kuku to be played at. So many West African drummers teach (and play) the
part with the bass played with the weak hand. If you are playing for a
dance class and the dance instructor or person leading the music instructs you to play a part a certain way, that is the way you should play the part at that time.
A different approach is propounded by one of the great elders of the African drum community, Babatunde Olatunji. Baba has developed a remarkable teaching style based on singing the drum parts using vocalizations that he says are consonants of the Yoruba language, from his native Nigeria. Some teachers have suggested that Baba's
Gun-Go-Do-Pa-Ta method be used as a guide for handing. However, Baba himself purposefully switches the handing (not just switching from right hand dominant to left hand dominant but actually switching the handing "pattern"). He does this to emphasize the ability to hear and feel the part. Many times I have heard him say: "If you can say it, you can play it."
Many American teachers have emphasized playing certain rhythms “hand over hand” in order to learn the correct handing. This involves playing ghost notes at each full rest so that the hands are in constant motion, with each motion equally spaced. While this can be a
helpful tool in playing the basic pattern, it can also cause the student to rely on “approximating” the correct feel, instead of learning to
“appropriate” the feel of the part. This in turn can lead to playing that
is stiff and passionless.
On the other hand, the advanced player can use touches and other various “quieter” notes to add depth to the music, particularly when playing by themselves. Adame Drame is probably the foremost proponent of this style. However, even the casual listener to Drame’s recordings recognizes that he has the “feel” of the music deeply imbedded in his cellular structure.
Despite the apparent contradictions in these different approaches to
“handing,” one common lesson exists. You must be able to "feel" the part in order to make it sing. One of the things that makes African and African-derived percussion music so compelling is that this music swings! In order to understand the music, you need to learn to use your two most important instruments -- your left ear and your right.