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Articles

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Fever Pitch Magazine

Issue #9

INTERVIEW WITH GHANAIAN MASTER DRUMMER EMMANUEL AGBELI
by Mark Powers

Africa. The Mother Ship. The birthplace of much of the music that most of us jam, kick back to and get jiggy with. A dream destination for nearly every Western percussionist. For me, a dream come true.

Exactly ten years after the idea was first planted in my head . . . I’m in the village of Kopeyia, Ghana, West Africa. I’m waking each morning to the sound of a gakogui bell. I’m studying Ewe drumming several hours a day. I’m hoping these blisters will have time to heal and callus. I’m interviewing Ghanaian master drummer/ dancer/ teacher Emmanuel Agbeli, Director of the Dagbe Cultural Center. Those of you who haven’t been there don’t know what you are missing. Those of us who have, understand how little we’ll ever know.

Mark Powers: You mentioned to me once that much of the world has a misunderstanding of the talking drum.

Emmanuel Agbeli: I always correct my students. I can’t educate everyone in the world to say the right thing concerning drums. Mostly when you ask people- not only the Americans, not only the students, not only the outside country people, but even in Ghana, even in this village, when you ask them what are talking drums, they will say atumpan and dondo. They will say those are the talking drums. But ALL drums are talking drums. All drums. Any instrument you call a drum, where our tradition is concerned, is a talking drum. Kroboto is a talking drum, totodzi is a talking drum, kagan is a talking drum. Even tingo, the bell, is a talking drum. Even axatse [rattle]- pa, pa, ti, pa- pa, pa, ti, pa- it is speaking. Kidi is a talking drum, because it says so many words. Atsimevu is talking. When you get into the notes, atsimevu has more notes than atumpan. More notes to talk, to pronounce words, than the drum they call the talking drum. So all drums are talking drums.

Mark Powers: What about the spiritual powers that exist in the drumming and dancing you do?

Emmanuel Agbeli: We have three specific dances which are war dances, recreational dances and fetish dances. There are three ways of our tradition. The fetish dances are based on possessing- spiritual music. War dances have no spirit to push you to do anything. You plan for yourself that this is what I’m doing because I want to kill , because I want to defend. Recreational dances- no force. No spiritual force from anywhere, into you. You’re trying to get in touch to show love relationships through music. No force from anywhere. But when we mean fetish dance, there is a force, a spiritual force from somewhere which, even if you are not ready, it’s coming. For war dance, you have to get ready to do it. For recreational, you have to get ready to do it. But a fetish piece, you may not be ready. Then the possessing comes on you. You have to possess and speak what the god says. It stays on you for some few minutes and then it goes.

Mark Powers: It’s not uncommon to see war dances being performed at funerals. Weren’t these dances originally created for only war purposes?

Emmanuel Agbeli: They used [to use] a specific piece for a specific time. When they are playing Atsiagbekor, a war dance, they mean something. They mean war. They mean they are getting ready to do something. To fight some people. When they play Gahu, they mean they want to have fun. They want to be with their lovers. They want to get new friends. But in this modern system, it’s not so. In the old days, Atsiagbekor can be played only when there is danger. Agbadza, which means ‘gun belt,’ can only be played when there is a funeral, when somebody died. Agbadza cannot be played in parties, in those days. Agbadza cannot be played at birth ceremonies. But in this modern system, you can play Agbadza in the church funerals. Because people are trying to avoid wars and don’t want to separate things. We need our music. The music pushes us to feel zeal, to work also. [People say that there are] no wars, so we should forget about Atsiagbekor. We should forget about Agbadza and all those things. But we need those musics. They are lovely. We don’t want to leave them, but we don’t want those things. So we decided that we should keep them going, why we have changed the traditional ways of the music.

Mark Powers: Speaking of tradition, I see very few women playing drums. Is it, or was it ever, forbidden?

Emmanuel Agbeli: In those days women were not allowed to touch drums. Most of the drums had herbs- spirits. The women are not allowed to touch them because as a woman, if you are in your menstruation time and you touch any spiritual thing, any herb, it kills it. So husbands and fathers don’t believe women, because they don’t know when will be that time for you. They just cease it- you can’t touch a drum. These days, we don’t have strong herbs or spirits in the drums like before. Due to that, women are allowed to play drums.

Mark Powers: Do people still subscribe to many of these traditional beliefs, or are they changing due to the introduction of Christianity and other religions?

Emmanuel Agbeli: My parents belonged to the Thunder God. I was born in that and I’ve been taken care of by that god. I’m even given a name after that god. There is no way I can change my religion to Christianity. It affects me. I’ll go mad. It’s very simple to change from a Christian religion to a traditional religion, than to change from a traditional religion to Christianity. That is why people decided to, in modern times, train all students in Christianity, to give them the Christian life. When they grow up they can decide, which will not harm them. In Ghana we have three religions. We have the fetish religion, we have the Christian religion and we have the Muslim religion. The Christian religion compared to the fetish religion- they are both almost trying to say the same thing. The only difference is Jesus Christ. The fetish people do not believe in Jesus Christ. They know that Jesus Christ is the son of God, as they are also the son of God, so Jesus Christ is their brother. Before they pray in their shrines, they make mention to the Almighty God, the Creator. Christians always say that the fetish religions are no good. And fetish say Christian religion is bad. Most of the fetish people do not go against the Christian religion. But my experience is that Christians speak badly against the fetish religion. In the fetish religion, whatever you do here, you get your result on earth. And so doing, there’s a respect. Once you believe it, you cannot steal. Fetish people, into the spirit, their wives cannot have sex with other people. When they have, they cannot come into the house or may not have sex with them again. As soon as you do that, you go mad. In the Christian religion you don’t get it right away.

Mark Powers: After death.

Emmanuel Agbeli: After death. And who knows after death. We don’t know if they do have it or not. They are talking about hell. Who can tell you hell? No, but the fetish people can tell you hell on earth. Like, you see what is happening to you? You see how you are suffering? You see how you have boils all around because you are stealing? You see how you are going mad because you have caused an adultery?’ You can see your hell right away on earth. But in the Christian way, you can’t see it that way. That is what I like and believe more, because by so doing, there will be no bad things on earth. But when I’m in the Christian religion and I want to go according to their laws, I know I won’t get it now. And I don’t know how it is going to look like so I may do it. I may do it. My dad used to say that it’s like using a ball to hit a wall. In the fetish religion, when you use the ball to hit the wall, it’s coming [back] to you right there. You see it. When you hit it strong, it’s coming strong, to hit you. But in Christian religions, when you hit it, the ball may stay there, which is not normal. You can’t use a ball to hit a wall where it stays there and waits for you to go behind the wall before it will come and hit you. Or you cannot use a ball to hit a wall where it will penetrate, then when you leave the earth and go to your death (the back of the wall), then it will hit you.

If you are interested in studying at the Dagbe Center in Ghana, contact Emmanuel Agbeli at: dagbekopeyia@hotmail.com

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The Healthy Independent

DRUMMING FOR FUN AND . . . HEALTH?
Volume 2, Issue 3- Spring 2005
by Mark Powers

The changing of the seasons. The shuffling of shoes in the mall. The vibrations of your closed eyelids. The sensation of ‘Pop Rocks’ candy in your mouth. Rhythms exist in every part of our lives- in our bodies, our environment, our relationships with others. Taking time to become aware of these rhythms, and creating our own, is an excellent exercise with many benefits.

Along with singing and other vocalizations, percussion instruments (anything struck to create sound) were used in the earliest forms of communication and music-making. The primal nature of drumming makes it an easily accessible way for anyone to have fun, relieve stress and promote the development of personal and community wellness.

Rhythm-based events are being used for these purposes in a variety of situations. At-risk youth are being allowed to safely take out their frustrations on buckets and garbage cans. Alzheimer’s patients can learn to repeat rhythms and even remember them for a period of time. A drum’s vibrations can help an autistic child to focus his/her attention and interact with others. An increasing number of companies are using rhythm-based team-building workshops to boost employee morale, develop communication skills and stimulate creativity. Some individuals incorporate drumming into their personal meditation practice. Drum circle facilitators bring together large ensembles made up of complete beginners, seasoned music professionals, businesspeople, children,elderly, punks, yuppies, hippies- all gathered for the same purpose, to drum as one unit. The diverse groups not only create huge rhythms, but also build a strong sense of community- breaking down racial, economic and generational barriers.

No experience required! You don’t need to already be a ‘drummer.’ You don’t need any musical background whatsoever. Whether you realize it or not, you are already contributing to, and experiencing, the many rhythms of the world. How closely have you listened today? Did you pick up on the steady clicking of your computer keyboard this morning? Or the rhythm made by the load of laundry being tossed around in the dryer- occasionally accented by a pants button hitting the interior wall? Right now, how quickly (or slowly) is your heart beating? How fast is your significant other’s beating? Stop. Breathe. Listen closely. Become aware of the rhythms cycling around and through you. They are there every moment of every day.

Inquire about hand drum lessons at the local music store. Inquire about drum circles at the local coffeeshop. Purchase a drum. Hit it. Slam the refrigerator door. Again. One more time. Clap your hands. Feel the rhythm. Share the rhythm.

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Salem Monthly

The Basics of Hand Drumming
Volume 3, Issue 7- October 2006
by Mark Powers

Playing a repetitive rhythm on a hand drum can release stress and lift your spirits. Here are a few tips and some basic strokes that will help get you started.

Elevate your drum by either mounting it on a stand or holding it between your knees and feet. This allows the air to escape from inside the drum, producing a full, rich tone.

The first stroke, the bass tone, is played by hitting the center of the drum with your palm, keeping the entire hand flat, with fingers gently held together. Let your hand bounce away from the drumhead, pulling the low-pitched bass tone out of the instrument. Stay relaxed and practice the stroke with both hands, striving to make the strokes sound identical.

Noticeably higher in pitch is the open tone, produced by using the fingers as a paddle and striking near the edge of the drum. Aim so that the rim of the drum connects with the hand at the base of the fingers. Remain relaxed and pull away immediately after contact. Let the open tone ring out and keep the sound consistent between the right and left hands.

The slap is the third and often most difficult stroke to develop. When playing a slap, the base of your palm will make contact with the rim of the drum and your fingers will fall near the center of the drumhead. Instead of bouncing away, as in the bass and open tones, let your hand remain on the drumhead. At the moment of contact, your fingertips should slightly tug or grip at the head. Executed properly and quickly, the slap stroke will create a short, loud, high-pitched crack. Practice each of these three hand drum strokes repeatedly with both hands.

Feel free to conjure up your own combinations of basses, opens and slaps. Listen to your favorite music and let the sounds you hear lead you into patterns. Jam with a friend or two. Take your drum to a local drum circle and be guided by its energy and spontaneity. If something more structured suits you better, inquire about hand drum lessons at music stores in your area.

Hand drums such as Latin congas, Middle Eastern dumbeks or African djembe or ashiko can be found at nearly any music store and are excellent choices for the beginner.

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Salem Monthly

MUSIC LESSONS? AT MY AGE?
Many adults say it’s never too late to hone a new skill
Volume 3, Issue 10- January 2007
by Mark Powers

“To learn is to grow is to live.”​ This phrase seems to sum up the reasons why many adults are choosing to pick up a musical instrument, perhaps for the first time ever, and even seeking out private instruction. Many adult students with a love of music go about their non-musical routines for years, taking center stage only in the safety of their cars or showers. At last they take the steps to get that guitar, drum set or violin and make the commitment to learn how to play it. Some are inspired by witnessing the growth and enjoyment that instrumental lessons bring to their children. Some, like social worker and self-proclaimed “closet drummer” Rod Schraufnagel, simply desire an escape from work and the daily grind. Others already have an instrument sitting at home waiting to be played. Nancy Perna has studied piano with Salem instructor Dave Louthan for over four years. Perna sought lessons after acquiring a baby grand piano to “warm and complete”​ her living room.

“Then I wanted to learn to play it, and had no idea just how important it would become in my life. I also know that mental exercise is even more important as we get older. That reinforced my desire to play.”​ Studying an instrument is certainly not without its share of difficulties. But compared to younger students, adults find additional challenges to overcome. Adult students often become impatient with themselves. In many instances, they comprehend and “hear” the desired end result of a musical exercise more quickly than they can perform it. Adult students can get frustrated that memorization and muscle memory do not happen overnight. Larry Harker states that his year and a half of guitar lessons with Mike Magee at Weathers Music have given him a greater appreciation for music and the time it takes to become a good musician. Sixty-two-year-old piano student Pat Wenckus agrees.

“I have gained great respect for anyone who plays any instrument well. Unless you’ve dabbled in it, you have no idea of the complexity and dedication it takes.”​

Probably not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges adults face is squeezing time for lessons and practice into already busy schedules.

“Adult children spread across the country, grandchild number one, aging parents needing attention and a newly retired husband occasionally put a strain on my practice time,” Wenckus said. “Dave [Louthan] is very understanding, knowing adults have lots on their plates.” Whatever obstacles may arise, choosing to dive into the adventure of making music can bring many rewards. Dentist by day, Mike Hanneman considers drumming and private lessons his “diversion and release from everyday routine.”​

The rhythmic challenges that Hanneman has encountered do not discourage him because he reminds himself that his pursuit is solely for “pleasure and relaxation.”​

Percussion student Jerry Draws was first introduced to hand drumming just a few years ago at a Native American spirituality program. Initially seeking instruction in meditative drumming techniques, he has continued on to conquer several styles, including Afro-Cuban rhythms and other techniques.

When asked what he has gained from his studies, Draws says, “self-discipline and a realization that as one gets older, new things come much slower, but they do come with perseverance.”

Most adults find that the greatest rewards attained from focusing on a musical instrument are not musical in nature at all. Instead they are personal achievements, which matter a great deal more than simply gaining the ability to pluck a little melody or beat a steady rhythm. It is often the realization that regardless of age, there is still much to learn and that one can continue to learn and live life to its fullest.

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Salem Monthly

DRUM DRUM DRUM: How to beat out a groovy rhythm
Volume 3, Issue 12- March 2007
by Mark Powers

In the October issue of Salem Monthly Newspaper, we took a look at some of the basic strokes that can be played on nearly any hand drum you might have hiding in the corner. This month it’s time to put those sounds together and make some music! The strokes (bass, open and slap) can be combined in numerous ways, creating a variety of great sounding rhythms.

First, a quick review. Remember that the low-pitched “bass”​ stroke is produced by striking the center of the drum with the entire palm of your hand. Using your fingers as a paddle, the higher “open”​ tone can be created by hitting nearer to the edge of the drum, with the hand making contact with the rim along the base of your fingers. The “slap”​ stroke is made by striking the drum so that the rim meets the base of your palm, close to the wrist. Instead of pulling the hand away, stay affixed to the drumhead and give it a slight gripping tug with your fingertips. With practice this will produce a loud, high-pitched “crack.” Be sure to remain relaxed and take the time to develop each of these strokes with both hands, striving to make your right and left hand strokes sound identical. For the full article, visit www.salemmonthly.com.

Notation is as follows:”B”​ stands for the bass tone, “O”​ denotes an open tone, and “S”​ symbolizes the loud slap stroke. A dash (-) in the notation means that we will leave a short pause, or “rest,”​ in the phrase. Ready? Here we go, beginning with only “bass”​ tones and rests.

B B B – B – B –

Spoken, this pattern is “bass, bass, bass, rest, bass, rest, bass, rest.” Start slowly and repeat the phrase over and over until it feels smooth and comfortable. When it does, try this one:

B – – B B – B – (bass, rest, rest, bass, bass, rest, bass, rest)

Let’s add some “open” tones to the above rhythms.

B B B – B O B O (bass, bass, bass, rest, bass, open, bass, open); and

B O O B B – B – (bass, open, open, bass, bass, rest, bass, rest)

Finally, add “slap” strokes to our hand drum grooves.

B B B S B O B O (bass, bass, bass, slap, bass, open, bass, open); and

B O O B B S B S (bass, open, open, bass, bass, slap, bass, slap)

There you have it- it’s as easy as that. The bass, open and slap strokes can be combined in any way that you like. The options are limitless. Grab a friend, invent some of your own rhythms, bang away and have fun. Here are a few more rhythms to help get things started.

B B O O B B S S (bass, bass, open, open, bass, bass, slap, slap)

B – – S – O O O (bass, rest, rest, slap, rest, open, open, open)

B – S B B – O O (bass, rest, slap, bass, bass, rest, open, open)

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