Behind The Scenes

NOLLER/SYLLA - Master Classes

I first met Mangue Sylla on a gig in the summer of 2006. I was playing dundun (West African bass drums) and Mangue was on djembe. I knew nothing about West African music at this time, with the exception of a few basic rhythms, and what I heard him play completely blew my mind. Shortly thereafter I started studying with Mangue and absorbing as much of his knowledge of traditional West African music as possible. We’ve been working together in a variety of settings ever since.

As I learned more about these traditional rhythms, I began exploring ways to adapt them for the drum set. This exploration eventually led me to compose the music that I recorded on my first album Music Notes, with Mangue as a featured guest. Inspired by that collaboration, Mangue and I started working on the music for NOLLER/SYLLA in 2013.

The arrangements we recorded are based on recordings of traditional drumming ensembles in Guinea. With the exception of “Matadi”, which was adapted from a recording by djembe legend Famoudou Konaté, the original recordings can be heard on Mangue’s album Kon Koura. The following master class videos offer some insight into the original recordings and how Mangue and I adapted them for NOLLER/SYLLA.



According to Mangue Kani is a love song, which is fitting for this beautiful melody. This was one of the first arrangements I did for NOLLER/SYLLA. I was drawn to the syncopated dundun rhythm, and the unique way the melody is phrased over it. Check out Mangue’s original recording, and see if you can find beat 1! I must confess that when I originally transcribed this to work on the arrangement, I wrote everything an 8th note off from where the beat actually was… Mangue had a laugh at my expense when he saw me tapping my foot in the wrong place.

In this first of my series of NOLLER/SYLLA Master Class videos, you’ll learn about the central dundun rhythm of Kani and how I adapted it for drum set and this arrangement.


Mangue originally made a name for himself as a “sangban” player. The sangban is the middle of the three bass drums that form the foundation of the traditional drumming music in Guinea. (If you want to learn more, check out this great video of Mangue demonstrating these drums with our friends at Wula Drum.) In many rhythms, the sangban plays a key roll in communicating with the dancers as well as the djembe soloist. To see Mangue perform in that setting on sangban is truly inspiring!

When Mangue and I started this project, I wanted to find a way to bring this instrument into the group. A couple of years prior, Mangue had turned me on to a recording by one of his musical heroes from Guinea - Famoudou Konaté. Famoudou’s arrangement of Matadi proved to be the perfect vehicle for this. On its own, the sangban part is hard to follow… a relatively simple rhythm, but a long phrase with no clear downbeat. When you put it together with all of the parts, it forms a beautiful melody between the bass drums. In this Master Class video I take a look behind the scenes of how these rhythms fit together, and how we adapted Matadi for NOLLER/SYLLA.

Fan Kelen

Fan Kelen is an original composition of Mangue’s. The rhythm he composed is a variation on a family of rhythms known as “Dununba.” Originally from the Malinke ethnic group in West Africa, these 12/8 rhythms feature long phrases with complex interaction between the dundun and sangban. The dance that this drumming accompanies is known as “the dance of the strong men”, and features forceful movements that show off the dancer’s prowess. The accompanying rhythms and djembe solo language follow suit!

Mangue’s original recording of Fan Kelen features only percussion and no melodic instruments. The focus here is the interplay between the dundun and sangban, with the djembe soloist phrasing around the bass rhythm. For the NOLLER/SYLLA arrangement, I wanted to give myself a challenge… to play all 3 bass drum parts (dundun, sangban, and kenkeni) at once on the drum set. My orchestration of these parts was inspired by some ostinato rhythms that the great John Riley showed me when I was a student of his. Check out how I put this all together for the intro, and how we expanded it to the rest of the ensemble later in the tune.


This is another one of my favorite tracks from Mangue’s record Kon Koura. Compared to the previous songs discussed in this series of NOLLER/SYLLA Master Class videos, Djagba has a relatively simple groove. The dundun, sangban, and kenkeni form a 2-bar rhythm that really dances!

Things get interesting when you check out the phrasing of the melody. On Mangue’s original recording of Djagba, the lead vocalist phrases the melody a couple of different ways. The first time through each section is extended to an even number of bars to fit the dundun rhythm. However, when the vocal melody comes back in after the djembe solo a bar is cut from the end of each melodic phrase. This creates 3 and 5-bar melody phrases that shift against the 2-bar dundun pattern. In the NOLLER/SYLLA arrangement, we stuck with the odd-phrased melody and phrased the harmony to go along with it. Watch the Master Class video for transcriptions of the original rhythm and my arrangement, along with visualizations of this unique phrasing.


For the final NOLLER/SYLLA Master Class video, I take a look behind the scenes of the closing EP track Mendiani. This is one of my favorite West African rhythms, and presents a wealth of rhythmic interaction to explore. This 12/8 rhythm stands out for it’s unique djembe accompaniment that is clearly phrased in 3 against the 4 beat pulse laid out by the other parts.

I first learned Mendiani years ago in a traditional drumming class that Mangue was teaching. I was playing the dundun part, which never plays on the downbeat and by itself can be quite confusing. When you add the djembe part in 3 on top of that… well, I was lost! The NOLLER/SYLLA arrangement is all about exploring this 3 vs 4 relationship. In the Master Class video, I offer a look into Mangue’s original recording, and the different ways I adapted it for the band. I also break down the drum introduction where I play the djembe part phrased in 3, the kenkeni part, and the dundun part all at once on the drum set. Check out the video to learn more!