on learning drum solos and how to speak “percussionese”

Raks Makam (from l. to r.) Jessica Hamilton, Jon Silpayamanant, Jo Hadley

So today, after several exhausting days with little sleep but much exciting activities (see my previous post for some details) I went to rehearse with Raks Makam for our upcoming performance this Friday.  My brain is still a little bit fried and with little sleep I was making more mistakes than I think I would normally.  Granted, the Uzbek doira is still a relatively new instrument to me and I don’t have one of the best instruments but mostly it’s my skill level (and the mitigating physical circumstances) that got in the way.

I almost want to say this instrument is far more difficult than, say, the Egyptian tabla which I also play regularly in a couple of groups but I’m not entirely sure that’s ever a useful type of comparison to make.

What I will say that the standard rhythmic patterns are very different than what you might find in the Middle East (or in any other region for that matter) and even the inter-Central Asian countries differ to a significant degree.  There’s tons more finger work and as many patterns in three beat measures at duple/quadruple beat measures, if not more, than what you might find in the Middle East.  And the phrasing–that’s the kicker–as many in multiples of three as not!

The piece I’m learning is called “Doira Dars” which almost literally translates as “Doira Study” or what classical trained musicians might call a “Doira Etude.”  And it is just that–an exercise for drummers that uses many of the basic rhythms found in the art dance music of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it’s not just a study piece for drummers–it is designed as a training or warm-up piece for dancers as well. By going through the rhythmic patterns–roughly 12 or 14 depending on how the Uzbeks would count them; and about a handful of different shokh (transitions); and the intro and ending–a dancer will have an opportunity to use a great number the moves in the repertoire of the dance.   Now, 12 (or 14 depending) different rhythmic patterns may not seem like a huge amount but keep in mind that many of the (non-native) Middle Eastern drummers here in the US will rarely learn more than 10 different rhythms for the entirety of the repertoire they might play.  Unless we’re talking about the art music, e.g. Ottoman classical music which has several dozens of rhythmic modes used for the repertoire.

And the dozen or so rhythms are played in a piece that will last roughly 3.5 minutes (we edited the piece for the purposes of this show: normally it would be a nearly 6 minute piece, which nearly as many more rhythms patterns included).

I’ve been tempted to actually write out the rhythms as I’ve found in the past that writing out music I’m learning by ear sometimes helps me to learn and memorize it.  I’ve resisted that urge though I have used another trick to help me learn them with the help of a digital audio editor to slow down particular patterns just so I can hear what the heck is being played.

Another thing that sometimes helps with memory is having a name for the rhythms which I don’t.  Humans are notoriously better at memorization when a name can be placed, but having no native Uzbek drummers in the area and only armed with a DVD tutorial (which also doesn’t give the names to the rhythms) and few online references I’m am left to the devices I was naturally endowed with–namely my ear and my hands.

What was remarkable today, was that as we were rehearsing one problematic sot that I’ve only just begun to make sense of, as we were repeatedly going over the transition with a few measures of the pattern before to place it in context my ‘mind’s ear’ started to hear percussion speech.  For those of you familiar with Middle Eastern drumming or Indian drumming you will know that musicians in these countries have developed syllables for practically every sound that can be made on the drum.  These are all idiosyncratically tied to the respective countries and their indigenous percussion instruments.  So while the instructional DVD never names the rhythms, the percussion  syllables are named!

So today, as we were repeatedly going through this passage, my brain spontaneously made the connection between the sounds coming out of my doira and the syllables used to name those particular sounds.  I basically ‘heard’ (internally) my first phrase in the language of Uzbek percussionists.

This never happened to me over the many years and actual workshops learning Middle Eastern percussion where so much of that training actually included live interaction with someone who was fluent in that particular percussion language.  So that came much more naturally as the result of rote learning and active interaction (or ‘conversations’) with someone fluent.  Not having that kind of interaction with this style and region of drumming it’s understandable that I wouldn’t make the connection between the physical sound of the instrument and the vocabulary of the style.  It was one of those epiphany moments, I suppose, and of course it distracted me and I ended up lost in the revelation and had to explain to my partners what happened.  They thought it was kinda cool actually, even if it disrupted out rehearsal.

And in the end, being exhausted and filled to the brim with new thoughts while still processing the last couple of days was probably a great catalyst for that revelation.  My mind was off guard and thus open to new influences (as they sometimes say with regard to the purpose of music in India) and allowed to learn on its own rather than on my own terms!


  1. For me hearing percussionists discuss the more complex patterns and techniques of Eastern/African/? drumming styles really drives home the realization of how much music you cut yourself off from by focusing on even the massive amount of Western ‘classical’ or ‘art’ music. There’s a richness of awareness of rhythm and polyphony in many more Easterly-located cultures that just isn’t even remotely close to a Western understanding of music.

    I’d love to hear some of this Uzbek drumming. I’ve heard quite a bit of Bugandan, Taiko, and South African drumming, but not so much of the Middle Eastern and Eurasian types.


    • Jazzman, yes–exactly! I took a few workshops in music from Zimbabwe and the first was actually a drum workshop. We learned the rhythm for a rain dance piece–all three layers (basically a six beat pattern over a four beat one over a three beat one)–the polyrhythms in so much of African drumming is astounding.

      In the middle east, central asia and south asia what we more often find are long rhythmic modes. In the Ottoman Classical music some of the modes can be upwards of 100 beats or more of one long pattern without repeated sections. I once took a workshop with Badal Roy (you might be more familiar with him as Miles Davis’ tabla player) where he demonstrated a 17 beat pattern–later that evening, he proceeded to play that pattern in a tabla solo while improvising in the Indian percussion speak over that–one of the most incredible things I’d ever heard!

      Here’s a great vdeo of Abbs Kosimov playing a doira solo with Tara Pandeya:

      Kosimov is probably regarded as the greatest living doira master alive and you can just follow some of the other video links to other performances by him. I’ll be seeing him in concert this Thursday with a group of Afghani musicians–really excited about this!


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