Djembe/Mande Music Page: Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)


 (available from Dancing Hands Music, 4275 Churchhill Circle, Minnetonka, MN 55345 USA: (612) 933-0781 phone/fax   1-800-898-8036;
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One of the challenges of being a reviewer, at least in my mind, is the responsibility to carefully and completely work my way through the material at hand. One result of this has been a long delay in my completing the review for this product. In fact, after 6 months I am STILL working my waythrough the abundance of examples and exercises in this package! Hopefully this will give the reader some idea of the wealth of learning available here.

A Rhythmic Vocabulary is "a roadmap to rhythm for any musician". By focusing on a teaching scheme which requires only two different sounds (tones and slaps for us hand-drum types) the content of the book becomes immediately adaptable for anyone playing any multi-pitch instrument.

In a nutshell, A Rhythmic Vocabulary is a primer in rhythmic structure, which simultaneously educates the reader in naming, understanding and integrating various rhythmic concepts. A very well thought out and clearly explained sequence of exercises assures that the learning is not purely conceptual!

The authors continue to use the simple, easy to understand "box" notation presented in their previous book/cd CONGA DRUMMING. A CD included in the book provides both a 4/4 son clave and a 6/8 "short" bell pattern at tempos ranging from 55 - 140 beats per minute to function as a time reference for the student during practice. For the typical beginning hand drummer who usually hasn't worked with a metronome or drum machine, the learnings gained about the accuracy of one's internal time can be a revelation!

Box notation is an great visual aid for teaching concepts such as pulse, eighth and sixteenth note subdivisions, cycles, and the like. A section of the book is devoted to providing strategies for students to maximize their practice. Each of the exercises are designed to familiarize the student with different spots in time and their relation to the pulse or clave/bell patterns. A conceptual and kinesthetic familiarity with these various relationships (before, on, after, between) creates a strong foundation for solo improvisation. My "in the moment" awareness of where I am in an overall rhythmic arrangement has improved remarkably as a result of working through the book.

The authors' ability to clearly and simply define and illustrate each concept is excellent. The sequencing or layering of each new idea has obviously been given very careful thought. Each new idea or addition to the vocabulary is introduced in a way which makes it seem like the easiest and most natural thing a player could do. It's been wonderful fun gaining a more cognitive understanding of things I originally learned on a more instinctual level - and I now have terms to relate these ideas to others as well!

The early stages of A Rhythmic Vocabulary were fairly simple for me. However, by the time I arrived at mid-book and the focus turned toward exercises involving consciously placing alternating slap and tone 16th note triplets in 4/4 at very specific spots in time... well let's just say that the pace at which I was moving through the book slowed down. My learning quickly shifted off an intellectual appreciation of the author's model of teaching into some very personal challenges! My commitment to be able to accurately play each of the phrases at typical performance tempos has meant some real wood-shedding on my part.

As I mentioned above - I am still working on the material, and still learning heaps as a result. In my mind, this is the best possible result one can expect from an instructional item - a long, understandable gradient of challenges which keep the learner growing. Because of the archetypical nature of the content, this book will be useful to the aspiring soloist in any hand-drum tradition. When I listen to recordings of African players, I am beginning to not only recognize the specific phrases - but to hear their placement with accuracy as well. A Rhythmic Vocabulary is a detailed, work-through book and a commitment to approach it as an over-time process of study will bring genuine payoffs!

Make no mistake - this is not a book full of abstract intellectualizations. I FEEL "where I am" when playing with my ensemble in new and different ways as a result of this book. Although I have been reluctant about reading ahead of what I'm working on, a glance toward the end of the book reveals that the materials will also cover the polyrhythms, soloing and bending of patterns between 4/4 and 6/8 which are so familiar in traditional African drumming.

I strongly recommend this book to ANYONE who is interested in rhythmic improvisation - this book is a goldmine of rhythmic exercises and understanding.

michael wall