Rhythmic Snapshot: West Africa


Guinea is djembe country, and home to many of the greatest living djembe masters, or djembefolas. Originally joined at the hip with Mali as a part of the Mali (Mandeng) Empire dating back to the 13th century, Guinea is the place to go if you want to peel back the layers that have made the djembe one of the world’s most popular drums. This is where you’ll find the Malinke drummers whose djembe tradition is one of the most vibrant and visible in all of Africa.

Specific rhythms aside, djembe arrangements are generally categorized as village or ballet style. In villages the drums are tuned lower, and often use antelope or calfskin heads that are sometimes stitched on and heated over fire before playing. This dates to an earlier time before blacksmiths and the advent of rings, which subsequently enabled the use of thinner goatskin, which tears under high tension when stitched.

In villages, rhythms usually begin with women raising songs rather than with a drum call or break, and you always have individual players playing the dununs (bass drums), which are strapped on and played transverse with a bell on top. But perhaps the most visible difference between village and ballet styles is that in villages music is participatory in nature rather than performance–oriented, and often occurs in a circle with singing, clapping, and dancing done by all.

Ballet style, on the other hand, is a more recent and urban development that came about after independence from French rule. Guinea’s first president, Sekou Toure, funded national ballets to give the new nation-state a national rather than tribal identity. Young players like Mamady Keita (Ballet Djoliba), Famoudou Konate (Ballets Africains), Bolokada Conde (Percussions de Guinée), and Fadouba Oulare (Ballet d’Armée/Army Ballet) traveled to all regions of the country and brought what they learned back to Conakry, the nation’s capital. Over the years of traveling throughout West Africa and the rest of the world, these ballets developed very sophisticated arrangements, hand technique, costumes, and stories. Many of the arrangements that we now consider traditional were woven from the experiences of these early djembe pioneers.

The djembes used in the ballet style are generally tuned extremely high, using the goatskin that most of us are familiar with. One of the most defining characteristics of the ballet-style ensemble is that the dununs (kenkeni, sangban, dununba) are usually played in an upright position by one person instead of by three individuals. As the style implies, these national ballets are comprised of highly trained performers who perform elaborate stage productions for the spectators who remain in the audience, as opposed to the village tradition of universal participation.

In Conakry you’ll run across dozens of ballets, and ensembles have sprouted up along with a younger generation of shredders who play fast, hard, and precise. Many of the Guineans living in the U.S. and Europe are former ballet members and lead annual trips back home. They are a terrific asset, and can connect you with local players and instrument makers once you’re on the ground. If you’re lucky you’ll meet a player who can take you to the village to see drumming in its original cultural context.

After Conakry, head to the Hamanah region, birthplace of the dounounba family of rhythms, or head east to Wassolon, the region where Mamady Keita was born. While you’re there, you just might find yourself, drum strapped-on, in the middle of a village ceremony. Mamady recently said to me, “I love to bring foreign students to my village, because when the little boys and girls see these drummers, with their different skin color, who have traveled so far to learn the Malinke drumming tradition, it gives them pride in their culture and makes them want to continue the tradition.” Who would have thought we could be an inspiration for young Africans, too!

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Djembe shells, Guinea.

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Sabar drummers head to the gig, Senegal.

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Djembe player, Guinea.

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Master djembe player Mamady Keita, Guinea. We'd know those hands anywhere.

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