While some instruments in West Africa are specific to a certain group of people or geographical location, other instruments can be more universal to the region as a whole. The krin drum falls into this latter category. Also known as log or slit drums, variations on this type of drum can be found throughout West Africa and across the world. Nevertheless, the krin variant, found in Guinea, Senegal, Mali and the Gambia, plays an important role in ballet and traditional contexts, as we’ll explore by listening in and understanding more.
Like other log drums found throughout the world, the krin is created out of a log or piece of long wood. This log is carved out so it is hollow like a box, with slits created at the top. When wood is struck, the drum produces different tones depending on the thickness of the wood and the size of the slits. Most contemporary krin have three slit openings, creating two tuned keys. Professional krin makers can ‘tune’ these keys, but this requires great skill – one mistake during the hollowing process can cause a krin to sound dead and dull. Like other West African wooden instruments, krin drums tend to improve their sound with age, as the tonal qualities of the wood improves with time. Similarly, the larger the krin is made, the deeper and louder it can be.
Due to the different tonal qualities the instrument produces, alongside the great amount of volume it can produce, the krin played an important part for village life. For communities, the krin would allow long-distance communication when strategically placed along a river or near a valley. Emulating tonal languages, messages could be sent by striking different parts of the drum. Whilst krin are usually played between one’s legs when sitting, they can also be placed on a stand to vastly improve resonance. Because of their bright, piercing timbre and loud volume, the krin was unsurprisingly included in the ballet troupes formed in the 1950s.
An advocate for West African drum performance and teaching in the United States, Michael Markus is the first of our krin performer spotlight. Studying under a host of ballet experts, including drummer M’Bemba Bangoura and dancer Yousouff Koumbassa, Michael’s tools online are pertinent for learning about West African rhythms and drumming. The co-founder and president of Wula Drum, located in New York City and Guinea, Michael has produced a series of educational CDs, DVDs and books for furthering knowledge in this field.
Michael’s short demonstration of the krin highlights the krin as an idophone instrument. An idophone is an instrument that produces sound when the whole of the body vibrates. As well as seeing the krin roll as Michael plays, do note the vibrating buzz sound the krin produces. The sound is very loud and piercing, thanks to its size and being elevated. The larger the body, the deeper the sound produced. This doesn’t mean that lighter tones can’t be produced, as Michael demonstrates by hitting the side of the log.
Most commonly known as one of the world’s most foremost djembefolas, or master djembe players, Bolokanda Conde is an expert of Malinke rhythms and percussion. According to family legend, he was destined for percussion greatness. As the story goes, his mother knew he would take up the musical profession. She could tell from the way he would pound her shoulders when she carried him as a child.
Raised by a musical family in Kissidougou, Guinea, Bolokanda was recruited by the Guinean ballet troupe Les Percussions de Guinée to replace legendary Noumoudy Keita as their lead drummer. To briefly explain, national ballet troupes are country funded music and dance groups, who tour internationally promoting traditional African culture to international audiences. Joining a group would propel one’s career and their expertise on their instrument.
Since 2004, Bolokanda has been performing and teaching in the United States. He is the current lead soloist and musical director of Ballet Warraba in North Carolina, Ballet Wassa-Wassa in Santa Cruz, California and Les Percussion Malinke in the San Francisco Bay Area. A true master percussionist, he was also named as an artist of extraordinary ability by the US Government in 2007.
As Michael Markus mentions in his video, the krin can be found in many different musical settings. Whilst it can be played alone, it is often found with other krin drums, played as part of a group. Here, we get to see Bolokada leading his Ballet Warraba group in a short krin performance in Asheville NC.
To introduce the piece and transition the group between different sections, Bolokada uses rhythmic calls which are prepared to instruct and conduct fellow musicians. These calls are answered in antiphony, in unison by the rest of the ensemble. Following up on this, Bolokada takes a step back and helps the group create a rhythmic groove to propel the piece, before improvising with elaborate improvised motifs and poly-rhythms. Bolokada is a joy to listen to and watch. He is a theatrical performer with a great grin beaming throughout the segment.
Thanks to its accessible size and affordable nature, the krin is growing more and more popular, inside and outside of West Africa. Contemporary ballet groups, including Idrissa Camara’s Ballet Nimba, use the instrument to introduce dance pieces with its loud, powerful calls. Because of its bold volume, the instrument is often played alongside djembe, as well as the famous dundun, sangban and kenkeni trio. The krin is ultimately versatile and dynamic, important both on the stage and as part of local life.
The discussion doesn’t end here! As always, let’s continue the conversation on our forums, where we can discuss any other krin performances you find. Use the artists spotlighted here as a springboard to research other krin musicians. Performers like Ibrahima Kolipe Camara, Thomas Guei and Bobby Alu are only a few clicks away, there’s always more to be discovered!
This article is a part of the ‘Listening In, Understanding More’ series by Ollie McLoughlin. Ollie McLoughlin is an afrobeat musician and world music connoisseur, who has studied academically under Professor Lucy Durán and Dr Amanda Villepastour at SOAS, University of London and Cardiff University respectively.