When I am at my weekly bata lesson, I am usually playing the okonkulo, which is the smallest, highest pitched drum of a bata trio. During last week’s lesson, we were working on a slow starting rhythm which is for Oya, the orisha of the whirlwind, marketplace and graveyard.
Most of the time what the Okonkulo plays is on the downbeat of the regular pulse of the song’s rhythm. In this case, my okonkulo song was: “Pi-La Pi Pling”, played by my right hand and time kept by my left with regular strokes of “Tah Tah” in between the repeated song phrase. So it goes “Pi-La Pi Pling, Tah Tah; Pi La Pi Pling Tah Tah,” etc. All even and consistent, with a small variation in the Pi-la Pi strokes.
Now, I am no whiz in understanding music theory or understanding the technical language of rhythm. I am a simple creature, often confused in congolese class by our master, who moves in out of multiple rhythm transitions like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch and leaves us students lost in translation.
But it’s finally become true that what I can sing and resonate with I can eventually play. I had to work at it, but I GOT my okonkulo part down, hearing, feeling and playing it fully in relation to the rest of the bata rhythm combo. As is often the case, I had to sit and be patient with my Cuban master working with the other student on the itotele. The itotele, more often than not, must play a basic piece with the right hand, while playing a steady, slower left hand stroke that is basically OFF the regular beat, in between the okonkulo strokes, or as my Cuban master says, CONTRA-TIME.
Week before last, the other student said that she can’t hear what she is playing with her left hand when the other drums are playing.This would explain why she starts out Ok but then speeds up the left hand stroke and throws things off. She starts omitting the rhythmic spaces, and then I have no room to put the correct okonkulo rhythm in the right place.
When we finally had a break for tea during the lesson, I picked up the itotele and began trying to play it’s correct song and rhythm to experience playing contra rhythm myself. Fortunately for me, neither my teacher nor the other student protested and allowed me to continue the lesson on the itotele. I was not surprised to find it somewhat alien to do, having not played the itotele much at all ever. The Oya song for the Itotele is the exact opposite from the okonkulo : “Pi-Pling (Tah)Pi-La( Tah Tah Tah Tah) at a different place in the rhythm. Bata is like sound tetris.
But there was a moment of complete excitement for me when I discovered that A) I could roughly do it, B) My left shoulder/elbow an wrist were not strained playing a wider drum like they used to be, and C) My left hand is now strong and supple enough to play itotele strokes. It was like a door had opened for me after all the years of being weak and uncoordinated in the left hand, and not being able to progress as a student. I’ve worked for more than 2 years to strengthen my left hand and now I’m working it for more wrist rotation for frame drumming. Now the question is, where, as a drummer that can progress, do I go from here.