First let me say this. To me, drum circles are about creating community and sharing. It is not about being the star or about ego. It is about a group shared experience.
Although there are no clearly defined rules of how to act or behave at a drum circle, there is a proper etiquette or working order that I have discovered in my travels and journeys all around the world over the past 35 years. I am going to suggest and explain some guidelines. If these guidelines are maintained, it can make the experience much more enjoyable for everyone involved.
The first thing to understand is the basic concept of drumming.
Drumming be it traditional, organized or freestyle is not a cacophony of sounds with each player expressing himself freely at the same time all the time. Very simply put, hand drumming and specifically djembes come from an African tradition where drums, song, dance and intention combine for an intended result. Like for example, a wedding, a celebration a full moon ceremony, etc. Drum circles are our modern and western way of creating our own rituals and celebrations as well using our drums. It is a place for people to play freestyle or play whatever they want.
Now having said that, if indeed everyone plays whatever they want at the same time (which often happens), the music does not come together. Moreover, it can be a very unpleasant experience for everyone. It can be like bumper cars at the carnival, everyone running into each other and going every which way. So it is always best if you start with a common, simple rhythm.
What I suggest is that every drum circle have a leader or leaders, people who start and guide the rhythm. People can take terms leading and sharing their ideas or rhythms. A circle needs a leader because otherwise it can get completely out of control. Now before anyone chimes in and say's "it is not about control" let me say again if everyone plays whatever they want it is just a cacophony of sounds. So follow the leader. And take turns soloing or expressing yourself creatively, one at a time.
When someone solos during a drum circle do not solo at the same time as this person. One person solos and the other person or people hold the rhythm down. The common tendency is to get inspired and to start soloing when you hear someone else play something nice. But you need to have a little discipline and hold back until it is your turn. If you take turns soloing it becomes much more harmonious. I often have to explain this to someone during a drum circle and you may have to as well. Use a smile and a patient tone of voice when you explain things to others at drum circles.
Whenever you can, try to be supportive of other players and to hold the part that you have or that the leader has given you. Holding parts are like mantras. They are phrases or rhythms that repeat most of the time with out change. Some people get bored playing the same part over and over and I understand this. But if you surrender to the rhythm and just feel how it locks in with others it never gets boring because drumming is a chain of events, or links in a chain. You all depend on each other and you all have to listen and interact with one another as well.
If you have a bass part, that is to say a part where you hit the bass note please make sure that you play this beat steadily. As there are often no dununs (double sided drums hit with sticks that create the melody in traditional west african djembe music) at drum circles it is up to the players to play bass notes on their djembes to create the bass lines. It is more important to have solid bass lines then people soloing. So instead of playing as may notes as you can try to experiment playing simple repetitive parts that include a strong bass note. It works wonderfully!
If there is no leader at your drum circle and the rhythm is struggling, instead of soloing try to establish a rhythm pattern or "part" that emphasizes bass notes. This is called "the groove part". Also remember that groove is more important then solo. I was watching one of my advanced students at the drum circle the other night. The rhythm the group was playing was not solid. He is the best soloist but he does not understand group groove yet. So when he came to the circle he tried to start soloing immediately. The rhythm did not come together and he got frustrated. He came to me and I told him, "go back in there, but play groove". "Don't solo but play a very strong support or groove part with a strong bass note (or notes)", then once that is established slowly start moving into your solo from that part, bit by bit, always returning to the groove rhythm". He did so and he was able to guide the rhythm the group was playing back on track. Then once the groove was established, he was able to solo on top of what they were creating. The key is and was he always has to come back to the groove part or "home base". The part that pushes the group and locks every one in.
Please ask before you play or grab another person's drum. Although you might be OK with someone not asking to play yours, many people are not comfortable with others taking their drum with out permission. Use common sense and courtesy.
If you do not know a rhythm that is being played and it seems like others around you do, please ask someone to show you the part or ask what is your part if you need help. It is OK to ask for help. If you come into an unfamiliar situation where people are playing already it is always a nice gesture to ask if you can play first before you sit down and start playing. And I also suggest watching a little bit before jumping in to any drumming situation. You learn and observe a tremendous amount about drumming in general simply by watching and listening.
A personal tip I like to share in general about rhythms is when a rhythm speeds up instead of playing louder do the opposite and play quieter. This relaxes your muscles instead of the natural tendency to tense your muscles. If everyone does this (plays quitter when speeding up) and relaxes it can become quite magical. Try it, you'll like it!
Leave your baggage at home. It is best to leave your personal issues or problems at home rather then bringing them to the circle to express through the drum. A lot of people drum angry. Also if there is something to discuss, a personal issue I suggest doing it away from the drums before or after rather then at or with in the actual drum circle.
In my classes and at drum circles I like to try and smile with and to with other drummers and make eye contact with others as well. This is my personal choice of course and I find it really helps me to connect. I always like to shake the hands of the other players and also to pat people on the back verbally and also physically. Don't be scarred to tell another player how much you enjoyed their playing, how they held the groove or if you liked their solo. I have noticed many people do not do this. The more personal contact and connection we have with each other the better the drum circle. Remember playing is about having and expressing fun, that's why it is called "playing"!
by Michael Pluznick
Internationally-recognized musical djembe drummer and percussionist, Michael Pluznick has introduced his new Signature Eco-Pro Djembe Drums and Instructional DVD for Djembe Players now available at X8Drums.com.