Learning music from different cultures


Learning music from different cultures

This post is a synthesis of one of a series of articles I wrote for “Drummer” magazine a few years ago. Originally aimed at (UK) drum kit players, the principles can be applied to all musicians from all cultures. Over the past few years, as I have learnt guitar and song writing, I’ve also found myself in the same situation with melody as with rhythm. However, in my opinion it is the differences in rhythm and how cultures approach them that are the main reasons for studying, playing and learning music from different cultures.


Why did I get interested in learning music from different cultures?

The most logical place to start is with my own experience.  My passion for drums started when I was thirteen years old and for percussion nine years later, in France.  My major inspiration at thirteen was Keith Moon and his incredible energy.  This same sense of energy gripped me when I first heard salsa, Cuban rumba, Moroccan music and playing samba in a full “bateria”.

Many cultures have a different approach to playing rhythm, giving a definite tension to the drive of the music.  As a lover of drums and rhythm I wanted to learn how to capture the energy, drive and emotion I was feeling in this music.


What are the technical aspects involved?

From a technical perspective there are three major elements found in Moroccan, Cuban and Brazilian  rhythms that are useful for drum kit and other instruments.



In this context swing does not refer to jazz swing. It refers to an interpretation of sixteenth notes (semi-quavers) in binary based rhythms and triplets in triplet based rhythms.

Take the example of samba.  The Brazilians don’t play their sixteenth notes “straight” as we do.  They shunt them around in a way that allows them to push their music that gives it extra drive and momentum.  Cuban folklore styles are even more extreme and the line between binary and triplet times is continually blurred. There is an abundance of 6/8 and 12/8 rhythms in Moroccan music and the triplets in these beats are also interpreted with the same results; a chewy, energetic, fluid drive to the music. Learning to swing like this really opens our ears to a new way of playing music and can transform how you play your instruments and your relationship to “time”.



A rhythm made up of several different parts, all playing simultaneously and giving the impression of one rhythm being played.

Sitting down with two or three other percussionists/drummers, piecing together all the independent parts, listening to how they work and having to respect your part in this is very enriching and great fun. Playing like this greatly helped me to hear how rhythms are put together and also changed the way I  listened to the bassists in my groups.  In addition, many cultures use polyrhythm as the basis for their rhythms so once you master this, many new areas of playing open up to you


Rhythmic vocabulary

All the grooves, chops, fills, band breaks, exercises you’ve sweated blood and tears over and all the songs you’ve played on.

For me this is the more instinctive side of playing music that comes out when you are not playing specific parts. My drum kit technique as I knew it suffered greatly when all my practice time went into learning hand percussion techniques.  However, I found my rhythmic vocabulary was greatly increasing, having a very positive influence on my playing.  Surprisingly I also found that this vocabulary was being mutually transferred between my hand percussion and drum kit playing – they were feeding off each other.


What will this do for my playing?

The main benefit of exploring music from different cultures is what it will bring to your own particular style and sound. For me it’s not a question of just copying other cultures. It’s great and even essential to be able to play these styles to a high standard in their traditional setting but there is a reality you have to accept. If you haven’t grown up in those cultures and been immersed in the music since a very young age then you will never play exactly like someone who has. However, what you can do is combine elements of your culture with the knowledge of completely different cultures.  Knowing how this culture’s music works and playing to a high standard will allow you to create a real and balanced fusion.

Most importantly, you will develop a rich, varied and unique rhythmic vocabulary and sound.


Your own sound and style

Click here and go to the bottom of the page to listen to I hope to be my unique vocabulary and sound!

This uniqueness will give you an edge musically, creatively and professionally as well as a wide cultural and musical knowledge base.

When it’s time to be creative, especially in your own projects where there are no cultural or professional restraints, all these influences will be subtly playing their role in your music. Hence the importance of writing and playing your own music, whatever form that takes.

Click here to listen to the Chaka Chouka album I wrote and recorded with Haji Mike, Mouna Eddrou and Bernard O’neill for an example of this. All of us, to varying degrees, have gone through the above process and the music on the album reflects this.


Chaka Chouka: “Sharka”


As well as the above, other musicians well worth checking out include the guitarist Justin Adams, singer Natacha Atlas and many more……