Master Classes

NOLLER/SYLLA - Behind The Scenes

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 there after 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Mangue originally made a name for himself as a “sangban” player.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 them for NOLLER/SYLLA.

More to come…