Rhythms of Culture: Djembe and African Memory in African-American Cultural Traditions
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Rhythms of Culture:
Djembe and African Memory in African-American Cultural Traditions

An intriguing cultural phenomenon has been developing over the past forty years in dance studios and festivals in the United States and abroad: traditional African culture is being diffused through formal and informal instruction in the African arts. Among the most notable of the cultural arts being taught are drum and dance traditions. Because of the efforts of Africans who have migrated to other countries and the work of their students, the djembe drum has grown from relatively obscure origins (among the Mandingue people of West Africa) to become the most popular African drum of thousands worldwide (Charry 2000). (Master drummer Mamady Keita estimated that “not just a thousand but a million” people listened to his teaching regarding the djembe [Keita 2011]). This phenomenon has not only exposed non-African populations to traditional African cultural practices, it has also become a vehicle by which people of African descent have reconnected with African roots—values of ancestors from which there has been significant separation due to the transatlantic slave trade. In the United States, few African Americans are aware of the extent to which they participate in the “stream of African culture.” However, through African-American musical forms, African musical idioms have become dominant in world music (Chernoff 1985, 3).

African Americans have taken a leading role in establishing African cultural influences in the world. One reason for this is that many musical realizations contain elements that are directly related to African cultural [End Page 227] practices. In addition, many connections with core values of the culture were established through early involvement with movements that emphasized African drum and dance in the United States. By examining certain developments in African-American music with an emphasis on African drumming (and an added emphasis on the djembe), I will substantiate some of the recognized connections between African and African-American musical practices.

My perspective will be that of a cultural anthropologist who studies the cultural products of the African Diaspora and who is also a practitioner—one who has performed as a drummer for the better part of her life, with experiences ranging from playing drum set (gospel, jazz, and reggae) to intense studies with a renowned master drummer from the Malinke tradition. This perspective has informed my readings of African cultural continuities in significant ways.

The History and Location of Mandingue Djembe and Dunun Drumming Traditions

In West Africa, the contemporary center of the djembe and dunun (three bass drum) orchestra runs along the upper Niger River from Faranah, Guinea, to Segou, Mali, with extensions stretching east into Burkina Faso; south into Côte D’Ivoire, southwest into Conakry, Guinea; and west toward the Malian cities of Kita and Kayes (Charry 2000, 214). The primary urban centers of djembe drumming are the capital cities of Guinea (Conakry) and Mali (Bamako); however, one also finds djembe orchestras in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Dakar, Senegal (Charry 2000, 214). The djembe is associated with a large ethnic group collectively known as the Malinke or Mandingue. This ethnic group migrated throughout a large region of West Africa associated with the old Mali Empire, a kingdom bordering the Sahara desert in the northwest region of Africa that reached the apex of its development between 1300 and 1500. Although I focus on the djembe/dunun orchestra, it is noted that Mandingue musical culture incorporates a variety of musical instruments that have also been influential in the spread of African music in the West. These instruments include the krin (a tuned wood drum), the balafon (an African predecessor to the marimba or xylophone), flutes, and horns. Also included are a rich variety of stringed instruments such as the harp-like kora (a twenty-one stringed harp-lute), the bolon (a three-stringed instrument connected to a gourd drum), the ngoni (a purported ancestor of the African-American banjo), and a variety of other instruments (Charry 2000, 10; Allen 2011). Like most of the traditional African arts, drumming is transmitted orally, via a system of [End Page 228] apprenticeship under a master—thus, the historical origins of djembe and...