Mamady Keïta, master djembefola (djembe player, literally one “who makes the djembe speak,” in the Malinke language) was born in 1950 in Djomawgna Balandugu, a small village in northeast Guinea located twenty kilometers from the Mali border. According to Mamady, Balandugu was founded by his great-great-great-grandfather Nankababa (“Big Nankaba,” or the first Nankaba)1 and occupied primarily by extended family members until recently, as the village has grown. Keïta has spent a substantial portion of his life maintaining and protecting the traditions of his Malinke ethnic group. The Malinke culture flourished and spread during the old Mali Empire, reaching its height in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries; however, the culture has roots existing long before the consolidation of that empire (Charry 2000:2–3). Malinke are noted for their energetic dance traditions, usually accompanied by the dynamic rhythms of the djembe (a hand drum shaped like an upside-down mortar) and dunun (a set of bass drums). Music and dance may also be accompanied by instruments such as the kora (a twenty-one-string African harp), the bolon (a three-stringed lute attached to a calabash drum), and the balafon or balaphone (the African predecessor of the marimba) (Charry 2000:10). Malinke are also known for their rich jeliya traditions (griot in the French language). The jeliya are a professional, hereditary caste of oral historians, court musicians, and praise-singers (Charry 2000). Today, the Manding homeland consists of several regions within the modern nation of Guinea and parts of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire. In postcolonial times Malinke dancers and musicians have migrated to create a broad diaspora that specializes in sharing their culture, especially their music and dance traditions, with the people of Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

As one of the diaspora's second generation of Masters—following Guinea's “Papa” Ladji Camara, who, after touring with Les Ballets Africains in Paris under the leadership of Keïta Fodeba, migrated to the United States in the late 1950s (Wasserman 1995–1998)—Mamady Keïta may be classified as both a traditionalist and an innovator. At the age of 14, he was recruited as the youngest member of Ballet Djoliba, Guinea's second National Ballet, created in 1964. Guinea's three national ballets (Ballet Africains de Guinea, Ballet Djoliba, and the Military Ballet) were formed following independence from France in 1958 and promoted by the country's first president, Sékou Touré, as instruments of Guinea's cultural revolution. Later appointed Musical Director, Keïta composed many of Djoliba's original productions, several of which are still performed today, and was charged with collecting the folk music of diverse ethnic groups living in all regions of Guinea (Keïta and Kaan 2008). In the process, Keïta adapted their music, customs, and folklore for use on the stage and prepared it for mass consumption on an international scale. Keïta has also developed pedagogical techniques particularly effective for teaching “Occidentals” djembe and dunun skills in a manner consistent with their cultures. Keïta discovered in the process of teaching that Western and Japanese learners required a more systematic, academic approach to learning djembe and dunun than Africans, who learned their music in context with the social lives of their communities by observing master musicians and playing during events and festivals (Keïta 1999:106). To this end, Mamady created twelve solos originaux (traditional solos) designed especially to teach Westerners the rhythmic phrases that typically accompany traditional dance steps, as well as dozens of solo techniques that develop students’ technical proficiency and rhythmic finesse (Keïta and Kaan 2008). In addition, Keïta has created dozens of compositions based upon traditional musical forms, including the complex “pyramids” or compositions performed by his student since the 1970s,2 as well as his own original rhythms, fifty-two of which were transcribed by one of his instructors and published recently in electronic and book form (Keïta 2014).

1

The village of Balandugu, Mamady Keïta's birthplace, in January, 2007. This remote village is located in northeastern Guinea, twenty kilometers from the Mali border.

1

The village of Balandugu, Mamady Keïta's birthplace, in January, 2007. This remote village is located in northeastern Guinea, twenty kilometers from the Mali border.

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Fourteen-year old Mamady plays djembe drum.

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Fourteen-year old Mamady plays djembe drum.

Keïta insists that, in order to preserve the tradition, everything about the rhythms of the past, including their histories, meaning, timing, feeling, melody, and hand patterns, must be maintained. Although he acknowledges that the ballet movement, of which he was a part, helped create confusion by modifying the rhythms and sacrificing some cultural authenticity for the purpose of staging (Keïta 1999:24), he does not discourage musical innovation. He simply insists that the traditional and modern rhythms be “kept in separate pockets,”3 “so that … we [don't] head forward into modernization to the point that we crush tradition and forget the tradition” (Keïta 2012).

The challenging role of balancing the traditional with the modern, of effectively bridging vastly different cultural traditions, is the task of the modern djembe karamo, the Master djembefola. According to Mamady and Famoudou Konaté (Keïta's close friend, “older brother,” internationally known master teacher, and veteran of Guinea's Ballet Africains) a djembe karamo must be a mature African person, having learned his craft under the tutelage of a Master drummer, and initiated into the traditional knowledge of the djembe.4 According to Keïta, “there are many great djembefolas, but only a few Masters.”5 In Malinke culture, a djembe karamo is more than an accomplished musician; he is an elder responsible for teaching the next generation of djembefolas to play for their communities’ revered ceremonies and celebrations. The karamo should know the rhythms played by Malinke inhabiting his local area as well as the purpose and the history of each rhythm. However, many of the ceremonies the rhythms were specifically created for have fallen into disuse as people increasingly abandon traditional religious practices for Islam and adapt to the changes brought about by modern life. The task of the karamo therefore is rendered more urgent.

A “world citizen” not confined by borders, Keïta renders old paradigms such as “traditional” vs. “modern” or “primitive” vs. “civilized” obsolete. As explained by Karen Barber, “tradition”—in the sense given by most Africanist scholarship—is

purely oral, expressed exclusively in indigenous African languages or images, and coming from or alluding to the precolonial past. On the other hand there is “elite,” “modern,” or “Westernized” culture—in the sense of inhabiting languages and representational conventions, defined by its cultural proximity to the metropolitan centres, and addressed to a minority but “international” audience … This implies that the “traditional” art form will eventually give rise to the “modern,” “elite,” or Westernized art form due an inevitable process of culture evolving from a “lower” to a “higher” form (Barber 1997:1).

Keïta's work, however, has achieved the opposite goal: bringing the tradition of the village, which he declares will change when “men will give birth to children!” (1999:24) into the Western, elite, “modern” world, in order to inform, improve and humanize it. Ethnomusicologist Eric Charry observes that “Traditional and Modern in a Mande [Malinke] context do not refer to opposing sides of a battle with impenetrable lines, or to blind adherence to colonial lexical categories and mentalities, but rather to reflect states of mind that con be fluidly combined and respected in innovative and often humorous ways” (2000:24).

As Keïta states, “it is actually more interesting that tradition and modernization go together. The one is important and the other is also important.”6

3

Mamady Keita as lead drummer and Artistic Director of Ballet Djoliba of Guinea, 1981. Mamady is standing fourth from the right.

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Mamady Keita as lead drummer and Artistic Director of Ballet Djoliba of Guinea, 1981. Mamady is standing fourth from the right.

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Lead drummer with Ballet Koteba of Côte d'Ivoire in 1987.

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Lead drummer with Ballet Koteba of Côte d'Ivoire in 1987.

The paradigm of “traditional vs. modern,” today largely rejected by anthropologists, helped to reinforce the notion of the “other,” a concept developed in part by anthropologist Johannes Fabian. In his classic work Time and the Other (1983), Fabian observes that during the colonial era, many of the cultural descriptions, or ethnographies written by anthropologists, (especially those of the British structural school of anthropology) tended to make their research subjects, the “natives,” appear as if they were stuck within some never-changing past era, in contrast with the anthropologists’ intended audience of educated Westerners. They created this illusion in part by using the present tense, or “ethnographic present,” when referring to occupied, colonized populations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This notion of the primitive African, stuck in the past, was solidified into a false “idea of Africa” enshrined in Western scholarship, literature, visual arts, and museum exhibits well into the twentieth century (Mudimbe 1994). Mamady Keïta and others like him present their art as a means to dispel these outmoded stereotypical notions of Africa, and thus rehabilitate the image of Africa for the modern world.7

A case in point is Mamady Keïta's creation of new rhythms which he calls “future traditional rhythms.” In his recently published book, Nankama, Keïta states:

We know the geographic origins of the traditional rhythms of the djembe … where you can retrace their region, ethnic group and the celebration when they are played. But knowing who created them is a question with no answer. Nowadays, with modern writing and recording techniques we have ability to observe the evolution and follow this tradition. If my rhythms … are transmitted from generation to generation, in 500 years they will be part of the traditional rhythms and it will be known where they come from, their history, and who created them. This will allow us to maintain their tradition (2014:10).

Keïta's articulation of “future traditional rhythms” is significant because it rejects this stereotypical African image, stagnant and rooted entirely in the past, and calls attention to the efforts of himself and others like him to lift his culture out of an imagined, stagnant past, bringing it into the present, and growing it into the future. Although this process may force a reimagining of the notion of “cultural authenticity,” it represents the urgent need of a population living in a globalized, postcolonial environment to grow their culture into the future and present time, as well as their urgent need to maintain and control the memory of past culture as a focus of cultural identity. According to Jeanette Rodriguez and Ted Fortier, cultural memory is “the manner in which people construct their realities and organize their values with meaning” (2007:127), a mechanism by which “historically marginalized groups have resisted annihilation from dominant groups by accessing forms of spiritual resistance.” This is the means by which “people who have historically had to fight for their community and maintain a social construct … exist in the world” (2007:20); tradition is the process of memory (2007:28). Cultural memory is power, resting in the conscious decision of a people to choose particular memories, giving “those memories precedence in community remembrance … that passes from generation to generation through oral traditions, written accounts, images, rituals, and dramas” (2007:31–32). In addition, cultural memory is transcendent, remaining embodied in, yet distinct from, everyday experience (2007:127). As an integral part of the cultural practices cited above, music is a vital component of memory, as well. These memories keep the past alive by transforming past cultural practices so they continue to give meaning to the present (2007:32). The memories themselves, however, are anchored and do not change over time (2007:127). As Mamady Keïta, and those like him, strive to maintain the memory of their ancient culture while spontaneously transforming the rhythms for today, they are taking part in an active process of cultivating the cultural identity of Malinke people in this postindustrial, globalized world. Through the works of Mamady Keïta and other Malinke musicians undertaking this journey, the spirit of the Sankofa, the iconic bird of the Akan-speaking people of Ghana is evoked—“go back and fetch it. There is no shame in recovering what you have lost.”

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Master djembefolas Mamady Keïta and Famoudou Konaté greeting students at the end of a drum workshop during the Dallas, Texas, stop of their nationwide Grandmaster's Tour, June 4, 2011. Both men are veterans of Guinea's National Ballets and lifelong friends.

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Master djembefolas Mamady Keïta and Famoudou Konaté greeting students at the end of a drum workshop during the Dallas, Texas, stop of their nationwide Grandmaster's Tour, June 4, 2011. Both men are veterans of Guinea's National Ballets and lifelong friends.

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Mamady Keita relaxes following a discussion with the author and Famoudou Konaté in Dallas, Texas, preceding the Grandmaster Tour drum workshops, May 31, 2011.

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Mamady Keita relaxes following a discussion with the author and Famoudou Konaté in Dallas, Texas, preceding the Grandmaster Tour drum workshops, May 31, 2011.

The passage below is a portion of a three-hour interview recorded by the author on November 4, 2008, one day prior to the dedication of the former Living Rhythms drum school as the Winston-Salem branch of Keïta's international drum school, Tam Tam Mandingue (TTM).8 The interview was spontaneously translated from French into English by the school's director and founder, Mr. Bill Scheidt. Further translation was provided by graduate student Amadou Mohamed. This conversation offers a glimpse into how Keïta, a child prodigy grounded in the traditional culture of his small village, was abruptly separated from the security of his family and thrust into the world as a young representative of postcolonial Guinea and, as he grew, managed to create a bridge from the “traditional to the modern.” Keïta's spiritual mission curiously parallels the story of Emperor Sundjata, founder of Keïta's own lineage who, according to legend, was granted the mission to create the great Mali Empire during the thirteenth century (Niane 2006); Keïta's divine purpose is to share his culture with the world while maintaining its African soul and Malinke cultural roots. While Sundjata was divinely granted natural leadership ability and the “strength of ten” to accomplish his task, Keïta was given an exceptional ability to play djembe and dunun drums, to teach and to compose music, to share his culture with the masses, and by so doing, to teach his students the life lessons the djembe teaches. In this sense, djembe is more than a popular African instrument that has become globalized; it represents the heart and soul of the Malinke people.

Tanya Price (TP): So what buoys you? What keeps you going?

Mamady Keita (MK): It is a mission, I am a missionary meaning I am a messenger of my culture across the world. I have been doing this for twenty years.

TP: How did you get started, how did you find that the drum was your medium, was your message, and was your life? How did you figure that out?

MK: My history began even before I was born. It began when I was still in my mother's womb. When pregnant, African women, like all other women, I suppose, will consult with a soothsayer—someone who can predict the destiny of an unborn child. Thus my mother went to see an old hunter who can see through the future with the help of little stones. This man told my mother that she is bearing a son but it will be her last child. But this child will not be like any other child. He said, “This child is coming to the world with a purpose.” He said, “I see this child growing up; it seems that this child is coming to prove something to the world. He looks like someone coming on a mission.” He told my mother that once this child is born, a sacrifice that will protect this child will need to be done continuously for him. And when this child grows up, you should tell him that he must continue this offering for the rest of his life, but not yearly, not daily, not monthly but from time to time. This child is going to be greater than our village, greater than our region and greater than our country. This child will become the shade of the family. This child will become popular around the world.

7

Drum Campers perform Mamady Keita's composition, “Sira,” at the Keita household in Matoto, a neighborhood in Conakry, Guinea; while the mayor, neighbors, Famoudou Konate, other djembefolas and students from local drum and dance camps look on. Ballet Djoliba followed up with the performance of a choreographed production Mamady created while he was Artistic Director of the Ballet. With Colleen Caffrey (Atlanta, GA), Abou Soumah (Conakry, Guinea), Juli Black (Melborne, Australia), Amy Jackson (Atlanta, GA.), author Tanya Price (Greensboro, NC), Aicha Camara (playing kenkeni at center of photo, Guinea), Tom Harris (Douglassville, GA), Monette Marino (San Diego, CA), Simon Kombate (Niger), Brian Fleming (Ireland), and Haedong Lee, (Seoul, S. Korea). January 13, 2012. According to Mamady, Famoudou Konaté started the tradition of hosting drum camps primarily for foreign students during the 1970's. Mamady Keita followed soon after. International djembe and dance enthusiasts flock to the camps, which proliferate today, especially in the capitol city, Conakry.

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Drum Campers perform Mamady Keita's composition, “Sira,” at the Keita household in Matoto, a neighborhood in Conakry, Guinea; while the mayor, neighbors, Famoudou Konate, other djembefolas and students from local drum and dance camps look on. Ballet Djoliba followed up with the performance of a choreographed production Mamady created while he was Artistic Director of the Ballet. With Colleen Caffrey (Atlanta, GA), Abou Soumah (Conakry, Guinea), Juli Black (Melborne, Australia), Amy Jackson (Atlanta, GA.), author Tanya Price (Greensboro, NC), Aicha Camara (playing kenkeni at center of photo, Guinea), Tom Harris (Douglassville, GA), Monette Marino (San Diego, CA), Simon Kombate (Niger), Brian Fleming (Ireland), and Haedong Lee, (Seoul, S. Korea). January 13, 2012. According to Mamady, Famoudou Konaté started the tradition of hosting drum camps primarily for foreign students during the 1970's. Mamady Keita followed soon after. International djembe and dance enthusiasts flock to the camps, which proliferate today, especially in the capitol city, Conakry.

My mother then said to him: “This is my seventh child, and you have never spoken to me like this before about my other children. Why is that?” The soothsayer replied that this child is different from the others and you must seriously keep an eye on him. He is going to play a lot and it is through this playful period that he will grow. That is what will make him grow. Then he told my mother that you will not be around when this child grows up nor will his father. Explain all what I have just told you to the young people in your family when you get home so they can remember because this is something that will happen in the future. So before my mother left she asked the hunter, “Based on all you said, is my son going to become president?” He answered “No …” She then asked, “Is he going to be rich?” He said, “No.” “Is he going to be a warrior?” He said, “No.” Then she said, “How is my son going to be greater than our village and our country? I really don't understand.” He said, “Your son is going to amuse himself.” Then the soothsayer told my mother to relay what he told her to the young people at home so they can keep the story.

8

Mamady leads of group of drum campers, family, and staff from downtown Conakry to visit the picturesque island of Roam. We are traveling in a pirogue, a traditional canoe-like boat used for fishing and transport. January 7, 2012.

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Mamady leads of group of drum campers, family, and staff from downtown Conakry to visit the picturesque island of Roam. We are traveling in a pirogue, a traditional canoe-like boat used for fishing and transport. January 7, 2012.

9

Performing during workshop in Toronto, Canada, with Mohammed Daby (left), Alice playing dununba, and Bolocada Condé, also a master djembefola from Guinea. May 27, 2012.

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Performing during workshop in Toronto, Canada, with Mohammed Daby (left), Alice playing dununba, and Bolocada Condé, also a master djembefola from Guinea. May 27, 2012.

So my mother went home and explained all to my father and he laughed. He said, “Is that so? How can a child be great and be known by the whole world just by playing?” He asked my mother if she believed what the old man told her and if she believed him. She replied that, “right now, this is beyond my understanding. But the hunter said we should watch over this child very closely after his birth because he will show us why he has come to this world.” My father said, “Ok, we shall see.”

TP: [Laughs] Dad didn't believe, did he?

MK: I was crying quite a lot when my mother gave birth to me. Then my mother went back to the soothsayer again and told him that her child was crying a lot. He replied to her that “Your child is crying because he has seen all that he has to do in this life and this is overwhelming for him, therefore the only way for him to express his fear of the magnitude of the task ahead is to cry.” And he said, “No need for you to worry.” Thus, my mother started observing me. When I started crawling as a baby, I would hit on everything I saw I could hit. I would flip the food out of the bowls that my mom had cooked the food inside—the bowl was not my concern! I would start playing on the back of the bowl [all laugh] and my mom would run after me all the time because I was flipping all the food out of the bowls and onto the ground. She said, “This child tires me out!” So my mother then said to my father: “Are you observing your son?” He said, “Yes … why?”

She said, “Don't you know that your son has been hitting on everything and throwing all my food onto the ground and tapping on all my bowls?” My dad responds, “No, I have not seen this.” Then my mom said, “Well, you have not been really observing your son.” Things started to take shape with me before I started to walk. My mother then asked my dad, “Isn't this child going to grow up playing an instrument? I have a feeling that he will become a djembefola.“ My father replied [astonished], “A djembefola!? No one in my family played a djembe. No one in your family played a djembe. None of my children play a djembe. So how can he become a djembefola?” My mother told him, “Everyone has a mission to accomplish in this world. And the hunter had told me this child is special and he will show us his mission at an early stage.” My dad said, “Look, a child always loves what makes noise.” My father was still not convinced. I was starting to walk at this time and was nearly two years old. So my mom went to an old blacksmith and asked him to make a small djembe. Before she went to have the small djembe made, I was taking small boxes and was tying them like this [around his neck and shoulders] and played them all the time. Then she went to the old blacksmith to have a djembe made for me. And the blacksmith made one. My mom says that when I saw the djembe, the expression on my face was as if I saw my life. She said she had never seen such an expression on a child's face like that. So I took the djembe like this [embrace]. I ate with the djembe by my side, my mom would bathe me with the djembe next to me, and I slept under the same blanket with the djembe for seven years. As the years went by, I was convincing my parents that this is what I was born to do. I was defining what my mission was to my parents. So by age five or six I was already playing the djembe like an adult. I had my own sound and no one trained me. I already had my sounds mastered. But according to Malinke custom, regardless of how naturally talented you were, you must be initiated. But my father died when I was seven years old.

During the same year, they took me to the master djembe player for initiation that lasted three years. And at the end of the initiation, my mother passed away. Thus my father passed away when I was seven and my mother when I was ten years old. So now, do you remember what the old hunter said? Thus, my reputation was evolving rapidly. All of the villages surrounding Balandugu where I was born would invite me to come play in their village during festivals because in the history of my region, no one has ever seen a seven- or ten-year-old child playing the djembe so well. I was then given many nicknames—there were those who called me Nankama meaning “born for it,” there were those who called me “the devil of Balandugu” [all laugh]. So they gave nicknames like these. So at ten and eleven years, I was playing in many villages. This village will come and get me to play and another will follow suit because there was no other kid in the region who played like me. When I was twelve years old, while visiting Koundiana Koro [the village closest to Balandugu], the Governor saw me playing with the group from Balandugu. He inquired about me and village I was from. He was told I was from Balandugu. He told them to take me to Siguri so that I can participate in the next competition in the capital city Conakry. So they came to take me at twelve and that is when the story began. At thirteen, we went to participate in this competition where the Minister of Culture saw me with the ballet group from Siguri. There was at that time a project to create a National Ballet. So he asked which region I was from and he was told I was from Siguri. He told them to take me at the next recruitment exercise. I was thirteen years old at the time. At the end of the competition, the government selected all the best from the thirty regions: dancers, male and female singers, and best players of balafon, flute, and of all instruments. Five hundred artists in all. We were all called together after the competition; meaning each region sent its best artists and obviously I was one of them. They then took us to Kassa Island where we worked for a year training for the creation of a national ballet, the Ballet Djoliba, and went through a selection process. After the selection process, our number was reduced to forty-five artists, and I was one of those selected.

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Presenting dunun workshop in Atlanta, Georgia, Clarkston Community Center, November 4, 2012.

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Presenting dunun workshop in Atlanta, Georgia, Clarkston Community Center, November 4, 2012.

TP: This was the Ballet Djoliba?

MK: Yes, this was the first ballet formed with artists from all regions in 1964 and I was fourteen years old. The Ballet Djoliba was created for Harry Belafonte because he was a very close friend of President Sékou Touré. I think Harry Belafonte had relatives in Guinea, in the western part of Guinea. I think it was in the region of Boké. Thus, because of this friendship between Harry Belafonte and Sékou Touré, the latter gave the order to create a ballet for Harry Belafonte. However, when the artists were brought to the island, we started the training with Harry Belafonte's team. They were not Guineans; they were only African Americans. Afterward, I am not sure but there seems to have been a political issue between Harry Belafonte and Sékou Touré. And one day on the island we saw Harry Belafonte's team getting their luggage, leaving the island for Conakry. And we saw a Guinean team arriving on the island from Conakry. We were presented to our new director, our new administrative director, our controller [in charge of the lighting, decoration], and our artistic director. Up until this day, we have not been told why Harry Belafonte's team left. Then we found ourselves in the hands of President Sékou Touré. He set the stage at his presidential palace and had the attendance list from which he made the roll call.

TP: Oh, the President himself?

MK: The President would come on to the stage and direct us, in the middle of our practice. He would say, “No, you need to be here and you over here.” He was like our artistic director. Every evening, we were going to the presidential palace for our practice. Our scene was set over there, everything was for a year. We continued like this for a while. Our first tour with the President was to Ghana for the celebration of Kwame Nkrumah's first anniversary in power. After that we went to Liberia for Tolbert's first anniversary in power. Tolbert was Liberia's first president. My first world tour, which lasted two years, started in 1966 and ended in 1968. We toured Europe for two years. I had my first show as a soloist in the Ballet in 1967 at the First International Folklore Festival in Agrigento, Italy. So I had my first gold medal as the best djembe player in 1967.

TP: How old were you?

MK: I was seventeen.

TP: How long did you play with the Ballet before you became a soloist?

MK: I performed with the Ballet from 1964 to 1967, when I became a soloist. In 1969 I received my second medal as the best djembe player in Africa in Algeria during the first Pan-African Festival … So as I grew up in my life, and in 1984, Sékou Touré died. And when Sékou Touré passed away, the country opened: you could travel when you want, you could do anything you wanted to do. And I decided to move out of Guinea at that time. I met the Director of a very popular group from Ivory Coast by the name Koteba. Moreover, the leader of Koteba was a Guinean. So I went to Ivory Coast and signed my first contract in 1986 to work for a year and half with the Koteba group. During my tour with Koteba, some Belgians proposed that I come and work in Belgium because they had a project to open a big school of percussion. Brazilian percussion, Cuban percussion, percussion like jazz for drum sets and African percussion; and they offered me to come and be a professor of African percussion and I accepted. I left Conakry on the 10th of May and arrived in Brussels the 11th of May, 1988 at 6:45 in the morning.

TP: Wow! Every single detail.

MK: I started working with the Belgians as I arrived in Brussels. I worked with the Belgians for two years where we opened the school. There were up to 500 students registering at the beginning of every school year. Two years later, the Belgians told me that they wanted to change, they wanted to do something different. They wanted to become show agents. I asked them, “What about the school?” They said they were going to do something different anyway, so I told them I will take the school, then. So I took the school, and it became the first ever school [of African percussion] that existed in the whole world. I called this school Tam Tam Mandingue. Today, there are fourteen Tam Tam Mandingue schools in the world.

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Author interviews Mamady during a break between workshops, November 2, 2012, Douglassville, Georgia.

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Author interviews Mamady during a break between workshops, November 2, 2012, Douglassville, Georgia.

Let's go back to when the soothsayer told my mother that I was going to be bigger than the region, bigger than the country. Today, on this planet, wherever there is a djembe, even people who have never met me know my name.

TP: This is true. This is true; amazing. What a story!

MK: Throughout my life, I have been in five documentary films.

TP: I need to buy one. Which one should I get first?

MK:Djembefola [Chevallier 2006].

TP: I have heard about that one. I will buy one.

MK: To date, I have recorded ten albums and three instructional video cassettes.

TP: Beginning, intermediate, and advanced. I have them!

MK: Exactly! And I have made three DVDs, volume one, two, and three, but with many different rhythms. And in March of this year, I will be making an advanced professional video. And I have already written a book that has sixty rhythms in it. It is called …

TP: “My Life for the Djembe“ [sic; Keita 1999]?

MK: And I am getting ready to write a second book and all these are projects that I am working on. I am now on a one-year world tour. In the midst of all of these, I feel like a messenger, like an ambassador of my culture. I also feel like the guardian and protector of my culture and African culture.

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Mamady Keita leads students from his advanced class, instructors, and dunun players in the final rehersal for his composition Kudani. Students are preparing for a special exhibition on the closing day of the annual Abené Festival located in Senegal's Cosomance region on January 2, 2013. Mamady taught this challenging “pyramid” performance in three days, which, according to Mamady, was unprecidented. From left to right: Barry Neilsen, Seckou Keita, Moctar Sawane, Jaly Suntou Susso, Mamady Keïta, Mounirou Kande, lya Sako, and Nigel Sadler.

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Mamady Keita leads students from his advanced class, instructors, and dunun players in the final rehersal for his composition Kudani. Students are preparing for a special exhibition on the closing day of the annual Abené Festival located in Senegal's Cosomance region on January 2, 2013. Mamady taught this challenging “pyramid” performance in three days, which, according to Mamady, was unprecidented. From left to right: Barry Neilsen, Seckou Keita, Moctar Sawane, Jaly Suntou Susso, Mamady Keïta, Mounirou Kande, lya Sako, and Nigel Sadler.

TP: Ok, thank you. That's just so wonderful, and that's just so thorough!

MK: These are just little parts but details will be too long.

TP: Can I ask you a few more questions? I know you have been talking for a long time, but I have a …

MK: You asked me only one question, come on!

TP: OK, I've got more for you! I just want to hear you, you're just fascinating! What is the initiation? I know you can't tell it all because … you can't tell everybody everything, but what does it consist of?

MK: In Mandigue tradition, there are different types of initiations. There is the general initiation. General initiation consists of preparing the child to be a good adult. So that is the general initiation that is traditionally started at the age seven. On their seventh year, boys undergo circumcision. The initiation is performed during the treatment of the circumcision. And with this initiation as a child, you are taught the level of respect you should have for your parents, and what type of respect you give your sisters and brothers. And what type of respect you should have for your friends, and what type of respect you should have for your wife when you grow up. And how you should educate your children. And how you should respect people you meet for the first time. And the type of respect you should have for life. And you are also taught how to recognize plants because there are good and bad plants. You are taught the secrets of nature. You are also taught the language of animals such as birds. Because for us, if you are walking in the bush and birds see a snake or a dangerous animal, they talk between themselves. And if you understand this, then you stop where you are and pay attention [to your surroundings].

TP: The birds are talking to you?

MK: No, they talk to each other because birds have a way of talking nervously between each other when they see something—so that is the general initiation for all young people.

TP: What about your djembe?

MK:Djembe? For the djembe, there is the initiation and there are the secrets. The initiation is an education. Your Master will initiate you on how to respect old djembefolas, young djembefolas of the same age as you, and the circle of djembefolas, and the philosophy of the djembe, the spirit of the djembe, the energy of the djembe, and the connection between nature and you, because the djembe comes from nature. That is why the djembe is said to be an instrument that speaks and not one that makes noise. So you learn about its different systems and you also learn how to protect yourself, avoid your enemies, and be mindful of your life as a djembefola. Because in a competition, people of the djembe are merciless; it's very dangerous, very dangerous. Let me give you an example. When many villages come together for a major celebration, all the djembefolas from the villages want to be the best. And what do they do? If they see that you are very good and they know your name, they will hex you by calling your name on a needle and sticking it under a tree. It's like they stuck the pin in your four fingers; and when you hit the djembe, you feel similar pain. You cannot play the djembe. So you quit and head home. This is just are just minor things.

TP: So competition. And I imagine some people would go after you spiritually, too.

13

Mamady leads his advanced students in a production of Kudani, Mamady's composition commemorating the grandmother he still feels close to, despite the fact she died before he was born. Mamady calls such performance pieces “pyramids,” consisting of a series of rhythms, breaks, collective and individual improvisation from fifteen minutes to two hours long. They are called “pyramids,” because they build in texture and intensity until they reach a climax at the end. According to Mamady, this was the first time such a large contingent of foreign students had performed at the popular international festival featuring the music, song, and dance of regional cultures. Following the successful performance, while sitting by the bonfire that night at our hotel, he said, “I am a very happy man today.” Abené, Senegal, Janurary 2, 2013.

13

Mamady leads his advanced students in a production of Kudani, Mamady's composition commemorating the grandmother he still feels close to, despite the fact she died before he was born. Mamady calls such performance pieces “pyramids,” consisting of a series of rhythms, breaks, collective and individual improvisation from fifteen minutes to two hours long. They are called “pyramids,” because they build in texture and intensity until they reach a climax at the end. According to Mamady, this was the first time such a large contingent of foreign students had performed at the popular international festival featuring the music, song, and dance of regional cultures. Following the successful performance, while sitting by the bonfire that night at our hotel, he said, “I am a very happy man today.” Abené, Senegal, Janurary 2, 2013.

MK: Absolutely.

TP: When you were initiated, did you get juju to help you play? I know you can't tell me everything, but if you can …

MK: I don't need juju because I have been prepared for seventy years. I don't need juju. Inside me, I am juju! [Laughter]

TP: That's true, you are the juju! So you really didn't have to really … did he have to teach you a lot? I mean did he teach you … what method did they use; did your djembefola used to teach you in your village?

MK: No, My master did not have … There is no pedagogy in Africa. You learn during festivals. There's no pedagogy. My master just taught me the different possibilities, how to conduct myself above all spiritually, energetically, and philosophically. He educated me with regards to the djembe but I listened to him as far as the techniques of the djembe is concerned. However, my master knew that there were techniques I could easily do that he could not. So he pushed me harder. He will tell me, “Do this,” and I would tell him, “I can't,” and he would say, “Yes, you can.” So I will ask him, “Can you give me an example?” My master would say, “I cannot because I do not know how to do it.” So I said, “But if you cannot do it, then how can I?” Then he said, “You can do it and you know you can do it. Get to work.”

TP: And you just do it, wow!

MK: I think my master knew who I was going to become today, hence he prepared me for it. He prepared me with all he knew on all sides with regards to behavior and protection. He taught and prepared me for all the various histories of rhythms, for all the questions you could ask me about the culture and tradition of the Malinke. And he gave me the seven secrets of the djembe.

TP: The seven secrets? Do you talk about them in your book?

MK: I think I talk about them a little in the book but not in detail. Let's say we are both djembefolas, I can tell what you are thinking the first time I see you and shake hands with you. And I have really developed this [skill] that if I look at someone, I can tell what type of person they are. If the person is looking in my direction, I can immediately tell what they are thinking of me; even if they are no longer a djembefola. I developed it. You are taught how to know what another djembefola is thinking of you but I developed this skill beyond the djembefola to include other people, women, children, adults, anyone.

TP: That would be a very good skill to have, very good. So, why do they call it the healing drum?

MK: It is because the djembe has become very popular and there is a lot of confusion in the stories people are telling about it. I hear a lot about what people are saying that a djembe can cure a disease. But in the Mandingue culture, the djembe does not cure a disease. However, the sound of the djembe and the atmosphere and spirit under which it is played, the energy does. For example a sick person is advised by his family to take a walk to a festival where a djembe is being played, and when you go there, you feel something that gives you the energy, the sensation you feel when you take a medicine that soothes you.

TP: That's true. When I play, when I am sick, when I feel that my job is stressing me out, I go play. I'm tired, tired, I just go play and I feel uplifted. That's exactly how it is.

MK: Exactly, all of a sudden you feel better. It doesn't cure your illness but it gives you energy and relief. There is also another side to this. All the witch doctors [healers, shamans] who cure illnesses, who know plants use the djembe in their celebrations. Like Woima, for example, is a fetisher, a healer, he can heal people. But there are special rhythms played for him during an occasion where he sings and dances. The same thing applies for Kawa, for Soliwoulen, for Koma, and for Niagba. But Niagba is a woman because there are some women fetishers who are very powerful.

TP: Separate rhythms for certain people who are special …

MK: So we play the djembe for them.

14

A plaque hanging on the living room of Mamady's home in Matoto, Guinea. The plague is a gift from a student. In English, it reads: “Mamady Keita, King of Djembe, djembe fola,” literally, “he who makes the djembe speak.” January, 9, 2012.

14

A plaque hanging on the living room of Mamady's home in Matoto, Guinea. The plague is a gift from a student. In English, it reads: “Mamady Keita, King of Djembe, djembe fola,” literally, “he who makes the djembe speak.” January, 9, 2012.

TP: Does your mother still sacrifice for you where she is with the ancestors?

MK: Yes, she continues to make sacrifice for me, she continues to bless me.

TP: And do you bless her also?

MK: Of course, of course. My mother and I were really close. There are lots of things in my life today because of my mother. I have my mother's philosophy. I have the knowledge of my mother. I learnt a lot of things from my mother. I took a lot of things from my mother.

TP: I can feel you …

MK: My mother advised differently from others. She advised me to be careful in my life because I was going to be responsible for something big and important. She advised me that she gave birth to me not only for her, not for my family alone, but for the world. I cherish the protection from this advice today. And she told me something I will never forget: to respect all beings and treat all beings as beings. There are different types of people in this world; you have good ones, bad ones and those in the middle. But you should respect everyone: young, old, babies. My mom told me, “Always respect human beings even if they refuse the respect you give them.”

TP: You mother sounds like a beautiful woman.

MK: I have my mother's philosophy, and I have never seen a woman as patient as my mother. I have never seen a woman as tolerant as my mother. I never saw my mother argue with someone. My mother was my father's root.

TP: Oh, that's beautiful!

MK: She advised my father on how to treat and educate his children. And my mother always told my father that “in life, it is patience that opens the secret of life for you.”

And my father knew perfectly the secrets of the nature. He was very powerful with a lot of energy, a lot of knowledge and a lot of power.

TP: So they passed it onto you …

MK: Yeah. My father's brother was the one who washed me, not with water. This is a little secret. There are seven clay bowls. It's like this [using cups, saucers and bowls on the coffee table, Mamady demonstrates how the bowls were set up] like this, like this [sets up seven dishes, counting one to seven in French]. So twenty-four hours, twenty-four hours, day, day, week, week, month, month, year, year. All the water here was different. It was different every time. This water goes here and here. This one goes here and here, this one goes here and here … [demonstrating different sequences for the water sacrifices]. He mixes up these seven bowls of water naturally without ever stopping, without a machine or electricity.

TP: He did this for two months?

MK: Every day, every time, nonstop! This was related to the power he possessed. He never gave anyone this water but me. When he did give it to me, he watched me for seven days.

TP: Never stopped. Amazing power; so you've got a lot of power, you have a purpose in the universe.

Notes

1

Mamady Keïta, communications with students during drum workshop, November 3, 2012, Clarkson Community Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

2

Mamady Keïta, communications with students during drum workshop, November 3, 2012, Clarkson Community Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

3

Mamady Keïta, communications with workshop participants during Mamady Keïta and Iya Sako drum camp, Abené, Senegal, January 10, 2013.

4

Mamady Keïta and Famoudou Konaté, in interview with author, Dallas, Texas, May 31, 2011.

5

Mamady Keïta, communications with students during drum workshop, November 3, 2012, Clarkson Community Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

6

Mamady Keïta, communications with workshop participants during Mamady Keïta and Iya Sako drum camp, Abené, Senegal, January 10, 2013.

7

Mamady Keïta and Famoudou Konaté, in interview with author, Dallas, Texas, May 31, 2011.

8

Mamady Keïta, in interview with the author, November 4, 2008, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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