Keeping Time: African Drumming Class in a Cape Town Township
I am, perhaps, the least ‘African’ person I know. However, I do, for a very white guy have rhythm enough to play rhythm and bass guitar and drums without embarrassing myself. Dancing, however, is another matter altogether…
All the same, coming to Africa as a musician is intimidating and on our way to my African Drumming Experience at Eziko restaurant in the township of Langa, I’m a little nervous about mentioning that I play anything. Music and rhythm is part of the DNA here – it’s not something that you have to study – it’s all around you. It’s inside you.
My instructor for this workshop, organized by Andulela, is Henry, a quietly spoken musician who plays the drums and bass guitar, and a music teacher who teaches drumming, marimba, and Zulu dancing. Thankfully, there won’t be any of the latter today. Sabelo, our guide for the Cape Malay cooking class, and Monique, the owner of Andulela, have accompanied us. Lara is on camera duties.
Henry introduces us to a range of instruments, starting with the kalimba – meaning ‘the sound of the tree’ – an instrument that originally comes from Swaziland, although is also very common in Zimbabwe. Otherwise known as the ‘thumb piano’, it’s an instrument that makes a soothing sound. Henry says that older people play it as they sit alone outside their huts or lie under trees, reflecting upon life as they watch their cows graze, and composing their own songs according to their emotions.
The kalimba is polyrhythmic (the thumbs on each hand play different notes simultaneously), with interlocking rhythms that mesmerise – particularly when combined with vocals. The song Henry plays is beautiful and as I watch his thumbs effortlessly find the right notes I’m glad it’s not a thumb piano class. I’m already intimidated by an instrument that looks like a kid’s toy.
Next, Henry demonstrates the kalabash, made from a calabash or dried pumpkin skin that is typically used to store water. Henry says that traditionally a man would play it while he’s singing a song intended to spread news of some kind or pass on a story from one person/place/tribe to another. The hugely successful South African song Wimoweh AKA The Lion Sleeps Tonight (you know, “in the jungle, the mighty jungle…“) was originally written on the kalabash. Henry tells us that during apartheid, when they weren’t allowed to go to the theatre or live music venues, they played kalabash in the shabeens (makeshift pubs in shacks). “That was our entertainment,” he says. “We had no stereos then!”
Next up is the Kundi harp. Originally from the Congo, it was played by Azandi pygmies from the forests who lived from hunting. They would play this 5- or 3-stringed instrument while they were sitting around the fire. Traditionally made from a calabash and the skin of a goat, Henry made the one that he shows us now. As Henry plays us a very pretty tune, I’m awestruck at how these instruments – rustic and rudimentary by Western standards – can produce such beautiful sounds.
After looking at some reed pipes, we try some horns made from, well, the actual horns of the kudu, an animal of the antelope family. The fact that each match of the World Cup 2010 South Africa football tournament sounded like it was plagued by angry bees can be blamed on this instrument. The vuvuzela, the horrible plastic horn that served as the soundtrack to the World Cup and sent visitors home suffering from ringing in their ears, is based on the kudu horn.
The kudu horns are actually tuned, according to Henry – I picture men gazing out at a herd of kudu, looking for one that would be in the key of ‘C’ – and to prove his point, he hands around the horns, along with instructions. We’re each timed to come in on certain beats – like a brass arrangement for a song. It’s fun – when you can actually get a sound out of the horn!
Mercifully, our kudu orchestra recital ends and I finally get to play some drums. African drums come in different sizes and Sabelo and I are given a couple of pretty hefty-sized drums which we place between our thighs. Henry takes me through the correct technique for the different sounds you can make from the drum – Sabelo already knows how to drum, naturally – and soon we’re all playing away.
Henry stops to correct my technique a few times but it doesn’t take long for me to get into the swing of things, and soon I’m even doing a little improvisation – leading to a pair of bruised thumbs by the time I’m back in Cape Town. But it was worth it!
While lessons in person with a local musician will always be my first choice for learning new instruments when I travel, there are excellent websites that provide an online space for musicians to search for and get lessons from music teachers around the world. For instance, for lessons in a wide range of other instruments takelessons.com is very good. I also search for the professional sites of music teachers or YouTube videos they’ve posted and that’s how I taught myself to play the saz and oud.
The drumming experience I did is also held at Kayamundi, but if you do the drumming workshop here at Eziko restaurant, make sure you pop into the Eziko Craft Shop next door and say hello to Leon and Gisele for us. They have some beautiful crafts, especially the vibrant wall hangings Lara bought that are made by Gisele.
Eziko Restaurant & Craft Shop
Cnr Washington Street & Jungle Walk
Langa, Cape Town
+27(0)83 532 5777