Jamming with Djembes

Warren Lieberman’s philosophy is that anyone can make music, and he’s drumming it into our heads, writes Trish Beaver.

There is something primeval about the simple beat of a drum. Perhaps it is reminiscent of the first time our hearts began to beat in our chests as we started to evolve from shadows into living creatures within our mothers’ wombs.

Doof doof … doof doof.

Beating drums has been symbolic of tribal rituals in Africa and festivals in other parts of the world and now the Drum Café’s founder member Warren Lieberman is beating his own drum – and the rhythm is one of unity. Building on the Drum Café’s success as a musical venue and its formidable reputation as a corporate teambuilder, the show Drumstruck is due to begin its second run, this time at the Market Theatre in Newtown from January 26.A hit cast and brilliant direction will undoubtedly make it a winner once again and the venue is the perfect for the musical vibe. The concept is simple yet ingenious: the audience is invited to participate in the magical beat of the show and instead of merely observing the power of the music, they will contribute by beating on their djembe drums and will leave the show energized and inspired. Lieberman took time out of rehearsals to tell me where it all began.

He looks like a regular hippie dude, common among the music fraternity: he’s wearing faded jeans and a goatee beard and an invisible cloak of positivity.It’s this positive attitude that has transformed his life from being an engineer selling hardware in Greensid into a modest musical maestro. Ironically, money is not what matters – for Lieberman, living the dream is what it’s about. He is working with a collection of talented individuals who seem truly glad to be involved in this passion. The Drum Café concept has become a worldwide phenomenon, and with Lieberman’s creative driving energy behind it, it is sure to travel beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He is a visionary and his visions are many.

Ironically, Lieberman is not a trained musician; he just loved the beat of the djembe drum and begged his friend and partner, Brett Schlesinger, who was a musician, to teach him how to play.In 1997 he, Schlesinger and another pal began “jamming with their djembes” and  their infectious enthusiasm turned their Tueasday jamming sessions into popular social events. Lieberman was finding it hard to cope with the catering demands when figures reached 150 people at a time in his small lounge.The idea was born to create a venue for drumming and eating, and the first Drum Café was established in Greenside in Johannesburg. The concept was enthusiastically received by the public and the partners decided to open a second branch in Cape Town.

An offshoot of the venues was to start coporate teambuilding because teaching people how to drum and make music was such a unifying experience.Corporate managers and humble staff assistants were able to relate to each other through the rhythm of music.Lieberman has become a gifted djembe player, studying with a master drummer, but he discovered his gift was facilitating people to play and to market the concept.Using only body language, he can get a group of between 10 and people to make music with the djembe drums.

He said: “People have a rhythm inside them and the can play a drum, even if the only drum they have ever played was a tin drum as a child.“Back when we were hosting those jamming sessions in my lounge, sometimes it was just a bloody noise. Brett and I learned that the secret was to develop an ear for basic rhythms and then to know how to interweave them.”The basic African drum is a simple instrument but it has an extraordinary power; it exudes a deep, powerful noise that vibrates and makes people feel good. Lieberman would like to expose people to more southern African musical instruments and the talents we have.

His ambitions did not stop at the local level: he has franchised the Drum Café concept to other parts of the world. There are Drum Cafes in London, New York, Sydney Vancouver and other cities. But his most recent project is to form a permanent African musical instrumental orchestra. He is currently involved in researching traditional African musical instruments for their preservation in history and for use in an all-African orchestra. He is hoping to publish a book about the history of traditional African music in pre-colonial times. Lieberman is passionate about developing South Africa’s potential and showcasing the country’s musical talents to the world, and has set up the African Music Agents to promote and nurture local talent. Many of his best drummers have been trained and gone on to become facilitators on the corporate side and some have become partners in the business. Master drummer Munkie Ncapayi has recently moved to Vancouver to start the franchise there.

The Drum Café has played to may top corporate players and many world leaders, including George W Bush and Nelson Mandela but he message behind the beat of Lieberman’s proverbial drum is that anyone can make music –you just have to work together.