“Go to a tribal groove on verse two.”

Have you heard a similar request during a rehearsal? Modern worship recordings with tribal grooves are about as common as sauerkraut on a Reuben sandwich. A tribal groove can also be referred to as “toms groove” or “ethnic feel.” When the tribal directive is given, you can be certain that the drum set player is going to lay down a “toms-centric” pattern featuring a generic blend of eighths and sixteenths with a few scattered accents. It will bear little resemblance to any culturally specific tribal rhythms on this planet. What are you, the percussionist, going to play?

When a toms-dense groove is thumping from the drum set, I seldom feel the desire to attach more membranophones to the mix. Instead of tossing additional drums onto the groove, I prefer applying timbres and rhythms that offer a “complementary contrast.” With the drum set covering a bustling pattern of mid-range and low frequencies, I often experiment with contributing a gentle “ethnic flavoring” of upper frequencies. Read on for a quick primer on a few of my favorite instruments for the generic tribal feel along with some advice on rhythmic choices.

Shake one in each hand or rattle a cluster with one paw; maracas can be played with a variety of techniques. (Go online and check out the Venezuelan Joropa method—and brace yourself.) For the tribal groove, l reach for maracas with larger beads for a “coarse” tone quality. You can find my three short tutorials for maracas at www.youtube.com/marksheltonmusic.

The shekere has the look of a medium-difficulty macrame project. A string network with interwoven beads and/or shells wraps loosely around a gourd to create a customary shekere. Modern versions often substitute a “synthetic gourd” instead of the fragile fruit. Learn a couple of methods for playing the shekere below.

Does anything say “tribal groove percussion” more than a goat hooves rattle? A traditional instrument of Andean folk music, the chajchas are made by sewing the hooves to a cloth band. Instead of wearing the bracelet while playing, I simply tape a couple of chajchas bands together so that I can hold the bunch in my hand and shake.

The body of the caxixi (pronounced ka-she-she) consists of a cone-shaped woven basket attached to a “floor” made from a circular piece of gourd, metal, or plastic. A crisp attack and short sustain makes the caxixi a nice alternative to a cylindrical shaker. Grab a few caxixi techniques in the video below.

A cluster of dried pods can pack a powerful percussive punch. The Togo seed rattle delivers a wooden clatter that can stand out in a mix and enhance a tribal groove.

The sleigh bells need not be confined to the last month of the year. You might raise a few eyebrows when this instrument makes an appearance in July, but the bright timbre can deliver a ringing “ethno-rock” vibe to the mix from January through November. The tone combines aspects of both tambourine and shaker that can bring a sonic sheen to contemporary worship songs. Watch the short video tutorial below.

Besides the suggestions mentioned above, there are a plethora of other percussion sounds that will provide a contrasting timbre to a toms groove. Combining tone colors should not be overlooked as an option. Mix Togo seed rattles with sleigh bells. Blend the sounds of tambourine and caxixi. Experiment!

When it comes to my rhythmic choices in a tribal groove for a modern worship song, I go for simple. Since the drum set player is going to carry most of the rhythmic activity and syncopation, I want my contribution to add some “ethno-spice” without cluttering the groove. While steady streams of eighths or sixteenths might work well, I often drop only a single note on every downbeat or merely place a solitary sound in the measure.

(The art lies in locating the just-right spot.)

The tribal groove is coming up. Probably this weekend. Give the “color without clutter” method a chance. Simple can be tasty.

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