Almost every Sunday, members of the African Drumming Society at Weber State University practice traditional African rhythms, some of which are played on handmade instruments carved by members of the club.
Cameron Williams, president of the club, first started studying these rhythms more than 12 years ago. Around four years ago, he heard that a WSU professor, David Akumbo, was trying to get a club together to create African music. Williams and his friend Dave Wolfgram had some background in African drumming rhythms and were interested in learning more.
“When I heard about it, I was pretty excited, because I thought we would be basically getting free lessons from a professional,” Williams said. “It turns out we ended up being the teachers.”
Wolfgram is also interested in woodworking and has been making his own drums for the past 17 years. He carves these drums out of reclaimed and recycled wood. Last year, he helped Williams make his first djembe. Williams carved the drum himself out of a dead coconut tree from a beach in Hawaii. Most of the instruments used by the club members were handmade or have some handmade qualities, including henna designs painted by club member Harmony Stevens.
Wolfgram said he was inspired to play African rhythms the first time he ever heard them played.
“I was in a subway in Chicago, and I saw a troop playing five or six drums, and they had some dancers, and I was just mesmerized,” he said. “Right then, I told myself that one day I would do that.”
Williams said the club has performed in events such as hunger banquets and Black History Month activities. Williams continues to look for opportunities to perform, but he said he isn’t concerned with having a full schedule of performances.
Brandon Wilson, one of the members of the club, has had an interest in percussion since he was a young child. He became interested in the club when he heard the members playing one day, and decided he would join. He said the most enjoyable part of being in the club is that it is laid back.
“It’s just a small group that gets together and jams,” Wilson said. “It’s fun to just hang out with cool people and play the drums.”
The African Drumming Society often gets together with another drumming group from Logan and some dance groups from Utah State University. Most of the rhythms are associated with a particular dance.
The first rhythm Williams learned was the Yankadi Makru. The Yankadi Makru is a social dance made up of two different rhythms. The male and female dancers stand on either side of the room while the first part of the rhythm, Yankadi, is played. The women choose their dance partners to the beat of a slow, swinging rhythm, and then the faster, upbeat Makru begins.
Although some of the rhythms might seem complex, Williams said that most rhythms, such as Yankadi Makru, have simple parts so that even the most inexperienced individual can join in. Nate Chappell, a club member, said playing these rhythms is more about instinct than technique.
“If you were running and I were to throw a ball at you, you would just catch the ball,” Chappell said. “You wouldn’t stop to think about where your hand should be or whether you’re catching it right. You would just catch it. This is just like that.”
Each rhythm the African Drumming Society plays has been played traditionally by African musicians for hundreds of years, and each rhythm has a different meaning or purpose. Some rhythms are played for social occasions, such as the Yankadi Makru, and others are for ceremonial purposes, such as harvest, coming-of-age, marriage or birth ceremonies. Wolfgram said these rhythms make him feel connected to the energy of the music, and that he feels even more connected when he plays the music on instruments he made himself.
“I definitely prefer playing on my own instruments,” Wolfgram said. “It’s all about energy, and when you put all this energy into making it, it’s that much better.”