The Djembe Was My Ticket In

How playing the djembe got me a drumming gig.

Growing up in Nashville definitely was a unique experience. Yes, I had many opportunities, even as a kid, that were “only in Nashville” experiences… Getting to sit in with legendary musicians who happen to be related to my friends… Going to clubs to hear live music even when I was only 16… Watching my friends on TV at the Grammy Awards… It was a cool and very strange youth that I got to live.

But growing up in Music City also presented unique challenges. For example… When I was 14, I decided that I wanted to be in the Worship Band for the high school gathering at my church. One Wednesday night, they put out the call for any musicians who wanted to get involved. After the service I, and about 20 other kids, waited in line to have the worship leader put our name on a list of musicians who were interested in trying out for the band.

I was REALLY pumped to get started, until I heard the worship leader talking to a kid in line in front of me. I heard the leader say “We already have too many drummers on the team, so we aren’t going to be doing any tryouts for drummers.”

Now in this moment I could’ve been crushed… Talk about an “only in Nashville” experience. My high school worship band has TOO MANY good drummers. But I didn’t grow up being taught to cut my losses and run when presented with a challenge. So I started working on a plan, and I worked on it fast…

I always believed in telling myself the right things in order to keep my motivation up, and my dreams big. In this situation I could’ve said “Well, I guess being a drummer at church just isn’t in the cards for me.” But did I say that to myself? NO!!!

I said to myself “How can I still make this happen?”. And here’s what I said to the worship leader:

“Hey Russell (the worship leader’s name), I know you’ve already got a bunch of great drummers. I’m a drummer too, but that’s not all I can play. I also play this instrument called a djembe, and it’s a super-cool percussion instrument that would fit right in with what you’re doing with the worship band.”

Keep in mind this was in the late 90’s and the djembe was about to become every bit as popular with worship bands as the cajon is today.

Russell replied “Great, bring it to practice next week…”

I was IN! Success! There was just one TIIIIINY problem… I had never played or even touched a djembe in my life… This is a 100% true story. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

So what did I do?

So when I told Russell that I played a djembe and he said “Great! Bring it to practice next week,” my emotion was just pure excitement. I had gone from nervous expectation, to crushing defeat (when I heard him say they didn’t need any drummers), to pure will-power and determination, back to excitement- all in the span of about 4 minutes.

So now, I found myself in a situation where I was 14 years old. I had just told a guy that I knew how to play an instrument I had never touched in my life, and he wanted me to bring that instrument with me to a practice in just one week. How was I going to make this work?

Well, I did what any enterprising 14 year old would do… I told my parents.

I told them the whole story of what had happened, how I saw the opportunity and wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. How this was my only shot to get into the church worship band. They listened closely, seemed empathetic and; that was that…

I spent the whole next day at school trying to console myself that while my determination was admirable, determination alone wasn’t going to make a djembe fall out of the sky and into my lap. And so I needed to start trying to get my emotions wrapped around the fact that this worship-band thing wasn’t going to happen… But it true Hadaway fashion (it’s genetic; trust me), I just couldn’t let go that easily.

And it turns out I didn’t have to.

That afternoon when I got home from school I walked upstairs to my bedroom to put away my backpack, and saw a blue duffel bag sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor. I opened it up and, sure enough, inside that bag was a brand-new djembe! My parents had gone to the music store while I was at school and somehow found a djembe and bought it for me!

I spent every waking moment of the next week learning the ins and outs of a djembe. This was WAY before YouTube was around, so I was kind of on my own.. But that also meant that no one else knew how to play a djembe either!

So the next week when I showed up to band practice with a djembe, no one else knew how to play a djembe either- so they’d have no way of knowing whether I was playing it “wrong” or “right”.

My playing blended in with the other drummers just fine, and it wasn’t two weeks before they asked me to play djembe (without a drummer) along with a few leaders in the middle school service. A week or so after that, due to a last minute sickness by another drummer, I got the chance to play drum set for the youth worship band. And once they heard me play the “real” drums, I was IN!

In fact I’m not sure they ever asked me to play djembe again- it was ALL drum set from this point forward!

So I had managed to turn what looked like a certain disappointment into my exact goal, in just a few weeks! But here’s the thing:

I would have been perfectly happy to just keep playing djembe for as long as it took- even if I NEVER got the chance to play the full drum kit.

Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the fact that we AREN’T at our goal yet. And we really just need to be satisfied that we are actively pursuing our goal- and everything else is out of our control!

What more can you do than give everything to your craft and your goal? Our job as drummers and artists is to hone our craft and skill as much as we can- NOT put ourselves on the hook for a specific OUTCOME or level of “success”.

If we can ever get past our desire to “make something of ourselves” as drummers, we might actually wake up one day to find that we already have!

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