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The History of Djembe Drumming in America: Part 2

Djembe Drums

Djembe Drums

 It is said that the Djembe was introduced in New York by Guinean Master Drummer Ladji Camara, . We did not meet Papa Camara however, we were told by numerous drumming elders  that Papa Camara carried the traditions of Guinea West Africa and began a Sankofa ( a return to recover what was left) of African music and dance in the black artistic communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Papa Camara was a deliberate drummer and teacher and developed a strong contingent of drummers along the Eastern Seaboard.  It was our loss that he passed away a few years ago without having met him.  However, his students credit him with initiating the spread of the knowledge of the Djembe from the East to the Western Coast as many of these First Wave drummers migrated from the New York area.

Many Americans were introduced to the djembe by Mor Thiam, (pronounced Cham)a Senegalese born Master Drummer of Dogon descent, during his performing and teaching career with the noted historian, cultural anthropologist  and choreographer, Katherine Dunham.  Katherine Dunham was famous for her introducing Haitian and other Caribbean dance and drumming cultures to American and European audiences in the 1950’s.   In 1965 President Johnson nominated Dunham to be the cultural Ambassador to Senegal, West Africa, to help train the Senegalese National Ballet, and assist then President Leopold Senghor in sponsoring the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar from 1965-66.(1)  Ms Dunham met Thiam during her journeys to Senegal. She convinced Thiam to move to America and to bring with him his extensive knowledge of Wolof and Bambara culture.   Mor Thiam, whose surname means historian in the Bambara language, worked with Katherine Dunham between the years of 1968 and 1974.  Professionals and students under Dunham’s tutelage were able to assimilate Thiam’s knowledge of West African drum and dance with their already extensive knowledge of African based Haitian and  Caribbean music and dance.  By traveling and performing with the Dunham Company Thiam was able to spread the knowledge of the djembe in numerous institutions throughout America.  In this manner Thiam is credited with beginning the true djembe movement.

We call the Mor Thiam era the Second Wave of Djembe drumming in America.  Understand that this designation of eras refers to the range of influence and does not necessarily refer to linear years.  Many Senegalese from the National Ballet of Senegal were able to come to the United States as a result of the national political influence of Katherine Dunham. During this era, many Americans, especially African Americans, sought out these master artists from Senegal due to their exposure to performances and  workshops facilitated by Dunham and Thiam.   These Senegalese masters taught both Djembe and Sabar; the traditional drum and dance style of the Wolof people of Senegal.  The most prominent of these Senegalese Masters appeared almost 20 years after the initial influences of Thiam and include Abdulaiye Diakete, Marie Bass, Malik Sow,Malong Bayo and other members of the National Ballet of Senegal.   Master Drummer & Dancer, Abdulaiye Diakete facilitated numerous drum and dance intensives in California during the early 1990’s.  He incorporated the talents of numerous master artists from various West African cultures to create a multi-dimensional and multi-cultural series of African cultural intensives.  Included amongst these are many drummers and dancers from what is now known as Guinea including Youssouf Kambassa, Moussa Diabete, Karamba Dambakete, Mbemba Bangora and others.  

While Americans lavished in instruction of the the Senegalese A power rose in Guinea by the name of Mamady Keita.  Mamady is considered the greatest drummer who ever lived.  Mamady, “Nankama, whose names means, “Mamady, who-was- born- for- that”, is of the Wosolou people and is a master of Wassolou and Mandeng music and culture.  It is said Mamady Keita began drumming before he could crawl.  At the age of 15, he was selected as the soloist for the National Ballet of Guinea and toured with the company for over 15 years. In Guinae, “Mamady was the first percussionist to organize a drum and dance workshop in collaboration with the Republic of Guinea’s Secretary of Arts & Culture; his first camp in 1990 was officially recognized as an international cultural exchange and 35 European students were hosted by the Secretary of Arts & Culture in Conakry for an intensive 4-week drum and dance camp. Mamady has continued to bring students to Guinea each year since. (2)   Mamady facilitates intensive drum camps in the United States and Europe as well. His gentle and charismatic personality is a prominent facet of his popularity. He one of the few Africn Artists who has achieved international fame and recognition.

Sabar Group de Saint Louis

Sabar Group de Saint Louis

We call the spread of the influence of the drummers from Guinea The Third Wave of djembe drumming Influence.   Here we must diverge to explain the importance of language and culture with respect to drumming.  Senegal is primarily inhabited by the Wolof people and their traditional drum and dance is Sabar, a cylindrical drum played with the hand and a stick. The dance style can be described as tall with a lot of movements which display and emphasis the genital area.  The language spoken and played on the drum is Wolof.  The Djembe is indigenous to the  various tribes that composed the Old Mali empire in the countries we now call Mali, Guinea, parts of Ghana and the Ivory coast.  These include the Bambara, Baga, Dogon and numerous other cultures.    The Djembe was carried to Senegal by the Bambara people as the result of commerce.  While many Senegalese masters picked up the Djembe, there are subtle influences on the style of playing as the result of the differences in language.   One master Drummer explained it in this manner:    The rhythm we know as Mandiani was created by the Mandiani people. It was then translated into the Baga language, then translated to Bambara, and incorporated by the Wolof.  It is the difference between to-mae-to and to-ma-to.  It is one rhythm with a dialectical difference.

 The drummers from Guinea facilitated what could be called “cleanup work” with American drummers, correcting the concept of “different versions of a rhythm, “and showing the progression of changes which occurred as the djembe moved from central to western Africa. In addition, these drummers explained and emphasized the difference between playing ballet style; toning down the complexity of the rhythms to make them palatable for European  and American audiences  and students and traditional  drumming which is more complex in poly-rhythmic structure.   The drummers from guinea are the most popular in the United States.  The play fast, with losts of musical interludes called breaks.  In addition,  their performance style is very flamboyant, and they  masters of improvisation (although we know that their solos are highly structured).

The djembe has become a very popular instrument in America musical and drumming circles, but many people are not aware of the history nor the politics involved in making this drum accessible in America. We defined three periods of djembe drumming influence, beginning with the introduction of the instrument by Papa Camara in the 50’s, its spread through the work of Katherine Dunham and Mor Thiam, and  the influx and influence of the master artists from Guinea.  These artists and historians are responsible for training a legion of traditional drummers and dancers and as well as creating an influence which has allowed for the spread of the use of this drum in non-traditional drumming circles.  In essence the djembe spread from the circles of black academia and cultural  and spiritual preservationists  to the world of individuals seeking a form of heartfelt expression.  But that is what this drum does.  In the words of Abdulaiye Diakete, the word djembe comes from the Bambara words djebe bra ,  means, “to call the people together.” The djembe has become an instrument in America which, in spite of cultural and linguistic differences, has called all people together.

Our next article will address the piercing influence of the drummers and dancers from Mali. Also,last but not least,  Look for our article, “Don’t Forget the Women” regarding the influence of women and gender politics on traditional drumming.

1. Wikipedia:  Katherine Dunham

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