I'm playing djembe for 4 years, and now trying to play dun-duns. Basically, it's two sticks and two drums or a bell+drum for now.

I'm trying to learn some rhythm in which the bell on the left hand and the stick/drum on the right don't match in some parts. I wonder how you feel it inside? Is it two different rhythms just sounding at the same time? Or is it one single mixed rhythm?

For the previous rhythm I was only able to play it when I "merged" two hands into one pattern in my head, but it feels a bit wrong, especially that the left hand basically was just doing the "metronome" hits.

For example,

1   2   3   4   
. .. .. . . . .   [bell hits, left hand]
S     S S D D S   [sangban / dundun hits, right hand]

If you imagine yourself playing this, what would be the "feeling" of this rhythm?

Or this

(like son-clave with metronome on the left hand)
1   2   3   4   
.   .   .   .   [bell hits, left hand]
S  S  S   D D   [sangban / dundun hits, right hand]
  • Are you learning from anyone? I feel like my advice isn't the most important here; I'm trained in Western classical contexts, and you're asking about the polyrhythms common to many West African contexts. These skills have been transmitted millions of times before now, and I'm sure they have their own methods and mnemonics. I can't say for sure whether the approach is to "merge" two rhythms into one, or to simply "rub your stomach and pat your head" by holding both in your mind simultaneously. Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 20:13

3 Answers 3


Actually when you play dundun, you play 2 (or more) instruments. The drum and the bell. Each instrument have their own rhythm, but in the end, when they reach your ear, they are already mixed into one polyrhythm.

So the short answer is: both approaches are correct if you can only deliver the final effect. If you think you cannot then you need more practice to grow the muscle memory. It will help your hands keep playing what they know well while you focus/do/think of something else - be it drums or not.

Polyrhythms and polymeters

West African music is full of polyrhythms and polymeters. In the traditional dundun style, the combined melody of dundunba, sangban and kenkeni (and bells) is usually a polyrhythm - notes (or whole phrases) are more likely to alternate than overlap. You won't hear any polymeters, triplets or even notes shorter than 8ths in the dundun part. These techniques are very popular with djembe or other solo drums though. Some dundunfolas use them when playing a dundun set.

Dundun practice

Let me share a few techniques I use to improve my feeling, memorize patterns and fight the constant feeling of being lost in this crazy music that I can't stop falling in love with.

Feel the beat

Memorize melodies in reference to the beat. Always. This means pretty much what you described as playing the metronome hits with one hand and the actual melody with the other. Or you can just sign your melody, vocalize it, and clap the beat with your hands. Dancing to it can help too. Once you can sing it, it means your brain has learned and now it can teach your hands. Otherwise you can end up learning the wrong melody without even realizing (until you come to play with other people).

Learn the bell

Many rhythms share the same bell pattern. Others can sound quite similar, but it's important to know the difference so you won't get lost in time. When you learn a few key patterns then you can... that will be said later. The pattern you've mentioned x-xx-xx-x-x-x-x- is one of those popular and good to know. It hides a little challenge in hearing the second beat in the pause between the double stokes. Others worth mentioning are:

  • x-x-xx-x-x-x you can learn in both 6/8 and 4/4 feelings
  • -xx-xx-xx-xx worth spending a lifetime, dunumba style (6/8)
  • xx-xx-xx-xx- e.g. soko sangban (6/8)
  • x-xx-xx-xx-x e.g. soko dundunba, soli (6/8)

Bell rules

  • drum stroke is always supported with the bell stroke
  • all pauses are single 8th notes
  • avoid triple strokes

So you play only 8ths: either a single note stroke, a double stroke and there is an 8th note pause between each stroke.

F...orget the rules

And learn the triple stroke x-xxx-xxx-xxx-xx pattern too. It may be quite challenging at higher tempos.

Forget the bell

You can also take a more relaxed approach and let the bell follow your melody naturally, filling in the gaps to match your drum strokes. This is much more effective when you already know some patterns, otherwise you may end up playing metronome (there's nothing wrong with that, but you may find it hard to come up with another pattern quickly unless you've memorized some).

Independent hands

As you have already realised, playing just one mixed melody is much more viable, but it comes at a cost. When you make a mistake it will probably knock out your both hands. Also it feels somewhat harder to improvise/variate when you operate on the combined melody.

Finally I don't think it is possible to develop fully independent hands (excluding those playing 40h/day), but I can assure you constant practice (and only this) is the key to improvement. At some point your muscles will learn how to play patterns without the constant supervisory of your conscious mind. You will be able to remind yourself (the more you practice the more quickly) and then play a sequence of bell-drum patterns just by thinking about the first few notes. Think of typing on your phone with text suggestions on. This is your language. Patterns are the vocabulary.



When the 2 rhythms are too complex for you to be heard independently while playing, mentally merging the two is a good tool to learn a polyrhythm. It would be a very different feeling for you to play it and to listen to it from another player.

Once you manage to play it (by merging the 2), you can practice to gently focus your attention on one of your hand while keeping playing both hands, and then doing so with the focus on your other hand. After some practice (it can takes time), you will be able to hear the two parts independently, and you will feel more freedom in your listening and playing.

Your first example,

In your first example, all the sangban/dundun hits (right hand) are also played by the bell (left hand), so it is not necessary to mentally think the two independently. You can just consider the sangban/dundun hits as stress on some of the bell line., and the bell as a clave.


I think the term you're looking for is composite rhythm.

It is the single rhythm that results when you combine, or overlap, two separate rhythm which are performed at the same time.

In this example...

enter image description here

...there are two rhythms, one in the treble clef and the second in the bass clef. The third clef, the bottom one, shows the composite rhythm.

Note that while the treble and bass clefs are actually performed the bottom composite clef is not actually played. The composite clef only shows that when the two rhythms are combined it is almost entirely stead eighth notes except for the two sixteenth notes at the end of the passage.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.