Djembe Drum Music: Yaya Diallo Interrupts the Silence
Djembe and Djembefola
Djembe and Djembefola is the first in a series of articles titled Djembe Drum Music by elder Yaya Diallo, a master drummer, musician, teacher, healer, author, “Healing Drum Tours” guide to Mali, custodian of West African music and culture and native of Mali, West Africa. Translation from French to English is by Stephen Conroy, producer of Yaya Diallo’s West African music on Onzou Records, www.onzou.com.
Very often I’m asked to write articles on the subject of drum music. During my 20 years of experience as an instructor of drumming and dance in Africa, Europe,
Asia, U.S.A., Canada and the Antilles I always avoided the ambiguous subjects. One day I said to myself, “Enough, it’s enough! Stop the massacre.” I have my share of responsibility and guilt in the tragedy that we are living today regarding
African percussion. I am going to write a series of articles with the frankness and honesty of style for which I am known. I assure you there will be tears and grinding of teeth over some of the reading. Too bad for the lame ducks!
The following is a list of subjects to be covered:
1. Djembe and Djembefola
2. The Djembe Gangsters
3. Percussion and AIDS
4. The Drum Mafia
5. Percussion and African dance – A Deaf Dialogue
6. African Percussion and Racism
7. Miscellaneous Questions
Note: Do not count on me for a request to offer a public apology or to take back my statements. This will never happen.
To all who are listening … Greetings!
We’ll proceed with questions and answers.
[Stephen Conroy] Yaya! According to you what does the name Djembe mean? Where does this instrument come from?
Yaya Diallo To this question, I do not have a personal response. I am going to tell you what the elders and the ancestors have told us.
“In a Mandingo village there was a foolish man with the name Djoumbé who was the laughing-stock of all the villagers. One day his wife made a hole in the mortar while mashing. Some people said he picked up this mortar that already had a hole in it and placed a fresh skin over the upper part. When the skin was dry he took his instrument and began to play it with his hands. Within a few days he attracted the attention of the children. In Africa the children are interested in whatever the crazy people are doing. In time, everyone began to take an interest in this new invention. History doesn’t say when or in which village. For myself, I couldn’t care less when or where. However, it is certain this happened before the division of West Africa into Mali, Guinea, Senegal … etc.
The Mandingo of today are situated between Mali and Guinea Conakry. In the Mali empire the Mandingo are found in Casamance (Senegal), Guinea, Bissao, Liberia and Sierra Leonne. A civil war sent refugees to Gambia.
The words Malinké, Mandinka, Mandika, Mandinque, Mandingo designate the same people. Please foreigners, don’t look for the truth. Don’t bother with your dictionaries. We Africans don’t seek to know who is right and who is wrong. Poor foreigners, put your energy elsewhere. Your debates are absurd and useless. Again, don’t search to find out how to put the caramel in the Caramilk.
Another version comes to me from my friend Abdoul Doumbia, a Djembefola from Ségou. According to his sources “djembe” comes from two Bambara words, “Dièn” which means unity and “Bin” that signifies harmony. An Ka Dièn, An Ka Bin: Dièn Ni Bin = Diembin = Djembe = Unity and Harmony.
I heard a “Wigger” who speaks only English refute these two versions. His guru is a Soussou from Guinea; needless to tell you that this is a classic American. He said,” I went to Guinea and all that I heard is the Drum.” Drum, which language is this? He doesn’t speak any African languages or French but finds a way to contest the information given by our ancestors. He would do better to be quiet and get out from under his guru’s control. What a brainwashing!
Who can say the significance of the following words: piano, guitar, violin, trumpet …. By who and when were these instruments invented? Did John Coltrane know the saxophone was invented in Belgium. Was he a Belgian. Stop the foolishness.
[Stephen Conroy] Have you seen the video “Djembefola?” What does “Djembefola” signify? Can a Japanese be a Djembefola?
Yaya Diallo I have heard of this video several times. Rather than hurt my eardrums with the same question I decided to see it. By chance I had gone to see a friend in New York who had it so I took the opportunity to see it.
Djembéfola: A short course in Bambara is necessary here.
Foli: The art of playing a single instrument.
Fola: Everyone who plays an instrument.
Examples: A Peulh (Foula) who plays the djembe is a Foula Djembefola. A guitarist is a guitarfola, a saxophonist … saxofola, Dounou … dounoufola.
Fola is independent of sex, race and nationality. A white person who plays the djembe is a Toubabou Djembefola. A Japanese who plays is a Japanese djembefola. I have a friend who is a Japanese Djembefola but I prefer to call him a Samourai of the djembe. It’s more congenial.
Note: The singular is Djembefola while the plural is Djembefolaw (ou).
[Stephen Conroy] In this video it says the principal character is a god of the djembe. What do you think? Is it necessary to have a special talent to become a Djembefola?
Yaya Diallo I have seen the video and I understand the Malinké language. I never heard it said that the principal character was a god. It said God or Allah has brought you into the world to become a Djembefola. Djembefola is your destiny. The djembe is your vocation.
The African languages are poorly translated. When I am understood by one language it is necessary to avoid inventing nonsense. If the interested party thinks he is God of the djembe, may God have pity on his soul, and I pass on it.
When you play the djembe you are a Djembefola, no matter your talent or speed in playing, you express yourself. Whether you play to pass the time or as a professional, either way you are a Djembefola. All guitar players are not Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or B. B. King … etc. Please, stop the illusions and the myths.
[Stephen Conroy] Yaya, do you consider yourself a Djembefola?
Yaya Diallo Unfortunately by the nature of things I am classed in this category of humanity.
[Stephen Conroy] Why unfortunately? What is the social status of a Djembefola in West Africa?
Yaya Diallo Very young, I was attracted to the instruments: djembe, balafon, tama and bara. I wanted to learn in a serious way. I delighted in accompanying the Djembefolaw in the religious ceremonies for the events of the Komo. I consider myself as a musician who seeks to combine sounds for useful purposes.
The Social Status
A Djembefola is considered as: worthless, good-for-nothing, ignorant, idiot, stupid, incapable, mokolankolo, waste of the society, frivolous personality, not trustworthy. Nobody wants to bring into the world a Djembefola. A Djembefola hasn’t the right to speak when the discussion is about serious matters. It is an insult to be treated as a Djembefola. Hey! Who are you? You are nothing but a Djembefola. To better understand the depth and magnitude of the situation I present the following examples.
Everyone or all families who respect themselves will never give their daughter in marriage to a Djembefola (frivolous, irresponsible, scurrilous character). In 1992 I scoured the region of Bougouni (Mali) in search of a master Djembefola. In Massakorobougou I met a man of 53 years old who was known as the leader of the djembefolaw. He gave me a confession. Diallo he said to me, “My biggest crime was that I loved to play the djembe when I was young. I traveled to all the villages in the region with my djembe. When there was an important manifestation somewhere they came looking for me. Very naïve, I thought I was loved by everybody. In all the villages my status as a Djembefola was never doubted. When I attained the age to marry nobody wished to give me their daughter in marriage. This is what one calls the ransom for glory! All my friends have children, a wife, a family, and myself … nothing. Today, how does my reputation as an excellent Djembefola serve me. If this continues I am going to kill myself. Do you understand me, Diallo! What sadness!”
Mamadou Diabeté is the son of Sidiki Diabaté, one of the best cora players of all time. The young man makes the best coras in Mali but he doesn’t like to play them. All his brothers, of whom the most celebrated is Toumani Diabaté, play the cora. He is considered a nobody in this famous family of griots. Don’t compare Djembefola with djeli (griot). He explained to me how he suffered to find a wife. The reputation of Toumani helped him a lot. I love Sidiki Diabaté. Anything that could hurt one of his children disturbs me, even if it is the reputation of a Djembefola. The Diabaté family is a renowned family of djelis. To say that a djeli is a djembefola is a great insult for the djeli. One must not confuse djeli with djembefola. A djeli is very respected; a djembefola is not.
To finish looking at the so-called djembe masters, how many among them have married an African woman? Many have married foreigners and for the most part they are white women. The Djembefolaw are the new heros for the whites. None are prophets in their own country. Think of it!
No one respects a Djembefola in Mali. The word of a Djembefola, Djembefola Koumou or Mannan-Mannankouma (Bambara) is zero.
In Massakorobougou the elders gathered at the chief of the Komo to welcome me. It was automatically understood that I was a former initiate of Komo.
The information they gave me feels useful even today.
“Nianti,” a fictitious name of a djembe player, began to speak, thus interrupting an elder. The latter became enraged and told him, “You must not interrupt when I speak. Who are you here? You haven’t even a woman here.”
Diallo! You see this idiot is nothing more than a djembe player and he permits himself to interrupt me, me, a respectable man. It is because you are here that this “Kounfi Yèyèdombali” cut into my speaking. In Bambara, “Kounfi” refers to a kind of dimwit, a simpleton, basically an idiot. “Yèyèdombali” signifies a person who doesn’t know himself.
M. Sidibé left his birthplace in Wassoulou to try his luck in Bamako. In this city he had only two choices, either be a delinquent or a Djembefola. He opted for the second alternative. He began by playing accompaniment and gradually climbed all the levels of a Bamako style Djembefola. He was recruited by “les Ballets Maliens.” To the inhabitants of his village he was working for the government. In this way he was able to marry a girl from his village; from this union, he had a daughter. Unfortunately, his wife suddenly died. He is incapable of seeking another woman. Everyone knows he is a Djembefola even in his village. He is burned everywhere. His family, the family of his ex-wife and the community in Bamako want him to give up taking care of his daughter. How can a good-for-nothing bring up a child. A Djembefola is an imbecile without morals, education, discretion, honesty, dignity … etc. The list of prejudices never ends.
c) My Personal Case
I go to Mali once or twice a year. In 1999, I traveled from Montreal to Bamako via Casablanca. From Casablanca to Bamako I was on the same flight as the soccer team Djoliba. Sitting next to me on the trip was a sports journalist. Having introduced ourselves to each other, I explained to him what I was doing in North America and in the world in general. He was impressed with my work and my goals. He said, “It’s a shame you are not known in Mali. I will do everything I can so Malians can benefit from your life experience. I had the mischance of showing him my book titled “The Healing Drum.” On the first page he saw my photo with a djembe. He asked me who this is. I answered it is myself. He said to me, “Great brother, it is here where things get complicated; you are a Djembefola. There is nobody who is going to read an article about the deeds of a djembe player. The project to make me known in Mali was dropped. In Mali, I remove the first page with my photo before showing the book to my former classmates. With my family in Fienso there is a copy of the book without my picture.
In brief, a Djembefola is worth nothing, absolutely nothing. I’ll tell a bad joke that will shock some people. That doesn’t matter. Here is the monster insult.
A brain collector enters a store where they sell human brains. The salesperson takes pleasure in showing the merchandise in stock.
1. Here, this is the brain of a doctor. It is worth 100 dollars per kilo.
2. This is the brain of a professor; this costs only 200 dollars per kilo.
3. This one here belongs to a salesman. It is worth 300 dollars per kilo.
4. Here you have brains that have the same price, 500 dollars per kilo: violinist, cora, balafon, tama and guitar players … etc.
The salesperson made the rounds of the store showing all the merchandise going from the cheapest to most expensive.
Madame, he said, “I am going to show you a masterpiece, the brains of Djembefola. This costs only 2000 dollars per kilo. The collector, aghast, stupefied, asked the salesman, “ Sir, what is so special about these brains? The cost is more than those of a doctor or professor etc.
Madame! exclaimed the salesman. Are you aware of the number of Djembefolaw it takes to obtain even one kilo of brain matter. To sum up, a Djembefola has no brains. If there is anything, there are only traces. Because of drum circles the prices are going to double soon.
You see, I am not presenting myself to a popularity contest. The kings and queens of the djembe are only kings and queens of idiocy, of stupidity. This is the path of idiots and good-for-nothings. To say that a Djembefola is a god is an insult to God, to Allah. Dear fanatics, groupies! Forget about deifying and elevating the Djembefolaw to the level of God.
Some free advice my friend and son of Amadou Hampathe Bah gave me, “It belongs to the Africans to speak about Africa to the foreigners and not the foreigners, as intelligent as they are, to speak of Africa to the Africans.
Note: In my life I only know two categories of humans, those who love me and those who detest me. I have a principle, hatred is free and love is not negotiable.