An unedited expanded version of the article published in Percussive Notes, vol. Portions reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society. Last updated 14 October For more on this and related musical traditions see Mande Music 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. 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.

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An unedited expanded version of the article published in Percussive Notes, vol. Portions reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society. Last updated 14 October For more on this and related musical traditions see Mande Music 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.

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. Worldwide, a mere handful of LP recordings were released up to the mids, most containing just a few selections of jembe playing.

Les Ballets Africains rehearsal in Conakry, Photo by Eric Charry. Since the late s 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. Reasons for the delayed international impact of the jembe are varied. Weak ties and language differences between the U. The death of Guinean President Sekou Toure in , 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.

Les Ballets Africains which became the national ballet of Guinea after independence in began releasing CDs through European management. A group of drummers primarily drawn from Ballet Djoliba established in as a second national ballet in Guinea began touring and releasing CDs as Percussions de Guinee established in as a national ensemble , also under European management. A recent tour with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland contributed to their renown.

The world music boom, begun in the late s 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. Mass interest in the jembe has not been accompanied by serious information on its use in its African homeland. Misconceptions about the instrument abound.

Basic questions such as who plays the instrument, on what kinds of occasions, in which countries, and in what kinds of ensembles are ill- understood outside Africa. Few non-native jembe players have spent significant amounts of time in Africa to see how the jembe functions in the environment in which it flourishes. African jembe teachers living abroad try their best to communicate the depth of the instrument to their foreign students, but aside from the classic problem of interpreting a foreign culture, there is another more basic problem: language.

English is often a fourth, fifth, or even sixth language spoken by jembe players, following their mother tongue often Maninka, Susu, or Bamana , a second African language such as Fula, Wolof, Soninke, or Bobo , frequently a third or fourth African tongue, and French. African rhythmic concepts for which there are no equivalents in European languages are all the more difficult to explain, let alone the experience and meaning of playing for events such as circumcisions and excisions.

Even spelling is cause for confusion. Since most African languages have no indigenous writing system, European scripts have been adopted. The English j sound is represented in West African French writing as dj , di or sometimes dy.

The English long u sound is written as ou in French. Non-African-language speakers put a European or American accent on some of the French spellings that can further corrupt the African pronunciation. Such is the case with the rhythm spelled Mandiani in French, and sometimes mispronounced Man-dee-ahn-ee by English speakers.

The French spelling djembe has been accepted by a public unaware of the colonial legacy implied in such a simple matter as spelling. It is not a French instrument, but an African one. Africans and non-Africans alike are developing systems for writing Bamana and Maninka using phonetic spellings rather than the ornate French that harkens back to the colonial era. The simplification of French spellings such as djembe, Mandiani, and Doundounba to jembe, Manjani, and Dundunba, addresses this problem while promoting African pronunciations.

There are other problems besides language that ex-patriate African jembe teachers must surmount. African methods of learning work in Africa: watching, doing, being criticized, revising, and apprenticing. But how can those methods work in weekly lessons or classes with little chance for students to see how jembe players interact with dancers one-on-one? African jembe teachers have had to creatively find new means of transmitting their knowledge to non-African students.

This often skews and dilutes the tradition in which they were brought up. Fluid rhythms get simplified and become fixed. Improvisation is kept to a minimum. The ebb and flow of tempo, linked to the heat generated by dancers, is attenuated. The original context in which these rhythms and dances were performed is lost. Ansumane Kante playing the jembe at a celebration in Conakry, Adapting village traditions to new contexts is not new for jembe players.

One of the ideas behind the creation of national ballets after political independence was to present the indigenous drumming and dance traditions to an international audience.

The dance circle of the village was broken and spread out in a line so that a seated, non-participating audience could see. Rhythms from regions far apart, which would not mix in a village context, were combined in rapid succession in long suites for ballet performances showcasing the variety of music and dance found in a single country.

Instruments that were rarely played together were combined in national ensembles. The forces behind these syntheses were often those who were exposed to European education and culture. The naming of regional and national groups as Ballets , Ensembles , and Orchestres , reflects this European influence. The task of the ensemble and ballet leaders was to retain the African essence of the music and dance traditions, while moving them onto the stage. A new genre was created in the process.

Most recently, another genre has grown out of ballet-style jembe playing, exemplified by the concert performances and recordings of Mamady Keita and of Percussions de Guinee.

The new ensembles further remove jembe drumming from its village roots by almost entirely dispensing with dancers. Focus is shifted to the ensemble arrangements and the charisma and virtuosity of the soloist.

This use of the jembe is bound to stir mixed emotions among Africans in general, and even among the drummers themselves. The thought of an African drum taking the modern industrialized world by storm must have some appeal to Africans seeking recognition of their deep cultural legacy. On the other hand, the possible bastardization of a sacred tradition may be too high a price to pay for a fleeting commercial success with a typically fickle American public.

The frustrations of some African teachers when they hear their village rhythms being played wrong are becoming more visible in workshops. So how can one go about studying the jembe? In lieu of going to Africa to learn about the traditions first-hand--certainly the preferred method--one can learn from the African jembe masters who have either relocated or spend considerable amounts of time in America and Europe. Summer jembe camps and workshops are springing up across the U.

A list of several hundred subscribers interested in the jembe is active on the internet, and is a good source for information about workshops and teachers. Those with internet access can subscribe via the jembe-list FAQ. There is very little writing about the jembe and its native environment, but surely that will change in the wake of the flurry of recordings. The few books that have been written each demand a critical eye to put them in perspective.

These books are co-authored by writers with little musicological experience, so they lack that perspective. The transformation in the U. A booklet accompanying a Famoudou Konate CD , written by his student Johannes Beer, provides a musicological introduction to jembe rhythms in German and French only , as does a French book by a student of Adama Drame Blanc A musicology Masters thesis by Rainer Polak in progress at the University of Bayreuth, based on research in Bamako, should continue to open up jembe playing to the kind of detailed rhythmic analysis that has been standard for drumming from Ghana for the past two decades.

Jembe bibliography Presently, recordings are the lifeblood of those seeking to gain a broad education in jembe playing. Fortunately, there is an abundance of world-class recordings by masters of the instrument.

They reflect a variety of national, regional, and personal styles which might not be appreciated by the casual listener. Important factors in evaluating recordings include the country it is from, the ethnic and regional affiliation of the leader, and the recording context, be it a traditional event in Africa or a studio recording. Background information on the jembe follows in order to help readers better appreciate the increasing number of fine and diverse recordings commercially available.

Maninka is a local pronunciation of Mande-nka, which means person from Mande. Mali is a deformation of the word Mande, and Malinke is synonymous with Maninka. The term Susu can refer in a historical sense to close relatives of the Maninka who originally came from further north in Mali; in this context they are usually called Soso.

After their defeat at the hands of Sunjata and his allies in the thirteenth century, Susu groups migrated into Guinea toward the coast absorbing influences from the people among whom they settled; modern usage of Susu usually refers to this later wave settled along the coast see the recordings of Wassa and Wofa.

Map of core jembe area and border countries in West Africa map by Eric Charry. Place names are indicated by italics countries are in all capital letters ; Related Mande groups are indicated by unitalicized capital letters; Non-Mande peoples are indicated by unitalicized lower case letters after an initial capital. As providers of iron implements numus were, and still are, guardians of certain kinds of power.

Numu hands sculpt the power- laden wooden Komo masks that are emblems of the secretive societies which they also lead, they perform the circumcisions and excisions which lift the dangerous energies of boys and girls marking their entrance into adulthood, they carve the wooden jembe bodies and they play them.

The wide dispersion of the jembe in West Africa may be due to numu migrations dating from the first millennium A. The numu families Camara, Doumbia and Kante are integral parts of the Sunjata epic, the story of the founding of the Mali or Mande empire by Sunjata Keita in the early thirteenth century.

According to widespread oral traditions, members of the Camara and Doumbia families were allies of Sunjata and helped to defeat the tyrant Susu king Sumanguru Kante. Recommended renditions of the Sunjata epic which give the cultural history of the Maninka and explain the roles of the major families in the formation of the Mali empire include Niane , Laye , and Johnson Camara Laye has also written an important autobiography richly describing his childhood in upper Guinea as the son of a numu.

Despite the association of the jembe with numus there do not appear to be any hereditary restrictions on who may play the jembe. Indeed, it is out of the ordinary for numus to be associated with music-making because there is another class of hereditary artisans whose profession is music.

Among the Maninka they are known as jeli --they are called griots by the French--and there are three instruments which are exclusively reserved for them: kora a stringed harp , bala or balafon xylophone , and koni or ngoni a 4- or 5-stringed lute.

It is uncommon for jelis to play the jembe , perhaps because they recognize that it is not one of their instruments. Among the Xasonke of northwestern Mali, close relatives of the Maninka, only jeli s can play the dundun , a large double-headed bass drum that accompanies jembe playing.

The Xasonke dundun , also called jeli dundun , is recognizable by the unique way of playing the bell, which is held up high by the left hand and struck with a large ring slipped onto the left thumb see photo. Elsewhere, dunduns do not have hereditary restrictions on who may play them.


Mande Music : Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. University of Chicago Press. Charry brings a keen analytical ear and practical eye to these musical traditions, as well as extensive library and archival research. It is also pleasant to read. The detailed documentation is animated throughout by his respect and admiration for a great musical tradition. The author does a superb descriptive job. Since Mande Music provides an excellent and comprehensive model of the study of African music, this volume is a must for all students of African music and ethnomusicology.


A Guide to the Jembe



Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa



Mande Music


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