Drumming Up Djembe Talent and Knowledge

Pandemic restrictions have necessitated more than a touch of creativity for our students and teachers this year, and our Middle School music program has responded in kind.

In a program that would traditionally expose students to both vocal and instrumental instruction, music teachers have had to create educational experiences that advance students’ understanding and mastery of topics while maintaining physical distance, minimizing aerosols and more. Since COVID-19 precautions have prohibited traditional wind instruments and group choral ensembles this year, music teacher Rob Denien tapped his college experience and personal relationship with master musician Michael Taylor to share his deep knowledge of the djembe and Mandingue culture of West Africa.

Taylor has spent time with each of Denien’s Middle School classes to provide them with a sense of the instrument’s history and a better understanding of how the West African people used music at the time the djembe emerged as an instrument. Denien built upon the foundations from these sessions with Taylor to help students become more comfortable talking about and playing their drums in school.

Eager for his students to share all they have learned with the school community, Denien recently arranged a series of physically distanced performances at different locations on campus, each hosting a small group of listeners. With each student stationed at a djembe or dunun drum, the musicians performed “Moribayassa”—a rhythm originating from the Malinke ethnic group of northeastern Guinea—and explained how one would typically hear it when a woman’s wish was granted, accompanied by singing, dancing and celebration. 

Students then took turns sharing more about what they had learned in their recent study, including the origins of the djembe in the ancient Malian empire in 1200 (CE); the way one constructs the instrument using trees, rope and goat skin; the different tones one can make on a djembe and dunun; and different names and functions of the dunun, or “bass drums,” of a traditional Guinean drumming ensemble.

Denien shared, “During this year, when we have dearly missed making music as an ensemble, it’s been so powerful to see the students excitedly connect with each other, build group connections and make music with one another. This unit has been a reminder of music's vital function to promote wellbeing and foster community.”

Watching each audience move in rhythm with the student performers was proof positive of the power of music to bring folks together in a time of distance.

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Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.