Mali, Guinea and Senegal, as heard on the drums

He has played every instrument that came his way. The guitar, the piano, the recorder. The trumpet, in his high school orchestra. Somehow, though, there was never anything percussive. Yet now, he is profoundly involved with the rhythms of Africa.

At Insights, we couldn’t wait a moment longer. We just had to ask him what took him from the trumpet to the drums of Africa… and we could hardly stop our feet from tapping to the beat while we were talking to him!

Meet Zbigniew ‘Zbyszek’ Zieliński, graphic artist.

Chow did your journey into the world of African drumming begin?

In 2014, I came across a drumming group on Facebook, so I wrote them an e-mail saying that if there was one thing my life lacked, it was drumming. And that’s how I joined Akademia Rytmu Folk’n’Roll (Folk'n'Roll, the Rhythm Academy) in Łódź and gradually explored the mysteries of the art of playing African drums. The rhythms we play are West African, the rhythms of Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Contrary to appearances, playing African drums isn’t just drumming. It’s music that accompanies important events in the life of the community… harvests, weddings, funerals, the arrival in the village of an important figure… Every set of rhythms is a specific occasion. In arrangements, they’re the fundamental accompaniment to the solo phrases, like guitar phrases.

Could you give us an example?

We can have two wedding rhythms, one at the beginning, when the women come out and dance flirtatiously. Later, the rhythm changes into something faster. You can’t ruin that with a rhythm that’s intended for a different occasion. In Africa, at events like weddings, the drumming lasts several days. The only thing that changes are the musicians. During our workshops, we play a ‘close-ended’ arrangement composed of phrases typical of a given rhythm. Every arrangement ends in a particular way. If an arrangement has fifteen or so phrases, then it’s a challenge for the group because they’re sometimes really very different, but sometimes only minimally, and you have to remember those subtle differences and the order of the phrases. All that drumming comes together as music which you can even sing to.

The musicians use various kinds of drums, don’t they?

Yes. The basic drum is the djembe. You hold it between your legs and play it with your hands. It looks a bit like a large goblet with hide stretched over the top, most often goatskin. Of course, in Poland you can also get instruments with a synthetic drumhead, or drum skin, which is excellent for vegans!

Another type of drum is the dundun. They’re used to mark out the rhythm. They’re set up on their sides, on stands, with a bell over them. You use one hand to hit the membrane with a stick and, with the other, you use a metal rod or nail to tap the bell. There are three sizes of dundun and they differ in pitch. The largest is the dununba, which is a bass drum. The medium-sized, medium-pitched one is the sangban. The smallest, and highest pitched, is the kenkeni. The kenkeni is like a metronome, It serves to beat out the basic rhythm. You could compare the dununba to the central instrument in a drum kit. And the sangban creates a melody composed of more diverse phrases.

Just as there are different types of drum, so there are different ways of playing them. For example, with the djembe, you strike it at the centre with your whole hand for a bass sound. Hitting the edge with your fingers closed gives you a higher pitch, while the slap, where you strike the edge with widespread fingers, produces the sharpest pitch, the highest.

Tell us something about Akademia Rytmu Folk’n’Roll.

Besides the drumming, Folk’n’Roll is a close-knit microcommunity of people who are friends, who play concerts together and travel together. The most important event of the year is AfroGramy1, which marks the founding of Akademia Rytmu Folk’n’Roll. There are also carnival parties, Christmas events and plenty of spontaneous trips. On one of them, I got into veganism. Well, I’d always considered it unfair that we chop the heads off animals...

Folk’n’Roll holds regular workshops and also runs sessions for companies and workshops for children. We’re often part of major events in the city, things like marathons, parades and so forth. Last year, we went to Warsaw to drum out our support of the Łódź women’s football team in the final of the Polish Cup.

What holds a group together is the personality of the person leading it. Who cements Akademia Rytmu Folk’n’Roll?

 Sylwia Walczak, who founded it. She learned the art of drumming in African villages, where drums are played almost exclusively by men. But the friendly, open communities were quick to accept this untypical musician with an exuberant mane of curly hair.

You really should come to a workshop! Sylwia’s capable of teaching absolutely anyone to play. She explodes with energy. All you need to start with is a sense of rhythm! 

Right now, we’re almost dancing in our seats! With Zbyszek at the visual helm, is it any wonder MakoLab’s visuals rock!

Meanwhile, MakoLabbers are well aware that Zbyszek is always happy to share his knowledge. So, if the idea of a fast-track intro to drumming appeals to you, check out our current job openings without further ado

1 ‘Afrogramy’ is an invented word coined from ‘Afro’ and ‘We play’ - ed.

English translation by Caryl Swift

26th April 2022
5 min. read

Kamila Braszak

Employer Branding Specialist


Read more Insights