Saturday morning I set out on the fifth of my 52 Adventures. I get in the car and head south toward Charlotte, Vermont. There are so many cyclists out I’m regretting for a bit that I didn’t take my bike to the event. After all, the ride would be so beautiful. But even driving here is a joy with scenery like this.
Even though I lived here for most of my youth, it still surprises me how fast one can go from a busy city or town to farms and fields. Soon it is just me and a couple of bikes on the road. I follow a sign reading “Event Parking” and leave my car in a small field with other cars.
I’m at the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, Vermont. This farm has been on this site for over 200 years. Most recently it was purchased by Jack and Lydia Clemmons back in 1962 when Mr. Clemmons came to Vermont to teach at the University of Vermont where he became the second African-American doctor to practice and teach at the medical center.
For several decades the farm was a fully operational farm run by the family. As of a few years ago, though, the farm has been making the transition from operational farm to a non-profit organization whose mission is “To be ‘more than a farm’ by offering curated opportunities for visitors to celebrate the history, culture, arts and sciences of the African-American and African diaspora in a magical setting.” The farm is now one of 22 sites on the State of Vermont’s African-American Cultural Heritage Trail.
Today I am here for a class in something I have never done: Sabar Drumming. Sabar is a style of music, drums, dance and way of life that comes from Senegal in West Africa. The class was presented by Mame Assane Coly, a master sabar, kutiro, djembe, and tama drummer who lives in the area and Krista Speroni, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, educator, and community organizer who also lives and teaches in Vermont.
I do have some musical experience. From age 10-19 I played saxophone, and in my high school years I was in my school’s chorus. However my experience with drumming of any sort is zero. And so, I am coming to this class completely new. It’s surprisingly comfortable as compared to last week’s attempt at drawing. With no expectation in my mind of being good at this, I am free. I have no nervousness but only excitement.
There are maybe 10-12 people in the group. I would guess that the average age is right around my own but there are folks as young as perhaps 8 (unless you count a two year old child wandering in and out), and as old as around 80. A few of us chat at the beginning and none of us has a great deal of experience.
We are each told to choose a thin wooden stick and are given a drum. There are a few different sizes, small, medium and large arranged around the circle and I’m given one of the larger ones.
Soon we’re starting and we start at zero as if we are children. Though our teacher has been playing since he was four years old he is patient and adjusts to the group’s level. We are told to hold the stick in our dominant hand. Then we are taught several combinations of how to use the stick and our hand to create different sounds: ‘wran’ – a low hit from our hand followed by a hit with the stick, ta, the stick alone, gin, the bass made by your hand, and bin, a muted sound made by the stick but with our hand gently muting the skin. It’s particularly interesting to me as just a couple of months ago I was at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and we saw a tabla demonstration. Though India is a long way from Senegal, the way that the masters communicated the sound is through language. For the first time I started to really see music – and not just lyrics – as a language of its own with words and grammar.
These look and sound easy when the instructor is telling us but it’s a little trickier in practice. Where is best for my hand to hit to get the proper bass sound? How should my hand be shaped, how fast do I have to lift it from the skin? And where should I hit with the stick? And wait, how should I hold it? It’s curved and maybe one way is better than another.
Some of the questions are answered by the instructor who even comes over to help me get the use of the stick right. I’m swinging my elbow too much and not hitting hard enough. I adjust and the sound gets better though it comes and goes and I keep having to readjust.
He then moves on to giving us simple rhythms, communicated by the sounds – ta, ta, gin gin gin, ta ta, gin and so on. The first one is simple and we go around the circle a couple of times each taking a single phrase. We slowly add new techniques and and longer rhythms as the class goes on. And as the rhythms get longer, it gets more difficult to remember.
The 52 Adventures project has been really interesting for me not just because of the experiences but also because what it makes me think about. Whether it’s thinking of giving up climbing a mountain on my bike, or being frustrated at trying to draw, I’m no longer just turning away from the feeling and taking the instinctual way out, I’m facing it head on. I am trying not to obey that inner voice that says I should stop or give up but instead reason with it. Why am I feeling this way? Why do I have to be good at this? What’s making this experience difficult, the experience or the critical inner voice?
As if reading my mind, Ms. Speroni encourages the class to not feel self conscious. She tells us that we in the west have this desire to good at things but in her experience in Western Africa, people just do things. They play music, they sing, they dance, they cook. They aren’t judging themselves as to whether they should do it or not based on how good they think they are. They just do.
Today I’m not feeling self conscious at all and that is hugely interesting to me. I have no expectations of how competent I should be. I’m not intimidated by two very talented people doing it well. I’m feeling privileged for being able to sit with them and learn. And it makes me think about some of the things I am self-conscious about: Improv and singing come to mind. Public speaking is also on that list but in a different way. If I feel confident in the topic I love doing it. If I don’t feel confident I am terrified. And this leads me to my conclusion: I feel self-conscious about doing things I think people expect me to be better at. This is why speaking another language to native speakers is hard. I open my mouth to speak Hindi and sometimes feel there’s an expectation of how much I should know. When I don’t meet that expectation, which admittedly is my own creation in my mind, I feel bad and self-conscious. This feels like some useful information I can apply later – once I figure out what to do with it.
As I play I notice something else completely counterintuitive. If something is not going well, I often think I need to “try harder.” After all, that’s what we’re told, isn’t it? You’re doing poorly because you’re not trying hard enough. But what does try harder look like? Today it looks like concentrating really hard on the rhythm, telling myself a fraction of a second before my hand hits the drum just how it should hit, what part of the hand, what part of the drum, and so on. And everything slows down. I lose the rhythm, sometimes I play on rests or hit with my stick instead of my hand. On the other hand, part way through the class I discover something: not thinking is the way to do better. I just listen to the music and let my hands move. And though it isn’t perfect every time the improvement is dramatic. Of course, thinking more about it I realize: How well does any one of us do when there is someone sitting over us shouting “Do it right!” or “This way!” every step of the way?
And so I relax in to it and things are going well. We’re all getting it. And then we stop. Our teacher gives us another rhythm. The rhythm is so long he has to take a couple of breaths as he gives it to us. The class laughs in disbelief. Many of us have never played a drum before in our lives and now we’re going to do this? It reminds me of trying to say or even understand a long Hindi sentence. I understand and remember the first third. Then the second third comes and I get that, but understanding that pushes the first third out. What was I talking about? Too late, moving on to the final third. And oh no, I’ve forgotten everything. And just as Hindi was hard for me to follow at first because of the different sentence structure and word order from English, this drumming has a different rhythm than I’m used to. For example, instead of counting the way I’m used to, ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ with equal beats, the count feels different 1 and 2 are short and 3 and 4 are long. Like at the beginning of this video:
He repeats it a few times, plays it a couple times but we’re just not getting it. And then, patiently he breaks it in to thirds. We get the first third after a couple of tries. Then the second part. It’s a little more complicated but we get that. Finally the last third comes and it sounds so complicated we all laugh again. The older woman next to me flat out says “I can’t do that.” But we persist. We play the final third and it actually isn’t as complicated as we thought. Then we go back to the first two. And, miracle of miracles, we put it all together. A group of people, from 8 to 80, who had never met before and most of whom hadn’t played a drum – or even made music before, are now playing a Sabar rhythm after just about an hour. I realize this, smile, and in the happy distraction lose the rhythm for a couple of beats before picking it up.
We play through our rhythm a couple of times and instead of an inner critic, there’s another voice in its place – one that just says “Look at you! You’re doing it!”
At the end of the class I’m really surprised at how much I was able to accomplish in such a short time. Yes, if this were a spoken language I’ve only learned how to say my name, but the progress felt so quick and effortless. I’m left wondering how much it helped to leave the inner critic behind and just have fun.
After playing together for an hour or so we all wanted to hear our instructors play by themselves and they treated us to a bit. The people, music, weather, and place conspired to create a magical moment.
If you happen to be visiting Vermont, or lucky enough to live there, by all means, make your way to the Clemmons Family Farm. They’re opened for scheduled tours and have lots of great events. The next one, coming up on June 22 is the Community Dancing and Drumming Journey to West Africa with both drumming and dance in the same day. I’m meant to go home next weekend but if, by some chance, I’m still in the area I’ll be there for sure. Be sure to follow them on Facebook for more information and to hear about upcoming events.