Dejembe is for joy: A tribal beat for KU

11.05.2015

By Erica Staab 

It’s a Monday night and about ten people are gathered in a semi-circle, each with a tribal drum between their knees. Their hands slap the head of the drums, playing along with the director, Dylan Bassett, in a warm up that sounds more like a heartbeat than an exercise. The rhythm transports us from the stuffy practice room in Murphy Hall on the University of Kansas campus, to a far away country in West Africa. This is where the music and drums being played originated from.

“Slap tone tone, slap tone tone,” Bassett says in a voice just loud enough to be heard over the drum beat, instructing the group on the rhythms and songs to practice next.

The African Drum Ensemble at KU, known as ADEKU, performs on campus to bring a sense of community to students and beyond. You may have heard their tribal sound at a Hawk week event, or danced to the rhythms at the annual KU Dance Marathon, where they perform every year. ADEKU was founded in 2007 by Khalid El Hassan, the Associate Director of the Kansas African Studies Center, through a grant from Chancellor Hemenway. The ensemble plays music from three main areas in West Africa: the ancient empire of Mali, Wolof of Senegal and Ghana.

This year, the group consists of around twenty members. There are two sections within the larger group, an advanced group for those who have experience playing, and a beginner group for those who might not have ever touched a drum before.

A sense of community
The drums, ornate and earthy, are called djembes. They are held between the knees and played with the fingertips and palm. There are also the dunun and the djabara, both of which are slightly larger and are played with a mallet. These are the drums from the ancient empire of Mali. Wolof of Senegal and Ghana have drums of their own that the group also plays.

“Traditionally, these drums were played by tribal members in order to celebrate different occasions,” said Kimberly Simonetti, a KU graduate. All the rhythms have their original purposes. Some were played at weddings and ceremonies. Others were part of a right of passages.”

One traditional rhythm the group plays originates from the dance of the strong men in North East Guinea, Bassett says. When two young men within a tribe had an issue with one another, they could get together and fight it out. This particular rhythm was played while they fought. Now, this ceremonially piece is played at parties and other gatherings to dance to, he says.

Traditional West African music isn’t written down, it is passed down from generation to generation. This is still how much of the music is learned and spread across the world today. Drummers travel to West Africa and watch others playing the rhythms in order to learn them for themselves. Traveling to West Africa and seeing rhythms that were familiar and learning new rhythms was an inspiring experience for both Bassett and Simonetti. Bassett took videos of his own to help the group here at KU learn more of the traditional rhythms.

One of the original meanings of the word djembe means to come together in peace, Bassett says. Playing together is a way for people to come together authentically. “It hits you in a deep place when you are playing music together. It speaks in a way words can’t speak.”

This music is for everyone
At the beginning of each semester, interested students are encouraged to stop by and participate in a class. No matter what your experience level is, this group welcomes you in. If you are interested in joining, make sure to come to the first meeting of each semester. After that, new members are no longer accepted.

Leah Stockton, a freshman minoring in African Studies from San Antonio, Texas discovered ADEKU while browsing the different KU clubs related to Africa. She had no prior instrumental instruction before wandering into the first ADEKU rehearsal of this semester. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at it at all,” Stockton says. “I don’t want to say it was easier than I thought, but I was able to do it.”

Learning a new lick takes time and repetition. The group’s hands fumble as they try to get it down. But when the rhythm comes together, it’s a powerful sound. “When you play it’s relaxing, but you’re also focusing really hard,” Stockton says. “And once you fall into the rhythm it just feels really good.”

Along with beginners, the group also has a place for advanced drummers to really get their groove on and learn new skills and techniques.

A well seasoned percussionist, Donovan Miller, a KU sophomore from Woodbury, Minn., says a friend of his got him involved in the group. He has been playing drums since he was 3 years old.
“Drums are just fun,” he says.

Watching Miller play, you can see his passion as his body is overcome by the beat and he dances along. As the group strikes the drums, their whole bodies seem to be engulfed by the sound. The connection with the rhythm is palpable as the players smile and laugh with each other. When the song ends, there is nothing but joy and quiet as the last reverberations settle.

“Djembe is for joy,” Bassett says with a smile on his face.

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