Entering St Paul's School in culturally tolerant Tower Hamlets, London, I find a room full of sleep-starved looking people banging away at an array of drums chanting, 'Pe te ba ba pe, pe te ba, pa ta'. I hadn't expected to have to learn a new language as well.
The class falls silent as I take a seat behind a conga drum. With a broad smile George Fiawoo, the teacher, explains that African palm drumming uses only three different hand movements. He has invented a specific drumming language which makes it easier for students to learn. This looked like it was going to be much easier than reading music.
Pe and te are basic hand movements - close fingers together and hit the drumskin with two thirds of the hand. Ba and da, cup the whole hand and hit the drum in the centre. Pa and da, a slightly more difficult movement, using the side of the hand and fingers to slap the surface, always remembering to use your strongest hand first.
'Now try drumming this,' he instructs and starts singing, 'Pe te ba, pe te ba, pe te ba,' like the rhythm of a train. Confused by the similarity of the sounds I watch his hands instead of trying to remember what he has just said. Slowly gaining confidence, I start to sway as I play. The rest of the class joins in automatically, the rhythm growing faster and louder. When we can go no faster, the entire class bursts into laughter, congratulating each other with smiles and clapping.
'Learning is done by listening and feeling and you must practise - only then can you develop your own style. Don't worry if you don't have a drum at home, play a table or a chair. Once you've got the rhythm you can go on to play any drum you like: Latin American, kit drums, even the tabla.'
George Fiawoo complements the drumming with a course of African dance classes which seek to aid understanding of drumming's rhythm and timing. If ever dancing represented the sex act, then this has to be it. 'Chest out, shoulders back, thrust pelvis forward and back, wiggle wiggle wiggle and round.' The footwork is intricate and the sequences extensive. Pans People could have learnt a move or two here.
Suddenly the teacher asks, 'What do you do to a piece of land if you want to grow corn?' Deprived inner-city types that we are, our faces go blank. After a lengthy pause, someone shouts, 'Throw some corn seeds down.' George rolls his eyes and explains the various stages of farming before teaching us a Ghanaian song, sung by people as they go about their work. Once we are all singing in tune, we go through the steps and actions that accompany it. Clear weeds, plough land, sow seeds, dance around waiting for corn to grow, pick, and make your way to the market. It's a straightforward procedure. To sing in key while keeping in step, simply imagine you're in a coffee plantation in Ghana, remember the principles of farming and do your best to look sexy.
George Fiawoo teaches African Dance classes, 10am-12pm, and Drumming classes, 12.30-2pm Saturdays at Poplar Community Education Centre, St Paul's Way School, London E3 (071-987 6879) and also on Mondays 7-9pm at Phoenix Studios, Ashwin St, London E8
Angie Anderson teaches African and Afro Carribean Dance on Wednesdays 7.30-9pm, also at Phoenix Studios (071-275 8664)
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