Feeling the beat

Sunday, April 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

John Markovitz sits on the edge of his seat with a large African drum balanced between his legs. As the rest of the class filters through the door and begins to take their places in a circle, Markovitz pulls out a spool of medical tape and carefully begins to wrap his fingers. He knows they’ll be sore by the end of the day.

Markovitz and four other students are at the end of a two-day drumming workshop held last month at the Black Culture Center in Columbia. Sunday is devoted to advanced drummers.

Unable to resist the temptation, most of the five students start tapping out beats. They synchronize and syncopate, and the sound, not quite together, fills the early morning air. Fonsiba Koster of Iowa, the instructor for the workshop, straightens her various instruments and drumming paraphernalia.

Fonsiba starts the morning with stretches, putting special emphasis on loosening the hip muscles. Then, the group listens to contemporary and traditional Malian drumming CDs such as “Mali in Memphis” and “Habib Koite,” playing along with certain tracks.

“We are completely out of context with African music,” Fonsiba says. “It’s a language — they’re actually speaking words.”

The group, at her urging, is sitting in a tight circle and listens as she explains that the circle is important because of the energy involved.

“You can use this for healing work, too, because we’re creating energy and shooting it into the circle,” she says. Her weekend workshop included a special healing session Saturday night.

Fonsiba conducts programs and workshops on African drumming throughout the Midwest. She spent six weeks in the Ivory Coast studying drumming and performing in African weddings. She has traveled in the United States and performed with a master drummer from Mali for eight months.

After the group has danced around the room and sung along with the music, they sit down to create their own musical interlude.

“Right-right, left-left,” Fonsiba instructs. “Bass-slap bass-slap, just try that. It’s a right-left…”

The sounds start, then stop, starting again out of beat.

“You have to feel the pattern,” Fonsiba says.

Soon, the small circle has the beat and is able to add to the music, with one half picking up a different beat. Magically, it works together, and the beat is huge, pounding and ricocheting off the walls.

In the moment after they end, the air is still, and the students almost appear afraid to breathe, afraid to disturb the moment.

But there is more to learn, and soon the class is lined up behind drums placed on their sides in stands — mighty drums such as the doun dounba, sangba and kenkeny. Perched on top of the special drums are bells, an integral part of the next lesson.

“The bell is a time-keeper; it helps you fill in the spaces,” Fonsiba explains. Understanding how to work the drum and the bell together is a particularly hard lesson to grasp.

Although hours have passed and most people would be hungry for lunch, their fingers and eardrums sore, the line of drummers are oblivious to the time. They stand together, their music fueling off the energy and the passion pouring from their fingertips as the mesmerizing drum line fills the air.

When they stop, perfectly together, there is again silence.

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