We're three music students, in the middle of Bend, in the middle of Oregon, but our rhythm's planted firmly in West Africa.
To be more precise, we're inside instructor David Visiko's home studio, part of which is filled with exotic-looking drums. The three students, Linda Balsiger, Judy McAlpin and I, sit in a neat row banging away on the djembes, the skin-covered goblet-shaped drums you sort of tip forward, keep steady with your knees and strike repeatedly with your hands.
Welcome to West African Drumming: Level 1.
West Africa? We're not even in West Bend. "I love the rhythm," Balsiger says. "I love being part of a rhythm with other people. It's just an indescribable high that I get from that." She's speaking of the feeling that musicians—pros and amateurs alike—know well, that sense of being in the groove.
"It's a visceral feeling that you become part of the rhythm," McAlpin adds. "You almost live the rhythm. And then along with that is the community..." She stops and motions toward Visiko. "And he's a great teacher! You want to come and learn from a master—learn the history of it because then you're also immersed in the culture."
This is a musical form that goes back centuries. I ask Visiko, who's been teaching in Bend for over 10 years, if anyone can learn. "I think so," he says, noting he had zero musical experience starting out. "My teacher mentions me in class and says, 'If this guy can do it, anyone can do it.' I didn't have a sense of timing or rhythm (at the beginning.) I was tone deaf."
He's not anymore. Visiko never had a grand plan for drumming, but as he watched a performance in Eugene one day, he noticed how the rhythms, drummers and dancers all blended together. "I enjoyed seeing the synergy that developed and how the energy connected with the audience, and how there was a crescendo that erupted from both the crowd and the drumming and the dancing.
"I thought, 'I want to be a part of that.'"
Now he's teaching both beginner and advanced classes out of his home. The Level 1 class takes place on Monday nights, with the more advanced classes happening on Thursdays. I sat in on the beginner class and started playing very basic rhythms almost immediately.
Playing at higher skill levels, like anything, takes practice. Basically, there are three ways to strike the djembe—the "tone," the "slap" and the "bass." Each requires you to make a subtle change as to where and how your fingers and palms hit the drum. But each one creates a different sound. You can play simple rhythms quickly. Just in the one hour I played along, there were several times I felt so drawn into the beat that I truly wasn't thinking about anything else.
So, is it possible that in addition to the music, you can also get a sprinkling of what so many call "mindfulness"? "One of my students said it best when they shared that they're the most present while in the class," says Visiko. "They didn't think about anything in the past. Nothing about the future. They're just in the moment."
McAlpin agrees. "If you're stressed and you're worried about a problem, you go in and play on the drum for a while; everything seems to center and you go on with life. It just helps in so many ways."
Catch Visiko and his advanced drum troupe doing a pair of sets during a First Friday fundraiser at Bend's Broken Top Bottle Shop on Friday, April 7.
West African Drumming: Level 1
63198 NE de Havilland St.
Mondays 5:30 – 6:30pm
$15 (Drop in) w/packages available
Look for the Calendar Tap feature the first issue of each month, in which a Source writer closes their eyes and taps one of the events in our listings, then tries it out.