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Generically, in non pitched percussion music you can make a basic distinction between linear and organic playing. Linear means literally playing one single line - however articulated a part may be, and however many different tones can a given instrument generate. All notes are played in sequence, one at the time. In organic playing two or more instruments (or surfaces) in a player’s setup are engaged simultaneously.

The differentiation between linear and organic is not a neat cut, and the degree of predominance of one to the other is often determined by the number of playing surfaces a given instrument has. One extreme is that of playing, say, a single one-headed drum, where the playing will be inevitably linear. Even hypothetical combinations of different sounds within such drum will be by necessity flams, and therefore consecutive; linear.

At the other extreme is an instrument like the drum kit, where the same person plays an array of instruments. Linearity in this case is a specific choice, and not the norm. In between these extremes you can have anything from a couple of congas or a double-headed membranophone like the dhol, to a full set of timbales, with its drums, cowbells, cymbals etcetera. The moment you abandon the limitations of a single playing surface, the possibility of the unison appears, and consequently of organic playing.


Organic playing can be of different sorts:


- The ostinato. An ostinato means simply that you are keeping a fixed repetitive rhythmic cell with one limb, while the other(s) play more articulately, either improvising or executing a written part.


- Playing two or more parts simultaneously (limited only by the number of limbs your species is equIpped with and, in addition, by how many sticks you can hold in each). When done mechanically, and in the presence of short repetitive parts, this doesn’t differ much from the ostinato outlined above, but you can also train yourself to acquire more liberty on one or all parts, and play variations on each as if each was played by a single performer. Longer parts with no repetition are definitely an option here; in such cases the music is generally composed, and read, but in theory there’s no limits to the extent to which you can “split” your brain, and apply this principle to instant composition.


- The fully organic. This means that the different playing surfaces are performing totally complementary parts, each incomplete on its own, resulting in a single musical discourse. A classical example is the Indian tablas, where two very different instruments, one on each hand, are played like a single indivisible unit. An instrument like the drum kit offers the possibility of employing every one of these modes of playing: from the linear (using only one or all available surfaces) to various levels of ostinato, to the fully organic.


A classic ensemble of the Cuban Batá can be used as a clarifying (albeit simplistic) example: where the Okonkolo plays mostly in a linear mode, the Itotele is - in many cases - applying the principle of the ostinato, while the Iyá is playing fully organic most of the times.


The orthodox way of playing congas is mostly linear, with exceptions typically only represented by unisons. Linearity is sometimes broken in the case of one player replicating an ensemble part – this is the result of a two or three-players rhythm (like a batá toque for example, or the abakua rhythms, the makuta or the guaguancó). In such cases the one-man rendition can employ either one or more ostinato parts, or go fully organic, by not getting too hung up about replicating all the parts exactly. In many cases it’s also possible to render such rhythms in a linear way, still preserving the general musical identity of the toque (at the expenses of pedantic accuracy).


When you play a set of three, four, five drums, but even just two, what you have at your disposal is an ensemble of instruments, and linear playing is just one of the options. The ostinato, and generally the idea of independence, are the first steps to break away from linearity. But drawing once again from the example of the drum kit, that is just one possibility, and a more full-blown organic way of playing a set of congas can be pursued. A few examples:

- The underlaying pulse of the palm-tip in the tumbao can persist even when it falls simultaneously to other elements of the part

- It can be played on drums different than the central one, and move around them too.

- Any palm-tip sequence can also be played on more than one drum simultaneously (one hand per drum).

On this note, because the palm-tip motion is so predominant in this method, and because it often expands to all drums and not only on the traditionally allocated central one, I warmly suggest to practice all these studies with the congas raised from the floor.

All the studies centred on the palm-tip ostinato, and specifically the symmetric studies for three congas, can be also executed on the two lateral drums only, where each hand stays on one drum and the ostinato simply moves from one to the other, instead of alternating on the central drum.

Another way is that of keeping the “melodic” part, the variable counterpoint to the ostinato, on the central drum, and alternating instead the ostinato around the lateral drums.

Again, all this is especially effective if all the drums are raised from the floor - which is a setup I advise to use throughout these studies. The melody of the palm-induced bass tones becomes thus a new tonal layer and an additional idiomatic resource, and can stimulate new ideas on the instrument’s musical possibilities.

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