Mamady Keïta is a grand master of the djembe and one of the world’s most well-known and respected djembefolas. (Djembefola is the Malinké word for “djembe player”. It literally means “one who plays the djembe.”)
Mamady was born in 1950 in Balandugu, a village near the Fé River in the Wassolon region of Northeast Guinea, close to the border with Mali. His father was a master hunter and fida tigi (master of plants and healer). Before Mamady’s birth, his mother consulted a soothsayer who correctly predicted that Mamady would be her last son and that he would grow up “to do great things, with the whole village living in the shadow of his fame.”
Mamady showed an aptitude for drumming as soon as he was old enough to crawl, descending on the pots and pans in his mother’s kitchen to beat on them. Recognizing his talent, his mother had a small djembe made for him and, at age seven, took Mamady to Karinkadjan Kondé, master drummer of Balandugu (Mamamdy’s birth village), to have him formally initiated as a djembefola. Karinkadjan educated Mamady in the traditions of his village, the history of the Mandingue, and the secrets of the djembe. One of Karinkadjan’s earliest acts was to treat Mamady’s hands with the extract of a secret plant, to protect them from the ardours of playing. Mamady states that his hands never get sore or stiff from playing djembe and attributes this to Karinkadjan’s treatment.
By the age of twelve, Mamady was an accomplished djembefola, having played at many of the festivals and ceremonies of his village. His natural gifts and ability allowed him to pull a huge sound of a djembe despite his small size. Even at this young age, his outstanding skill earned him two nicknames, Nankama (he who was born for that) and Balandugudjina (devil of Balandugu).
The Ballet Djoliba Years
In 1962, Mamady’s unusual talent was recognized by Balanka Sidiki, who was on the lookout for talented artists for the First Regional Ballet of Siguiri. Balanka recruited Mamady to the ballet, and Mamady trained with the ballet in Siguiri (the regional capital) for the next two years of his life.
Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first president after independence in 1958, had a strong interest in the performing arts as a means to promote Guinean culture internationally. To this end, Touré instituted a system of local, regional, and national competitions to find and recruit the country’s best artists. In 1964, at the age of 14, Mamady was selected by Guinea’s Minister of Culture as a candidate to join Le Ballet National Djoliba, which was intended as a showcase for Touré’s revolution in Guinea.
As one of over 500 artists, among them fifty percussionists, Mamady was taken to the island of Kassa (part of the Ȋles de Los, a small group of islands off the coast of Conakry). There, the artists were rigorously trained and put through a grueling selection process that, nine months later, had reduced the total number to 45. Five of these artists were percussionists, with Mamady being one of three djembe players.
The 45 founding members of Ballet Djoliba trained at purpose-built performance stage in Sekou Touré’s palace under the direction of Amadou Cissoko. They started touring nationally and internationally in 1965, the same year that Mamady was promoted to lead djembe soloist of Ballet Djoliba. Mamady held this position held until 1979, when he became the ballet’s artistic director (the first drummer ever to be appointed to this role).
In 1967, at age 17, Mamady was part of the cast for Africa Dance, a film directed by Harry Belafonte. (Belafonte was a close friend of Sekou Touré in the early sixties but, in later years, increasingly distanced himself from Touré due to their different political views.)
For the next twenty years, Mamady travelled the world performing with and directing Ballet Djoliba, spending only short periods in Guinea. Ballet Djoliba performed all over Africa and, among other countries, in China, Egypt, Germany, France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Australia, and the Soviet Union.
After Sekou Touré’s death in 1984, funding for the national ballets dried up and Mamady started to look abroad for independence and new professional opportunities. In 1986, he joined Souleymane Koli’s troupe Koteba in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. In 1987, the members of Koteba starred in the movie La Vie Platinee, directed by Claude Cadiou. The movie, a comedy, revolves around the trials of the troupe in their attempts to raise money for a trip to Paris in order to perform at an international competition. The ballet’s lead dancer is held hostage by her wealthy family who does not want her to participate. The film depicts the street life of Abidjan and the anticipation of the group as they try to realize their dream of a lifetime.
Mamady stayed with Ballet Koteba for a year and a half. In 1988, the Belgian non-profit organization Zig Zag invited Mamady to teach and perform in Brussels at Zig Zag’s school of percussion. In the same year, Mamady established his own performance ensemble, Sewa Kan. (He continues to perform with Sewa Kan to date; the group includes such notable players as Babara Bangoura, Souleymane Camara, Cécé Koly, and Youssouf Traore.) Sewa is the Malinké word for “joy”, and kan means “sound”, so the group’s name literally means “The sound of joy.” The name refers to a Malinké proverb which says:
Ni kan tiyen, sewa tiyen. Ni sewa tiyen, kantiyen.
“Without music, there is no joy. Without joy, there is no music.”
In 1989, Mamady recorded his first album with Sewa Kan, titled Wassolon, produced by Zig Zag and Fonti Musicali. He has continued to record over years, producing an additiona eleven albums, with Hakili being the most recent (see Discography).
In 1990, Mamady was the first percussionist to organize a drum and dance workshop in collaboration with Guinea’s Secretary of Arts and Culture. The four-week camp was officially recognized as an international cultural exchange by the secretary, who hosted the 35 European students who attended. Mamady continues to host students in Guinea annually; in 2007, he took a group of his most talented students back to his birth village Balandugu to perform there.
In 1991, Mamady opened his own school of percussion in Brussels, called Tam Tam Mandingue (“drums of the Mandingue”). The school rapidly gained an international reputation and Mamady opened branches in other countries, including Germany, France, Portugal, Israel, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Australia. Currently, there are over a dozen Tam Tam Mandingue schools, each headed by a school director who is personally selected by Mamady for his or her playing and teaching skills. As part of this accreditation program, Mamady also created the Tam Tam Mandingue Certificate as well as the Tam Tam Mandingue Diploma of Proficiency. These are the only formal qualifications for Mandingue drumming in the world; certificate and diploma holders are personally tested by Mamady not only for their skill on djembe on dunun, but also for their knowledge of Malinké rhythms and culture.
Also in 1991, Mamady’s story was put on the big screen by Laurent Chevallier’s documentary Djembefola. The film depicts Mamady’s return to Balandugu after a 26-year absence. The film contains outstanding footage of rehearsals and performances by Mamady and Ballet Djoliba, as well as heart-wrenching scenes in Balandugu as Mamady is reunited with his family. The documentary won the Wisselzak Trophy, Special Jury Award, and Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Djembefola propelled the djembe to a place of international prominence and was a major contributor to the rise in popularity of the instrument. The 1998 follow-up documentary Mögöbalu, also by Chevallier, presents concert footage uniting four master drummers (Mamady Keîta, Soungalo Coulibaly, Famoudou Konaté, and Doudou N’Diaye Rose) in a single performance.
In 1994, Japanese producer Nonoue Katsuo and Sponichi TV News created the documentary Mamady Keïta and 38 Little Hands, which follows Mamady to Mishima, a small island in the far south of Japan, where he teaches a group of Japanese children to play djembe and dunun. The children perform with Mamady in Japan’s largest cities before Mamady has to say a very emotional goodbye.
Today, Mamady continues to spend many months of the year traveling the world and carrying out his mission to preserve and share the tradition and the music of the djembe.