The Person Behind: Djembe Drum and Dance Workshop

The famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was once quoted as saying “Music is the universal language of mankind”; a sentiment just as powerful and important then as it is now. Music has the ability to bring together communities, to promote understanding, and to encourage togetherness. The Howe Branch of the APL has long recognized the emphatic effect music programs have, most recently evidenced by the creation and continuation of the popular Djembe Drum and Dance Workshop . Taking place over three weekly meetings starting on November the 28th, participants have the opportunity not only to master the basics of playing Djembe drum, but also to learn more about the historical and cultural context that surrounds it.

The Djembe Drum

The Djembe drum originated in West Africa, dating back to the 12th Century. It’s traditionally constructed using a single piece of hardwood which is then topped with animal skin. For it’s size the Djembe is comparatively loud, so in the past it has been used as a way in which to communicate over long distances. The Djembe is used in many different types of celebrations and gatherings – it’s name actually comes from the saying “everyone gather together in peace” in the Bambara language.


The Person Behind the Program 

Here at the APL Foundation we are proud to continue to fund programs created by the imaginative and hard-working staff of the Albany Public Library. The Djembe Drum and Dance Workshop is no exception. At the helm of this workshop is music enthusiast and Howe Librarian Daniel Barker, who was kind enough to tell us more….

Hi Dan! Thanks for talking with us today. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became a librarian?

Sure, I was raised in Altamont and went to college at SUNY Oneonta, graduating in 2004 with a Music Industry degree. I didn’t do much with it! I had a lot of fun but didn’t really use it for anything. Then I moved to Boston until 2012, eventually deciding to return to Albany to complete an Archives and Record Management program at SUNY. This led to me getting hired at APL. My first position was as a temp. library assistant, then a permanent position opened here at Howe. I ended up getting it, and it’s been great ever since!

Why did you choose to become part of this profession?

A weird thing led me to being a librarian actually, I’m really into music and music history – especially as I’ve gotten older. I found out an album by Sonic Youth was entered into the National Recording Registry (a formal collection of albums which are of cultural, historical or aesthetic importance). This led me to wanting to know more about archive management generally, which then led to the Records Management program, which then led to applying for my current job! Being a librarian was not something I ever thought I’d do but I love it so much now. I feel very lucky things worked out the way they did.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Helping someone every day. Last week a middle schooler came in looking to find information on Isaac Newton. I did the best I could but the stuff I found wasn’t her reading level so I had to look harder. After 20 minutes searching I  finally found something really helpful which was great. I’ve been very lucky in life so it’s nice to give back.

The program we’re talking about is Djembe Drumming and Dance Workshop. Can you tell us more about the program?

This is the third time we’re doing the program since I’ve been here, it’s led by a local artist and musician named Jordan Hill. We had a clerk back in 2016 who knew him, and so they decided to run an African Drumming program that summer. The response was very positive and we had requests from the community for another round last spring, so I spoke with Jordan and we extended it to include the dance element. We had an even larger turnout and it was really well-received. We decided to book in another three weeks this November and December, and if this goes well we will hopefully do it again next summer!

What do the classes consist of and what can participants expect?

At the beginning of each class Jordan goes over the history of African drumming, then he will teach some simple drum beats before everyone plays together as a group. You can have literally no experience, and you don’t need to bring anything as it’s all provided. At Howe we try and encourage music in all its forms: at the moment we circulate an electric guitar, two acoustic guitars, and a keyboard, and we’re hoping want to add drums to that too. We also have a snare drum  – if anyone is brave enough to play one in their home at full volume!

Djembe comes from the saying ‘everyone gathers in peace’, do you see music as something that unifies?

Yes for sure. Music unifies people from all different cultures and backgrounds because you get the chance to become a collective. Take the djembe for instance: everyone is in a room with a drum making music together, working towards a common goal. The walls that separate you fall down.

What do you hope people gain from the program?

I guess I hope people get the chance to learn more about where the music they listen to actually comes from.  Most (if not all) current American popular music came from Africa. It’s a different version of something that came from a long time ago; something that was written maybe just to help someone get through the day. Contemporary music has it’s origins firmly rooted in slave songs, which became jazz and blues, which then led to the songs we hear on the radio today. I’m not sure most people (outside of certain cultures) look at music this way, and if they know where what they’re listening to actually comes from.

If you could sum up the program in three words what would they be?

I would say community, rhythm, and dance!

Are you involved in any upcoming programs?

Yes, I have a program planned with Antonia Brown entitled The Pilgrimage of African American Music which will be held in February. She will have a couple of local performers come in and they’re going to discuss the history of African folk music and the effect it has had on modern popular music. There’s going to be both live music and dance, and maybe poetry.

How do you come up with ideas for programs and what inspires you?

I really want serve the local community of South End as much as possible – if a library isn’t serving it’s community then what are we doing you know? So a lot of things I’ve done have been organic after learning what the neighborhood wants. I speak to people, and the longer I’ve been here the more people in the neighborhood I’ve met. I encourage anyone who reads this and thinks they might have an idea for something that would work well at Howe to drop in or email us. We’re always open to any idea someone has.


If learning how to drum on the djemebe sounds like fun to you, be sure to sign up as soon as possible.

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