The Language of the West African Drum and the Ease of Synchrony | Matthew Marsolek | TEDxUMontana
The Language of the West African Drum and the Ease of Synchrony | Matthew Marsolek | TEDxUMontana

(drum music) (audience applause) Thank you very much. I want to thank Lawrence
Duncan, Michael Marsolek and Tracey Todd
for helping me out tonight. How are you all doing? (cheering) What a fantastic evening! That rhythm you just heard us play
is called Maraka, from the Maraka people
of Mali, West Africa. It’s a wedding rhythm,
a celebration rhythm. The drums we’re playing
are of two basic types, the double sided djun djun drum, which gets its name
from the sound it makes, (drum sound effects) (drum music) And the drum I’m holding here
called the djembe drum. Now the Bambara people
of Mali, West Africa, say the name djembe comes from the phrase (speaking a West African language),
which means everyone gather together, and that really conveys
the use of the djembe drum in West African society. The djembe ensemble
accompanies gatherings of people, celebrations, ritual events,
and most importantly, the djembe accompanies dance, for dancing and drumming
are intimately connected. Now, when we were playing together
a moment ago, it’s likely you heard that each of us
was playing a unique pattern on our drums, and that those patterns were layered together
to form a composite whole. The patterns themselves, were made from the various
sounds the drums produce. Those sounds organize within
regular divisions of time. Now, when drummers play together, they have to share the
same precise awareness of the subdivisions of time. This is the glue that
holds the rhythm together. This takes intense concentration
and one-pointed focus, especially with complex
rhythms like that one. And a way to think of this, is to imagine yourself
floating down a river with your friends,
sharing the same current, but each of you are
navigating your own craft. In Missoula we’ve experienced this. (gentle laughter) When drummers sustain
a rhythm for a length of time, they tend to leave their
ordinary sense of time awareness, where moments seem to pass by
in linear succession and enter into what I
like to call cyclic time, where moments are experienced through the repetitive turning of
rhythmic patterns and phrases. This is a very natural awareness, much like waves crashing on the shore,
or following your own breath. But, sharing it with
others can be profound. It’s one of the joys of drumming
that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing with diverse groups of
people over many years. Now a little bit more about
West African drumming, the West African drummer
does not count the rhythm, like we do in our culture, one and a two and a
three and a four and … They don’t even use
counting as a study tool, which is a little baffling
to us in the West. The mind of the trained
drummer is wholly occupied on the sounds of the drum,
just like most languages. When you hear them play, you’re hearing the
thought they are having, spoken through the drum,
and the drums talk. Drummers playing together are sharing an intimate conversation
in the language of rhythm. Now in West African societies, especially those that speak
tonal languages, like Bambara, the sounds of the drum
can convey particular semantic meaning. My teacher and friend, Abdul Doumbia,
can speak Bambara phrases on his drum, and he’s even swore at me on occasion. Thankfully, in a playful
and mischievous way. (drum music) I am not going to translate. (laughter) But the goal of the musician is to speak the rhythm
clearly and articulately, to convey beauty, energy and joy, to support the dancers, and hopefully help the
community to gather together. Now a trained drummer can just as easily
speak the rhythm with their mouth, as they can with their hands on the drum. Both modes of expression
are intimately connected. Speaking in the mouth, the drummer emulates
the sounds of the drum as a stream of syllables
and vocable phrases. Now all the drummers I’ve studied with
can speak the rhythm, but they each speak
in their own unique way. I think that reflects
their own inner listening, the inner sound of the
rhythm in themselves. So, there’s no codified and agreed upon system of drum talk, in Mali for example, but students of a particular teacher may emulate and mimic
their teacher’s speech. I want to give you an example
of drum talk. The great emissary
of West African drumming to North America, Babatunde Olatunji, who also influenced
the bebop jazz musicians of the 1950s, Babatunde would speak this way, for the bass tone of
the drum (drum music), he would say (drumming sound effect). For the edge tone (drum music), he would say (drumming sound effect). For the slap tone (drum music), he would say (drumming sound effect). And so that rhythm we played earlier, he would speak it this way. (drum sound effects) (drum music) All right., both modes of expression. My teacher, Abdul, would
speak it a bit differently, but conveying the same thought. He would say, (drum sound effects) (drum sounds) All right. Now before I teach all of you
some drum language, you ready? Yes, yes. I want to share a couple final ideas which give me a lot of excitement. New research in the fields of
neuroscience and psychology, is confirming what musicians have known
and celebrated for a long, long time. And that is that group music making, fosters a sense of connection
and communion between people, feelings of sharing and social bonding,
care for your community group. Now how long have musicians known this? Well, in Southern Germany, there have been discovered
paleolithic bone flutes, which date back 43,000 years. And it’s been estimated that human beings
have been playing concussion idiophones, struck percussion instruments, for a lot longer than that,
perhaps 100,000 years or more. So we’ve been playing
music a long, long time. The groove is in our bones. Yeah. So, to put this idea into
a more modern context, in language from a recent scientific study on drumming, the brain and behavior, synchronized drumming,
drumming in synchrony, enhances activity in the
reward centers of the brain, and facilitates pro-social commmitment. It’s a nice phrase, pro-social commitment,
caring for one another. And for me, it’s these moments
of connection between people, the light of discovery and joy
in the eyes of those experiencing it, that have inspired my musical
life for over 20 years. And for me, rather than reduce the size
of music education programs in school districts around our country, which my group, Drum Brothers,
has experienced firsthand, or eliminate music programs entirely, we should rather create more opportunities
for group music making, for all ages. More opportunities which engender
this special form of intimacy and sharing that is our birthright. I think we’re hardwired for it. Should we see if we are? All right. I want to invite you all to
join me in a simple rhythm, and what I’d like to do is
just divide our audience into just three basic sections, thirds. You’re a little greater than a third, so if some of you want to
bleed over to the edges, you’re welcome to. And I want you to join me
in a simple spoken and sung rhythm, and just put on your beginner’s mind hat, your playful, experimental
hat, and sing this with me. I want you all to try this. (drumming sound effects) (audience drumming sound effects) Ah, now this third of the audience,
let’s do a second part. All right, (drumming sound effects). (audience drumming sound effects) Can you snap your fingers? (audience singing drum effects) Yeah, this third section,
let’s do a third part. (drumming sound effects) How loud can you sing? Bring it up, eh! Bring it up, eh yeah eh! Add some harmony, oh oh oh.
Add some harmony. Whatever you want. (drumming sound effects) When I raise my hands,
let’s sustain the note and end. Keep on singing. When I raise my hands,
we’ll sustain the note together. Here we go. (drumming sound effects). (applause)
(cheering) Yeah, yes. (applause) If you can say it, you can play it. If you can say it, you can play it. Thank you very much. I want to thank TEDx,
and everyone. Thank you. (applause)

22 thoughts on “The Language of the West African Drum and the Ease of Synchrony | Matthew Marsolek | TEDxUMontana”

  1. Martin Werr says:

    Well done, Matthew! I'm so glad I was able to finally see your talk.

  2. MartinandDeborah Werr says:

    This should be mandatory learning in our country. You did an awesome job, Matthew. This is how I learned to let go.

  3. Drum Brothers says:

    For more information about Matthew Marsolek and Drum Brothers, visit or

  4. jack cavanaugh says:

    Well done Mathew!

  5. minijoebroccoli says:

    Cool! Great speaker

  6. Kalani Das says:

    Beautiful presentation, Matthew. Thank you for this – so many wonderful aspects of community music making brought to light.(I've also studied with Abdoul – what a character!) Blessings to all the Drum Brothers and Sisters.

  7. Seven Stars African Drumming says:

    Great bro you are doing good work together

  8. Seven Stars African Drumming says:

    Can We work together As team

  9. Nana Yeboaa says:

    To the world it is great that a white man is teaching African drums. As a black woman the drums are not just played there is spiritual connection there. Why do white people like defining us. Mr Mathew Marsolek please stop telling our story. We will do that ourselves. Thanks you very much.

  10. Nana Yeboaa says:

    Next time ask the master drummer . Dr Isaac Akron, Kobena Aquaah -Harrison, Aron Bebe.

  11. Constantin Radu Stanescu says:

    Again with the culture appropriation and victimization crap? It`s just music. It doesn`t count who sings it.

  12. Tammy Sibert says:

    Can you people use a drum from Europe? Why do you believe you can teach the language of African technology better than an African?

  13. stéphane sublet says:

    Matthew look like a very nice person. But you have no djembé skills at all and you're not even working on it. You shouldn't speak about the Djembé when you know so little about it. You're info is wrong but you don't even bother double checking it. It's really incredible that this can go on Tex. Pfuuu!!

  14. Marc Bell says:

    Ted talks are kind of a joke.

  15. Siemy Di says:

    great job

  16. Ailon Freedman says:

    Gorgeous and very knowledgable

  17. R. Duke says:

    Do not talk so much, play it and talk about the drum. with your hands…

  18. Israel T says:

    reasons y rap sounds better than traditional western poetry

  19. Frank Owusu says:


  20. 49stud says:

    An excellent explanation of what happens when you play drums collectively. Spent a long time doing this, well worth your time. And I love the drum, simple carving, out of round, rows to high heaven…sounded amazing!

  21. Tasha in 3 says:

    Europeans hate Africans but love our culture!!!! Tell your own stories, play your own instruments, stop stealing resources, and leave us alone. Kill steal destroy and make our culture your own…

  22. Mzawa Wa Africa says:

    So, white teach about African drums, Soon he will say he discovered the drums.

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