Rhythm Is a Drummer: Black Guru Brings African Beats to Israel

Black Guru brings its African-inflected beats to the InDnegev Festival this week.

Ben Aylon, the drummer and leader of the band Black Guru, which will appear this weekend at the alternative music InDnegev Festival, sat in the living room of his home in Herzliya one day last week and played the Tyson. It’s a rhythm named for a top Senegalese boxer, who was in turned named after the former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

"In Senegal every boxer has his own rhythm and his own band of drummers," explains Aylon. "When he climbs into the ring his band plays his rhythm, and when his opponent goes in they play his rhythm, and at the end of the fight they play the winner's rhythm. When I was learning drumming in Senegal and would practice the Tyson on the beach in Dakar, people would pass by and start to laugh and make boxing moves. They told me Tyson even saw a clip in which I played his rhythm and he thought it was great," said Aylon.

Black Guru was born five years ago, when Aylon and guitarist Yair Hashachar, a longtime friend, traveled to West Africa. They went to Gambia, but due to a problem with their visas they were deported to the neighboring state of Senegal. They were familiar with the country’s music already, but their stay deepened their love for it, especially the drumming.

"Drums are very dominant throughout Africa, but in Senegal it’s really crazy," Aylon says. "Stronger, faster. It’s hard to explain how strong it is. It’s really crazy music."

After Aylon and Hashachar returned to Israel, they began to incorporate the inspiration from Senegalese music into their playing, and to combine it with jazz. Black Guru plays instrumental music based on wind instruments, and Aylon says the wind players have been told not to play with their usual jazz technique, but rather as if they were "an African singer with throat polyps.” The ensemble has performed at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and with musicians including Alon Oleartchik and saxophonist Yuval Cohen. Black Guru’s first album is called “Offbeat African Music.”

When Aylon uses the word "rhythm," he doesn’t mean it in the accepted Western sense of the word. In African music, rhythm is more than just a basic, repetitive pattern. Rhythm is a work of art in its own right, which develops and branches out and includes a number of complex parts.

Aylon played the Tyson on his African drum set. The stick he uses looks like a branch that was collected in a grove. “It can be orange or grapefruit, but it has to be from a citrus tree," he says, the branches of which are "flexible, strong and durable."

The undisputed master of Senegalese rhythm is Doudou N'Diaye Rose. At 83, he is the main guardian of Senegalese drumming and its greatest innovator. To young musicians like Aylon, who draw their inspiration from African drumming in general and Senegalese drumming in particular, N’Diaye Rose is the supreme authority.

To his delight, the Senegalese rapper and producer Didier Awadi brought about a collaboration between Black Guru and N’Diaye Rose. Awadi invited Black Guru to open up for his own act one night and asked N’Diaye Rose to listen to Aylon. "I was putting my set together and suddenly Rose came in, sat down and said 'play.' My heart dropped into my underwear. I thought I was going to pass out. It was a historic moment for me," Aylon relates.

As he tells it, Aylon played a few rhythms, including the Tyson and Ceebu Jen, which means rice and fish. At the height of his playing he was granted full recognition that he was doing it correctly. N’Diaye Rose stood up, came up to the drums and began playing along with Aylon. "When we stopped he said: ' I want to be part of your album. I will also bring 50 of my children.'" The recordings with N’Diaye Rose will be on the band's upcoming album, which is being mixed now and should be released soon.

The band underwent a change about a year ago, when the wind musicians went abroad to study and Aylon decided he wanted to introduce a vocal component into the repertoire. Soon after he began his search for a suitable female singer he found Daniel Krief, who was still a student at Ramat Hasharon’s Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. They immediately began creating music together, and along the way they also became a couple. Most of the time Krief writes the lyrics and Aylon the music.

"There is something in Israeli culture, and in the Hebrew language, that works great with West African music," Krief says. "You can play with the Hebrew consonants so they match the beat. I don't do it like Meira Asher [an Israeli singer who for years has specialized in African music - B.S.], but I’m improving. I also have African roots. They may be North African, not West [African], but that helps too," she says.

David Bachar