Regular pastimes typical to Dubai include sunbathing, mall trawling and Friday brunching. But how about adding African drumming to that list? The craze seems to be gathering pace across the city, and community groups such as Dubai Drums offer a much-needed cultural injection in a lively, social environment.
Avid drummer Julie-Ann Odell founded Dubai Drums 10 years ago, and since then thousands of people have attended the sessions. As well as classroom lessons, which take place at Ductac every Monday, the group also heads out into the desert during the winter for drumming camps, where 400 people play in unison.
In an attempt to discover why this pastime is so popular, we decided to try a session to experience this fast-growing subculture.
Arriving at Ductac for one of the regular classes, we enter the room to find that two African instructors, Mawutor and Edward, have already started leading a group of about 25 people – men and women from all over the world, of all ages – in a succession of drum beats. ‘Grab a drum and sit down,’ Mawutor instructs, before teaching us how to hit the drum to make a bass sound, slap it to make a high, sharp sound and tap it for a full sound. The group learns a couple of regular rhythms, then strings them together to play in unison. ‘It’s incredible,’ says regular drummer Neville Shurman, the principal of Dubai’s Westminster School. ‘It’s better than an orchestra.’
Neville has been attending the weekly drumming sessions for about two years and has not only vastly improved his drumming and rhythm, but believes it has given him a greater sense of teamwork. ‘You meet different people from all over the world. They may be visitors or residents from different nationalities and with different personalities, and you see how music is interpreted in different parts of the world.’ But why choose drumming over another instrument? ‘I don’t think I have the patience for finger plucking or anything like that,’ he says. ‘Drumming is a simple way to come together without worrying about making mistakes, while learning an important percussion instrument.’
After 15 minutes of solid drumming, we feel a tingling sensation in our hands. Not used to being repeatedly bashed, the circulation has kicked in and the blood has rushed to the ends, making them look like squidgy strawberry popsicles. Instructors Mawutor and Edward take breaks between drumming to explain a little about African drum culture: apparently, after playing one of the larger drums during an African celebration (the ones you need to stand on a stool to reach), you can’t even hold a cup of water after a few hours – your hands are that pumped and shaky. Luckily, there’s little danger of this during our session: our drum measures just half a metre in diameter and we’ve only been playing for an hour.
Collectively, as the beats resonate around the room, energy levels rise and the mood lifts. ‘Rhythm is a universal language, a collaborative experience that transcends boundaries,’ explains Julie-Ann. ‘What people can achieve together is far greater than what they can achieve alone.’
Supposedly there are also mysterious health benefits to African drumming. ‘It’s been proven to boost the immune system,’ claims Julie-Ann. ‘It raises the endorphins, or happy hormones, and it’s a left brain/right brain balancing act, so gets people into an alpha state which is where they relax.’ After our session we’d have to agree: our final collaborative rhythm (the group had learned five different beats and pieced them together) sounds fantastic, like something performed in a flash mob in London’s Covent Garden. Everyone leaves the class smiling from ear to ear.
The lowdown on African drums
The earliest records of African drums hail from the west of the continent during the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Most commonly shaped like a goblet covered with goatskin, the drums, called ‘djembe’, are often used at celebrations and funerals, or to pray for a good harvest. They are played with the hands, using three different notes: ‘bass’, ‘tone’ and ‘slap’.