Getting into the rhythm

The African Drum and Song Class at Bantu Spirit gives its students a chance to learn African songs and beats

Instructor Rob Wisniewski leads a class on African drumming at Bantu Spirit.

Instructor Rob Wisniewski leads a class on African drumming at Bantu Spirit.

Photo by David Robert

The African drumming class is held 6 p.m. Tuesdays at Bantu Spirit, 17 S. Virginia St. inside the Riverside Artists’ Lofts. The cost is $10 drop-in, $32 for four weeks. Drums are provided for the class, or can be purchased for $150-$300 at Bantu Spirit. Call Rob at (530) 587-1105.

When I show up to the Tuesday night African Drum and Song Class at Bantu Spirit, located at ground floor of the Riverside Artists’ Lofts, I’m a little unsure of what to expect. When I first try to find the class, I peer through the windows at the building’s entrance, and see a small space offset from the entryway, full of African figurines and decorations, with three small children playing inside. No one drumming. I decide it must be some kind of foyer for the building, and actually walk into Dreamers Coffeehouse next door before doubling back.

But the tiny shop is indeed the place. I meet instructor Rob Wisniewski and ask him if I can sit on the sidelines to see what the class is about. He encourages me to pick up a drum and join the class instead, insisting that it’s better when more people participate. And before I know it, I’m holding an African goatskin drum between my knees.

Wisniewski stresses that anyone, of any skill level, can participate in the class.

“You don’t need to be a drummer,” he says. “You don’t even need to be a musician.”

On the other hand, he recommends the class to musicians, as well—especially those looking to fuse elements of world music into their songs.

Wisniewski starts off by teaching us the vocals to a traditional African song, which is a collection of strange syllables, some sung and some chanted. He calls them out a few words at a time, and we repeat them back. He seems very concerned that we get every syllable right.

After about 15 minutes of this, we move on to the drum component of the song, and the class really takes off. Soon, we’re pounding out a series of complicated rhythms on our drums. I’ve taken a lot of music lessons in my life: guitar lessons, voice lessons, piano lessons, cello lessons. But once we start drumming, this class begins to feel a lot less like a music lesson and a lot more like just jamming with other musicians.

The rhythm is remarkably infectious. At first, the class is drumming a little sloppily and out of time with each other, but within minutes, the beat has taken hold of us and we’re playing with a precision I didn’t know we had in us.

The class is scheduled for one hour, but typically runs a little longer. Ours lasts almost two. If you plan to attend a class, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring a water bottle along; drumming turns out to be a much more physical experience than I expected. Also, remember to pace yourself. If you play too aggressively at the beginning of the class, your hands will get sore fast. I had to learn the hard way.

Besides being a music lesson, the African Drum and Song Class also aims to teach students a little about world culture.

“Their life is lived through their music, so if you have an interest in learning about West African culture, you can learn it through the music," Wisniewski says.