17 January 2014

West African Djembe Drumming Tradition Alive in Germany

Although Djembe drumming is traditionally coming from West Africa, the tradition has spread in many countries across the globe. In Germany, many people are embracing the music and are keen to learn how to beat the drum.

Eight people are sitting in a circle in a room decorated with a number of African antiques. Everyone is holding a rope tuned skin-covered drum called Djembe. Their eyes are glued on their trainer's hands as they try to follow the beating rhythm that the trainer is telling them to follow. They are students of the Djembe Schule München and their trainer is not an African but a German born Uschi Billmeier. She sits in front of the class playing the master drum. She has been teaching Djembe drumming techniques for over fifteen years.

Billmeier was fascinated by Djembe music after she met with the master drummer Mamady Keita on one of his visits to Germany in 1992.

"I had the luck to meet him. He is such a great master," Billmeier told DW. Mamady Keita is a Guinean grand master of the Djembe. Keita is one of the World's most well-known and respected "Djembefolas" - as the players of Djembe are called in the West African Madinka language. Billmeier says being trained by him was a privilege "I ... learned from the beginning from somebody who is really into the drumming and into the rhythm."

Several years later after her training with Keita, Billmeier decided to open Djembe School, to teach other people who want to learn how to beat the drum. She called it "Djembe Schule München." It is now one of the many schools in Germany teaching the West African drumming tradition.

Uschi Billmeier is the founder of the Djembe Schule München

Socialize and learn

Over the past years Billmeier has trained hundreds of people who are interested in learning drumming techniques. Her students are from all age groups and come from different walks of life.

Most of the students who go to the Djembe School in Muchen, have been playing drums for several years. Marcus Ottschofski is among them. He is a social education worker and now training to become a Djembe drumming teacher. "I had always enjoyed drumming since my student days. I did it as a hobby but then later decided that I wanted to learn how to teach the techniques," he told DW.

To become a Djembe drumming teacher Marcus will have to spend three years at this school. However, not all of them want to be teachers. Some are attending classes just to enjoy the music and learn more about the West African culture. "I had seen a lot and heard a lot about Djembe drumming. I went to a festival and decided I will try it out myself," said Sabine Bubeck.

Phillip Etti is another fan of west African culture. "I am in an African Church here in Munich and they also play drums like Djembe and this was an introduction for me so that I get to know something about Djembe."

Many Germans are learning how to play drums

Recruiting drummers

In West Africa the Djembe drums are widely believed to be an instrument for men. But Billmeier says Djembe can also be played by women like her. She says even though she has been playing Djembe for many years, she is still fascinated about the music.

"It's a music which is always corresponding to dance so there is movement, there is excitement," she noted and warned that to play Djembe, one needs to be motivated. "If you start to study this you don't believe that it is maybe like if you study the Fugues vom Bach," Billmeier said.

The Djembe tradition has its origins from the former Malian Empire comprising countries like Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Senegal. Billmeier hopes more people in Germany will be interested in learning about the Djembe tradition and will do all she can to recruit them.

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