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African drumming - in Australia

By Gemma Pitcher | ninemsn

First brought to Europe by French colonialists, West African drumming is a pastime that's been gaining in popularity in Australia since the 1980s.

Drums are the world's oldest musical instruments. Hollowed out logs used for drumming have been found at Stone Age archaeological sites. Almost every culture on the globe has a drumming tradition, and drums are integral to the ceremonies and rituals of communities everywhere.

Why is drumming so important to humans? The act of making repetitive noise has important psychological functions - it can soothe stress or whip up adrenaline, induce a state of meditation or bring on a fighting frenzy. The rhythms of drumming go right to the subconscious levels of our brains and work on reactions and emotions we might not otherwise be able to release. The act of group drumming brings a community or team of people into mental harmony, so it's always been used as an important part of the preparation for a hunt or a battle.

In West Africa, drumming traditions are still as strong today as when they originated. 'Talking' drums have such a wide range of pitches that they can imitate the complexity and inflections of the human voice. They are used to communicate complex messages over long distances, bringing news of war, invasion, disaster or celebration. Talking drums are also used by West African storytellers, or griots, who are the keepers of their local oral traditions and can recite centuries of history which they know by heart, accompanied by drums.

The variety of drums used in West Africa is huge, and visitors can see drumming at any event from a harvest festival to a wedding, funeral or political rally. One of the most popular drums is the djembe, a skin covered wooden drum shaped like a goblet and designed to be played with bare hands. The name of the djembe is thought to come from words in the bamana language of Mali meaning 'everyone come together'.

But drumming doesn't need to be something that's confined to a cultural performance witnessed on holiday. Drumming, and particularly djembe drumming, is hugely popular in Australia, with courses and drumming groups available all over the country. Participants often find that drumming is as good as yoga or meditation as a way of relieving stress and tension. It's also an excellent way to learn a musical instrument, with no complicated chords or fingering to learn, and it provides a way to learn more about African culture and music.

Drumming groups, as befits an activity that's designed to bring people together, are very sociable and a good way to connect with a variety of different people. If drumming turns into a passion as well as just a hobby, drumming groups sometimes organise trips to West Africa to learn patterns and techniques from local drum masters, which is an amazing way to get an insight into a culture that most Australians know very little about.

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