I’m a versatile session musician, specializing in the music of West Africa. I play Fula flute, djembé, ngoni, balafon, and more. I spent two decades traveling/living in West Africa to study with the masters. I also have a decade of experience in Logic Pro, and a selection of beautiful microphones and plugins to go with it.
I’m a professional musician with twenty years of experience performing, recording, and teaching. I specialize in the music of West Africa, and spent two decades traveling to West Africa to study with master musicians. For more than a decade (and counting), I apprenticed with a master of the Fulani flute tradition named Lancine Condé. Through him, I’ve become become proficient in both playing and making these unique African woodwinds.
Between 2001 and 2012, I studied extensively with master djembefola Famoudou Konaté in Conakry, Guinea, and with numerous other musicians from the region. I developed strong skills on the djembé (hand drum) and dununs (bass drums played with a stick) and became proficient in the musical repertoire of the Malinké people.
During my cumulative three years living in West Africa, I also learned to play the kamale ngoni, a ten-stringed lute-harp that originated in Mali, and the balafon, a wooden xylophone with calabash resonators. For more than a decade, I’ve performed and recorded with these instruments, adding their dynamic sounds to numerous compositions and musical collaborations.
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Interview with Dave Kobrenski
Q: Tell us about your studio setup.
A: My studio consists of an acoustically-treated room that allows me to get a super clean sound with no harsh overtones or unwanted ambience. I use Logic Pro X, and I have a variety of mics that I've chosen through years of experimenting, that I use on specific instruments. For example, the Fula flute sounds great with a large diaphragm condenser, and I love using the Slate VMS-1 with an incredible emulation of the fabled Telefunken ELA M 251 mic. Occasionally, for a more "vintage" sound, I'll use a ribbon mic like the MXL R144. For the ngoni, which has two vertical rows of nylon strings (six on a side for a total of 12 strings), it makes sense to do a mid-side recording technique, so I use a directional small-diaphragm condenser as the "mid" mic, and an AKG P420 in figure-eight mode as the "side" mic, and blend them together using a midside plugin. The result is this amazing, true stereo picture of the instrument that sounds really beautiful.
Q: Analog or digital and why?
A: Well, these days of course everything is digital, but I have an old school background. My first recording studio setup, back in 1989, consisted of a Fostex eight track tape recorder, and there was something special about the saturation that comes from tape. But nowadays, we can get the best of both worlds: we can record digitally, and then apply just the right amount of tape saturation, for example, or play a track (or whole mix!) through an emulation of some of the world’s most famous analog mixing consoles to give it that vintage analog feel. I’ve got a whole slew of some of the best analog effects and processors, which can really help bring a track or mix to life with vintage warmth and character.
Q: Describe the most common type of work you do for your clients.
A: Clients come to me for the unique sounds I can offer them, whether it’s the expressiveness of the Fula flute, or the unique harp-like quality of the ngoni (a 12-string African harp from Mali), or the sound of the djembé, from someone who’s actually spent two decades traveling to Africa to study it. Often, someone needs a distinctly “African” sound for their project, and I’m able to deliver.
Q: What's your strongest skill?
A: Improvisation and composition. Ok, that’s two, ha ha.
Q: What do you bring to a song?
A: Diversity and versatility. I’m a multi-instrumentalist with a unique background, and definitely not a “one trick pony!” I’ve worked in genres as diverse as jazz and classical, to Afrobeat and funk, and beyond, and feel comfortable in all of them. Improvisation is like breathing to me. My best ideas come from improv. But I can also craft a killer hook and arrange an entire score.
Q: What was your career path? How long have you been doing this?
A: I first went to West Africa in 2001 to study the djembé with world-renowned percussionist Famoudou Konaté, and returned every year for a decade to continue my studies with him. While I was there, I met a Fula flute player named Lanciné Condé, and began what would turn out to be a 15-year long apprenticeship that continues to this day!
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: In a word, Expressive. The Fula flute is just so unique in the world of woodwinds, because the player often sings into the flute to coerce and added layer of texture and timbre. You just have to hear it to know just how powerful the addition of the human voice along with the wind through flute becomes.