“Traditionally, the djembe forms an ensemble with a number of other djembes and one or more dunun. Except for the lead (or solo) djembe, all instruments play a recurring rhythmic figure that is known as an accompaniment pattern or accompaniment part. The figure repeats after a certain number of beats, known as a cycle. The most common cycle length is four beats, but cycles often have other lengths, such as two, three, six, eight or more beats…Cycles longer than eight beats are rare for djembe accompaniments—longer cycles are normally played only by the dununba or sangban.
Each instrument plays a different rhythmic figure, and the cycle lengths of the different instruments need not necessarily be the same. This interplay results in complex rhythmic patterns (polyrhythms). The different accompaniment parts are played on djembes that are tuned to different pitches; this emphasizes the polyrhythm and creates a composite overall “melody”.
The number of instruments in the ensemble varies with the region and occasion. In Mali, a traditional ensemble often consists of one dunun (called konkoni) and one djembe. The konkoni and djembe are in a rhythmic dialog, with each drum taking turns playing accompaniment while the other instrument plays improvised solos. If a second dunun player is available, he supplements the ensemble with a khassonka dunun, which is a bass drum similar in build to a konkoni, but larger.[
In Guinea, a typical ensemble uses three djembes and three dunun, called sangban (medium pitch), dundunba (bass pitch), and kenkeni (high pitch, also called kensedeni). If an ensemble includes more than one djembe, the highest pitched (and therefore loudest) djembe plays solo phrases and the other djembes and dunun play accompaniment. An ensemble may have only two dunun, depending on whether a village has enough dunun players and is wealthy enough to afford three dunun.
A djembe and dunun ensemble traditionally does not play music for people to simply sit back and listen to. Instead, the ensemble creates rhythm for people to dance, sing, clap, or work to. The western distinction between musicians and audience is inappropriate in a traditional context. A rhythm is rarely played as a performance, but is participatory: musicians, dancers, singers, and onlookers are all part of the ensemble and frequently change roles while the music is in progress.
Musicians and participants often form a circle, with the centre of the circle reserved for dancers. Depending on the particular rhythm being played, dances maybe performed by groups of men and/or women with choreographed steps, or single dancers may take turns at performing short solos. The lead djembe’s role is to play solo phrases that accentuate the movements of the dancers.
Often, the aim is to “mark the dancers’ feet”, that is, to play rhythmic patterns that are synchronized with the dancers’ steps. Individual solo dances are not choreographed, with the dancer freely moving in whatever way feels appropriate at that moment. Marking a solo dancer’s feet requires the lead djembefola to have strong rapport with the dancer, and it takes many years of experience for a djembefola to acquire the necessary rhythmic repertoire.
The lead djembefola also improvises to a rhythm at times when no-one is dancing. While there is considerable freedom in such improvisation, the solo phrases are not random. Instead, individual rhythms have specific key patterns (signature phrases) that the soloist is expected to know and integrate into his improvisation. A skilled soloist will also play phrases that harmonize with the background rhythm (groove) that is created by the other instruments.”
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