Thursday, November 17, 2011

The History Of Djembe Drumming In The USA

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is a continuation of other posts on this blog on djembe (jembe) drums. Click
and to read those posts.

"The Djembe is the drum of the Mandinka people, and its origins dates back to the great Mali Empire of the 12th century. The djembe is also known as djenbe, jembe, sanbanyi, jymbe or yembe. It is made from an single piece of wood and carved into the shape of a goblet that is hollow throughout with a skin covering over the top. The drum is played with bare hands."

I searched online to find out when and how djembes (pronounced "gym-bays") were introduced within the United States and elsewhere. Here is what I found:

From Hereafter known as "djembe history: Percussive Notes
"An unedited expanded version of the article published in Percussive Notes, vol. 34, no. 2, April 1996, pages 66-72. Portions reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society.

A history of the djembe by Eric Charry
"The jembe (spelled djembe in French writing) is on the verge of achieving world status as a percussion instrument,rivaled in popularity perhaps only by the conga and steel pan. It first made an impact outside West Africa in the 1950s due to the world tours of Les Ballets Africains led by the Guinean Fodeba Keita. In the few decades succeeding this initial exposure the jembe was known internationally only to a small coterie of musicians and devotees of African music and dance. In the U.S. interest in the jembe centered around Ladji Camara, a member of Les Ballets Africains in the 1950s, who since the 1960s has trained a generation of American players. Worldwide, a mere handful of LP recordings were released up to the mid-1980s, most containing just a few selections of jembe playing.

Since the late 1980s international interest in the jembe has taken an unprecedented turn. Well over a dozen CD recordings exclusively featuring jembe ensembles have been released in addition to as many recordings featuring the jembe in mixed ensembles. Tours of national ballet troupes from Guinea, Mali, and Senegal, and former drummers from these troupes are playing to swelling crowds. Jembe teachers are proliferating, with some of them leading study tours to Africa, and major drum manufacturers have recently found a market for industrially produced jembes."
I also happened upon this passage which mentions the performance of a djembe group in Harlem in 1972. This excerpt is from a website which provides information about the availability in the United States of a West African djembefola (djembe drummer)for drum instruction and performances:
Abubakr Sory Kouyate
West African Djembe Drum Master & Teacher
"As empresario he brought the Ballets Djoliba, one of the two national ballet companies of Guinea, to the United States for the first time to perform at the Apollo Theatre in 1972."

Here's another post from "djembe history: Percussive Notes" which gives some reasons why it took so long for the United States and other Western nations to become acquainted with jembe drumming:
"Reasons for the delayed international impact of the jembe are varied. Weak ties and language differences between the U.S. and the former French colonies in which the jembe is indigenous are responsible for the late migration of Francophone West Africans to North America in significant numbers. The death of Guinean President Sekou Toure in 1984, after two and a half decades of strong patronage of the arts and increasingly severe repression and international alienation, opened the doors for foreigners to visit, and also forced some Guineans to look abroad to fill the void left by sharply reduced patronage. Shortly after the Sekou Toure era, Guinean drummers Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate had established themselves in Europe. Les Ballets Africains (which became the national ballet of Guinea after independence in 1958) began releasing CDs through European management. A group of drummers primarily drawn from Ballet Djoliba (established in 1965 as a second national ballet in Guinea) began touring and releasing CDs as Percussions de Guinee (established in 1988 as a national ensemble), also under European management. The world music boom, begun in the late 1980s and showing no signs of letting up, is also a significant factor, with organizations such as WOMAD in England producing tours including jembe -based groups such as Fatala from Guinea and Farafina from Burkina Faso."

The following excerpt from provides additional indication that Europeans were introduced to djembe drumming before people in the United States:
"Djembe playing by non-African people has a much longer history in Europe than it does in the USA and other parts of the world, as the French-speaking members of Les Ballets Africains first settled in France, Belgium, Germany, and other parts of Europe when they left the touring company to seek personal opportunities. Because of this history, and the education that Europeans received from traditional Manding teachers like Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate, Europe has mostly avoided the large number of softwood djembes arriving in the American marketplace. While these drums may look nice, their sound leaves much to be desired for serious djembe players."

I'm sure I'm not alone in being thankful for the music and power of the djembe drums and their accompanying instruments, dances, and songs.

Here's a video of Les Ballets Africains:

1968 video of Les Ballets Africains featuring Famoudou Konaté

Uploaded by MrAlphamamoudou on Feb 21, 2011

Here are three videos of Djembefolas who are widely considered to be grandmasters of that drum:

Mamady Keita / Djembefola

African Drumming, Published on Jul 18, 2013

Mamady Keïta was born in the small village of Balandougou, Guinea, in the northeastern prefecture of Siguiri, near the border of Mali. His initiation to the djembe started at the early age of seven, under Karinkadjan Kondé, elder master djembefola of Balandugu, who initiated him to the secrets of the djembe. Keïta was educated in the traditions of his village, learning the history and music of the Malinke people. At the age of twelve, he became a member of the first regional federal ballet of Siguiri after Balanka Sidiki, a recruiter for the group, came to Balandugu looking for performers.

This recording was made at Keita home, San Diego in 2007.
This video replaces one that is no longer available.

Famoudou Konaté , Mamady Keita and others

Uploaded by AfricaRoots on Jul 4, 2007
Famoudou Konaté , Mamady Keita and others, another rare video filmed in Guinea in the 90´s

Uploaded by AfricaRoots on Jul 4, 2007

Harouna Dembele et Parisi - Djiodji

Uploaded by fababobo on Nov 20, 2008
Concert à Nice organisé par les voies du monde


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Thanks to those quoted in this post, thanks to the musicians who are featured in these videos & thanks to publishers of these videos.

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