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Teach the Children: A Report from the Other Side

Lilian Friedberg teaching the children at Luxton Park in Minneapolis

By Lilian Friedberg

from Percussive Notes, the Journal of the Percussive Arts Society, Volume 34 #1, February 1996

"Where Did You Learn That?"

When I first brought my West African drums and lore to a predominantly African-American community in the Midwest, everyone, myself included, was skeptical. Understandably so: I am white. And female. 5'1", about one hundred pounds.

I have been trained, though, to play the Drums of the Malinke by top African professionals in the field, amongst them Famoudou Konaté, one of the most renowned djembe masters in the world. For nearly thirty years, Konaté toured the world as first soloist for Les Ballets Africains, one of Africa’s premier performing groups. I studied intensely with Konaté and members of his ensemble for many years in Europe and in Africa.

“Still,” I say to myself, “I know only enough about this musical tradition to know how much I don’t know,” and am always careful to remind my students that the real “experts” on African drumming are in Africa.

One day, shortly after I’d begun my first class teaching children aged eight to thirteen, a couple of their mothers dropped in at the end of the session. The children impressed them with what they’d learned. One of the mothers asked a child, “Where did you learn that?” and winked at me.

The child answered, “Famoudou Konaté.”

His mother was bewildered. The name wasn’t familiar.

“Tell her who Famoudou is,” I said softly, stricken somehow with a quiet elation.

“The teachers are watching,” I said to myself, and smiled.

“Can You Hear The Drums In The Universe?”

A boy of about eight years of age asked me once, “Can you hear the drums in the universe?”

“Very good question,” I assured him, “Yes. You can hear the drums in the universe! What does that mean? Who’s listening?”

A quiet suspense fell over the class.

“Well,” I prompted, “who’s out there in the universe?”

The child who’d posed the question answered, “God?”

“Yes. ‘God’ is listening,” I said and told him I thought he was pretty smart. “That’s why we practice the drums, to make them sound good for ‘God.’ But not just for God. If you can hear the drums in the universe, where else can you hear them?” I wanted them to think. And to know. “Don’t you think they can hear your drums in Africa?”

They nodded in unison. Their eyes were glued to some far-off place I couldn’t see myself. Not as they saw it, anyway. “And if they can hear yours, don’t you think you could hear theirs if you listened hard enough?”

I needn’t say more. They’d been listening all along. I’d only taught them to believe their ears.

Incidentally, the child who asked the first question and answered the last had been labelled “Learning Disabled” by the public school system.

Reading The Rules

Six broken hides, four shattered shekeres, two dozen Vic Firth 12A drumsticks and three bottles of Ibuprofen into my career as an inner-city elementary schoolteacher of African drums, I realized I would have to establish some rules for conduct in my classes.

But kids don’t necessarily like rules. And neither do I, so I knew I needed to keep it simple. I wracked my brain for a way to say all that need be said regarding classroom etiquette. The first day of the new class, I posted the following “Rules for Conduct”:

  1. Do not talk or play the drums when the teacher is talking.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Follow directions.
  4. Do not beat the drum, drum the beat.

In less than five minutes, I elaborated verbally on the rules, just to be sure they were clear. “Okay. Number one. Does everyone here know who the teacher is?”

“You are.” The answer was obvious.

“Am I the only teacher in the room?

”They weren’t quite sure.

“Who’s my teacher?”

“Famoudou,” they said.

“Well, who’s Famoudou’s teacher?”

I walked over to the big doundoun drum and began playing it. “This,” I raised my eyebrows, “is a teacher.” I went around the circle of drums. “So is this, this.... The drum is the teacher; we are the students. We are all students of the drum. So, we don’t talk when the teacher is talking.”

“Rule number 2. Is that clear. Pay attention?”

“Yes,” they nodded in unison.

“What are you paying attention to?”


“Yes. What else?

”I knew they knew the answer, but were afraid to say it. So I said it for them: “The drums. Pay attention to the drums and, above all, to each other. You need to listen to each other in order to sound like one drum. If you don’t listen to each other, you will never sound like one drum.

”They were getting antsy. “Follow directions, that’s simple enough, isn’t it?

”Of course, I was pretty sure they were all wondering what could be meant by the fourth rule. Don’t beat the drums? Thiswas drum class! How could I possibly expect them not to beat the drums?

“Ha,” I challenged them playfully. “Do not beat the drums; that’s a hard one.” I explained that I didn’t beat the drums. “I pull sound out of the drum, I don’t beat the sound into it.” I demonstrated my minimal-movement technique. “The sound is in the drum, not in my hand or my stick."

I let it sink in for a second before I went on. “You never hit the drum,” I said. “You stroke it. It’s almost as though you’re tickling it, making it giggle."

As if on cue, a few of them giggled and grinned. I smiled, “Do you understand the second part, ‘drum the beat’?”

“Yeah,” one of them squinted his eyes in a stupid-question look. “The drum beat.”

“The heart beat,” another one said.

“You guys are pretty smart,” I said.“You’re both right. The drum beat. The heart beat. The beat of the earth. Of the universe even,” I gestured widely, then proceeded to pass out sticks and drums. I try to stay off the subject of the universe unless they bring it up themselves.

And they were about to.

Needless to say, both my vocal chords and my central nervous system fared better in the second session of the class. This time I let my fingers do the talking and my drum speak the peace.

1996 Biography: Lilian Friedberg is an internationally acclaimed performing artist specializing in the West African Malinke drum traditions. She is also an author whose works, in German and English, have appeared in Percussive Notes, Public Art Review, Trivia: A Journalof Ideas, Race Traitor, Off Our Backs, Feminismus und Wissenschaft and elsewhere.Translations from the German include The Goddess and her Heros as well as contributions to the anthologies Utopos—Kein Ort and Manner Mythos Wissenschaft. At the time of this article, she lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she taught African drums and lore in schools throughout the region.


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