Disclaimer: I actually finished this one just before I began this blog.

The Inspiration

Here’s a retroactive description of my process: I am a percussionist with an interest in “world percussion.” One of the instruments I play and study is the djembe, but I don’t have access to a West African drum ensemble at the moment, so I was looking up written solos to study and play and realized that there are about five at the time of this writing. B. Michael Williams has written  a few, including “Recital Suite for Djembe,” “Kirina Dreams, and Tiriba Kan.” All three are structured compositions based on traditional West African rhythms. “Okho” by Xenakis and “To the Gods of Rhythm” by Zivkovic are the only other compositions for djembe and neither are based on traditional rhythms at all. They both use the instrument for its timbre and the “primitive” imagery it evokes.

             “…my goal was to write the music I wish already existed.”

The Outline

So I decide to write a collection of short etudes, 3-4 minutes, and to base each one on a traditional West African rhythm. So I picked my favorite rhythms to play:

  • Sorsornet
  • Yankadi Makru
  • Zaouli
  • Soli
  • Kassa

But 5 was on the short side, so I added 5 rhythms with contrasting styles:

  • Djaa
  • Kuku
  • Abondan
  • Konkoba
  • Djole  (I hit a mental roadblock with this one and decided to cut it)


So I settled on a total of nine. I built a structure for each one from the accompaniment djembe parts, the salient dundun parts, and the traditional call-and-response patterns for each rhythm. I wanted to make sure each one had a virtuoso section, so I pulled improvisation ideas from the recordings of Mamady Keita and Adama Drame, along with some soloing ideas of my own, that I enjoy playing when I improvise during these rhythms.

It took about six months to finish the nine etudes. I added two pages of technical exercises and two pages worth of notes on the djembe, West African music, and some specifics for the compositions. Then I collated everything into a single 26-page long .pdf.

What next?

I sent the almost-final product to my grad school mentor, Dr. B. Michael Williams himself, and my colleague-in-percussion, Will Keith, who doesn’t bother veiling his critiques with niceties (I love it! Brutally honest feedback is the best). They both gave some excellent feedback, regarding layout, difficulty, and how to faithfully apply western notation to indigenous music. Traditional West African musicians aren’t noticeably concerned with things like meter and the measure-length of a phrase. I took two weeks to do revisions then I sent it back to both of them for a final seal of approval.

I had a specific publisher in mind. Dr. Williams had published a few collections with this publisher and I loved their engraving and binding (very aesthetically nice). Also, we had previously discussed how pleased he was with their treatment of him and his work. So I submitted the current edition of the “The Solo Djembe” to this publisher. It’s been about a week and I haven’t heard anything yet (as of 2/7/17).

Fingers crossed.

To wrap-up, this is a production of one of the compositions, “Konkoba.” I’ll probably do some recordings/videos of these etudes in the future. If I do, I’ll embed a few of them here.

That’s all for now.