Speaking Of Rhythm Study Guide

Speaking Of Rhythm v1-Afoxe-Kim Atkinson Drummer
Speaking Of Rhythm v2-Bembe-Kim Atkinson Drummer

How to Practice Speaking of Rhythm Vol. One through Six

I encourage you to put on any of my lessons and listen to it casually. By this I mean, you don’t have to study it, but listen when you cooking, driving, gardening, etc. – even napping! The programs have been constructed so they will soak right in – if you listen to them over and over again. This principle of repetition is the foundation of the rhythm culture that we are part of. It is how we learn language and behavior as children.

I purposely have kept counting and terminology to a minimum to keep you focused on the aural/oral experience. Just listen to the patterns over and over and they will sink in to your memory effortlessly.

1) Connect the Syllables to Drum Strokes

Practice each drum stroke separately and speak the syllable as you hit the drum. Do this many times – you’re learning a kinesthetic language – connecting your voice and your hands.

In these lessons “waka” is used only on the non-favored hand (left, for most of us).

If you need to review the syllables, hand positions and sounds on your drum, click here.

2) Speak Drum Language – Make Sentences:

Now learn the syllables for a drum pattern (for example, the tumba for Afoxé). Go slowly. Speak the sounds out loud and learn to say them effortlessly so they feel like a sentence. Like this:

Throughout the world, there is a long history of drummers who have transmitted rhythm and music via the voice. From ancient Africa, India, and Persia to modern beat-boxing, the voice is the key. Drumming IS a language.

3) Orient Yourself – Syllables with the Pulse:

Next, clap the pulse while speaking the syllables. This will show you how the drum part (via the syllables) relates to the main beat. Like this:

4) Make a Sentence with your Hands:

Now that you’ve learned a sentence in drum language map the vocal sounds to hand positions on the drum. (You can do this without a drum, but make sure you’re saying the syllables out-loud. You can practice this on a table, your body, anywhere).

5) Say the Sentence On the drum:

Say and play the drum rhythm. Notice that the drum is saying what the voice is saying and the voice is saying what the drum is playing.

For a good challenge, count the four pulse while you play the pattern on the drum.

The next step is the most challenging and rewarding part of this lesson


Repeatedly listen to sense which syllable or space in the rhythm connects with Clave. Speak the rhythm first and add Clave hits, one at a time. You may need to go slowly.

As you play the pattern on your drum, feel how it interacts with Clave strokes and spaces. This will help you bring the pattern alive and give you a foundation for improvisation and solo work.

For extra credit, Speak Clave while you play the pattern on your drum.

If you need help learning the Clave pattern we use in this lesson, please check out Clave Consciousness vol 1

When the syllables and Clave are firmly in your body and mind, it will be easy to go faster. Remember: “The slower you play the faster you learn”.

Now practice the pattern along with one of the groove sections on the CD. Notice which part of the groove is holding the Clave and align yourself with that.

You can also use the grooves on my “Clave Consciousness vol 1 CD to practice each part with Clave.

Other Exercises

Stuck in traffic?
Tap your foot on the pulse, speak the syllables and mimic the hand movements on your lap or in the air.

Pulse, Clave, Rhythm!
Tap your foot on the pulse, clap the Clave rhythm and speak the syllables.

Compare and Contrast the Parts
Does the pattern start with bass, tone or slap? Is it “six or four” (triplet or quadruplet feel). Work on keeping the parts separate in your mind. Try starting the part in different ways and use Clave as a map to find your way.

While you could develop a solo on any part to any of these rhythms, there is a specific lead part in each ensemble. Take your time to learn the the traditional lead part that I teach in the lesson, then develop your own ideas.

A good process for developing your solo ability is what I call “Basic / Variation”. Play 4 cycles of a pattern, then 4 cycles of variations on that pattern. Then 2 and 2. Then 1 cycle of each. Then, finally, keep the basic pattern in your body/mind while you make variations.

You could also try quoting (i.e. playing) other parts of the rhythm, then alter them – reverse the tone and the slap, fill in the space, leave hits out, etc.


Main Beat
I use the terms “main beat”, “4 pulse” and “pulse” interchangeably to mean that equally spaced, underlying beat that connects all the patterns. This 4 pulse can be divided again into either 4 or 3 partials per pulse.

Four Four
Afoxe’, Djesse Muloumbo, High Life and Makuta are based on four partials per pulse. This is the so called “four-four feel”. Although technically this type of pattern could be named in several ways, “four-four ” has become common hand drum terminology for this “time feel”.

The Bembe and Yan Valu ensembles are based on three partials per pulse. Technical this is called “twelve-eight”. Hand drummers usually refer to this as “triplets”, “six-eight ” or “seis por ocho”.

Occasionally I refer to a “theme” or “signature” rhythm. This is a particular pattern that is unique to the ensemble, in contrast to other patterns that may be part of several ensembles. When listening to the full musical performance, focus on the theme pattern. This will help you to recognize and characterize the different ensemble rhythms.

Naming of the drums in an ensemble: Each culture has its own names for the bell, rattle and 3 drums of the basic African battery. For example the three Brazilian hand drums are called Rum (“hoom”) for the low, Rumpi (“hoompi”) for the middle and Le (“lay”) for the high. In Calypso drumming the three are called Bass, Fuller and Cutter. In Bata drumming of Cuba they are called Iya, Itotole and Okonlolo. I use the common Cuban Rumba terms “Tumba” for low, “Conga” for middle and “Quinto” for high to name the specific drums. So in the lesson, when I say “the conga part” you know that I’m referring to a middle pitched drum. It is important to play the correct part on the correct drum, otherwise the effect will be different.

What does accompaniment mean? The basic pattern that the music is built on. The reference point for the players who create cross rhythms and others who improvise variations on the themes. Beginning players learn to keep good accompaniment.

What does “appropriate variation” mean. One that is implied by the ongoing rhythm structure and the mood of the moment.

What does “played in Clave” mean? When the parts are consciously played in conjunction, or opposition to the accents of Clave. Clave shapes the groove!