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Manger Malade: "Eating Disorders" and the North American Drum Community

by Dr. Lilian Friedberg

This essay was drafted as a contribution to the conference, "Cultures in Motion: The Africa Connection" at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (February 2003).

The Malinke drum traditions have their origin in those regions of West Africa inhabited by the Malinke people--primarily in Mali and Guinea. The traditional Malinke orchestra is unique to the Hamanah region of Guinea and is characterized by the complex interplay between five drums: three bass drums and two djembe drums. The highly nuanced rapport between these five drums is what marks the Malinke tradition as distinct from other West African drum traditions.

My journey into the world of the Malinke began in Germany where I first encountered trained practitioners of the Malinke tradition performing at a youth center in Eckernförde, a small town on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The drummers were artists from Berlin--Silvia Kronewald and Paul Engel. The two had studied for many years with Cote d' Ivoire legend Adama Drame and had, at the time, recently teamed up with the grand master of the Malinke tradition, Famoudou Konaté. Paul Engel could be described as nothing less than a musical prodigy whose insatiable passion for rhythm had taken him to all corners of the world--he'd studied under Moustapha Teddy Addi in Ghana, with Adama Drame in Abidjan, had traveled to New York, where he'd studied Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican conga traditions. Engel developed his interest in the djembe while studying and performing with Adama Drame. But when he first met up with Famoudou Konaté in the mid-80s, a decade-long period of cross-cultural cooperation ensued which would dramatically influence the integration of the Malinke rhythms within European culture. In his partnership with Silvia Kronewald, the twosome defied many conventional notions about West African music--not least of which, the common misconception that women are barred or discouraged from participating in these traditions and the notion that these traditions can only be adequately grasped by indigenous members of the culture. It was Paul Engel who in 1991, contracted by the Ethnomusicological Museum in Berlin, produced the first field recordings of Famoudou Konaté in Guinea on a CD that has since become a cherished international classic. Perhaps the most profound contribution the team made to the development of cross-cultural cooperation was that they stressed the systematic complexity of the Malinke musical traditions, and, by transposing these rhythmic structures into western musical notation, vastly enhanced our ability to comprehend the intricacy of these rhythms and songs within a western musical context.

While most of the western world was still intently focused on the djembe as a solo instrument, Paul Engel was engaged in the task of understanding and outlining the interplay between all the drums of the Malinke orchestra and the way they intermingle to create multi-layered melodies that form the foundation of the music. With their insistence on precision and comprehensive understanding in both composition and form, Engel and Kronewald set the bar in Europe for what constituted qualified instruction and performance practice. There were no short-cuts, no "dumbing down" of the traditions to make them more easily consumed by western practitioners; healthy hierarchies were maintained based on considerations of skill, seniority and accomplishment, not on the hubris, chutzpa and survival of the savviest mentality that characterizes hierarchical relations in the western capitalist context.

In the US, where we have tended to address discrepancies in power, status and position emanating from our own supremacist history by promoting ideologies of "we are all equal" or "we are all the same inside," the notion of assigning "added value" to the interests of certain individuals based on acquired skills, knowledge and experience is a bitter pill to swallow, and the organic hierarchies that emerge in the course of studying and practicing Malinke traditions may reside uncomfortably in a liberalist context that seeks to deconstruct imbalances in power and status by indiscriminately dismantling hierarchies of any kind. And yet these are some of the discomforting realities we need to confront and respect as we proceed down the path of cultural exchange with the source culture of the Malinke traditions. There is in the Malinke language a very powerful word for expressing the value of differing degrees of competency and areas of expertise among people: that word is "Bemanka"--not all people are the same, each has his own area of competence and expertise, and it is unbecoming of an individual to overstep the bounds of his competence.

Kronewald and Engel established in Europe such high standards for instruction and performance that it was all but impossible for under-trained but self-proclaimed "experts" and would-be professionals to establish a foothold, either as performers or as instructors, on the commercial market. We see the results of their efforts reflected in the current state of percussive practice in Europe-where any number of highly qualified practitioners have been offering "master class" instruction and performances that are readily recognizable to indigenous practitioners as "authentic" for almost two decades now--ten to fifteen years before the first practitioners who might be considered "qualified" by indigenous standards began offering their wares on the American market.

The problem in the US is that, before solid information about these traditions was widely available, people with no formal training had already begun offering "instruction" in African drumming. The problem was exacerbated by the development of the "drum circle"--a uniquely North American phenomenon in which participants gather to form a circle of drums-drums from any cultural tradition--and, led by a highly paid "facilitator," use them to create rudimentary rhythms in an event that bears little resemblance to any form of authentic African drumming. This movement fostered the illusion that anyone with the means to purchase such an instrument automatically qualifies as a drummer. What is more, students and practitioners in the US had acquired a substantial body of misinformation which they were disseminating in their courses, and this unduly complicated the process of providing real knowledge to North American drum communities. The spread of misinformation was fueled not only by North American entrepreneurs seeking innovative ways to capitalize on America's voracious appetite for "cultural diversity," it was furthermore promoted by African nationals from non-Malinke traditions exploiting the ignorance of the American public by selling themselves as knowledgeable experts in traditions that, until recently, were not recognized by audiences outside Africa as being culturally and geographically distinct from those that developed, for example, in Ghana, Senegal and/or Nigeria.

The "confusion," as Mamady Keita describes it made it all the more difficult to transmit accurate information about these rhythms. So the practice of offering unqualified instruction over many years in the US acted as a hindrance in the development of a thriving community of djembe drummers like the one that emerged on the European scene in the eighties and nineties. Many, though fortunately not all, of the drum students currently marketing themselves as "professionals" in North America would be still be classified as beginning students of the Malinke tradition on the European market, but at least the spread of misinformation has been substantially reduced.

In Conakry, these self-appointed instructors are recognized as astute businesspeople and, accordingly, showered with flattery and encouragement by up-and-coming drummers from the Continent seeking to establish business relations with individuals from affluent industrialized nations. The people in Conakry who "service" the annual flood of students during the tourist season there have long since recognized the value of flattery as a business strategy. As much as we'd like to believe that our experiences as workshop participants in Conakry derive exclusively from heartfelt affinity for us as individuals, we risk subscribing to a sort of "Noble Savage" mentality when we fail to recognize these people as business partners with commercial interests that are likely to prevail over any personal interest they may have in us as human beings. Ultimately, workshop participants are seen as customers, and the Africans who work for them understand the economic issues involved in keeping the customer satisfied. The more cut-throat the market becomes, the more likely commercial interests are to prevail over traditional considerations of honor. As early models developed through European-Guinean collaborations in the 1980s demonstrate, however, it is possible to settle on a "middle ground" that functions both economically and socially to the mutual benefit of all participants.

As an instrumental and founding member of that first generation of non-African djembe drummers working under the guidance of Silvia Kronewald and Paul Engel, I had the privilege of watching djembe drumming grow in popularity and professionalism first in Europe and now, for the past decade, in the US. Once interest in the djembe drum tradition had been elevated to a new level in Europe with the work of the Famoudou Konaté Ensemble, the door was open for other major players from Guinea to enter the scene, and it wasn't long before Mamady Keita similarly established a name for himself first in Belgium, then in much of Europe and ultimately in Japan and the US.

In spite of the long-established presence in New York of a third legendary Malinke drummer, Ladji Camara, opportunities for solid training in the authentic traditions of the Malinke were not widely available in the US until Mamady Keita began touring regularly in the mid-90s, and even though the Percussive Arts Society published, in 1993, an article about the Famoudou Konaté Ensemble and developments in Germany, still relatively little attention was being paid to traditional Malinke drummers in the US. But with the growing presence of Mamady Keita and, beginning in the year 2000, Famoudou Konaté, came also an increase in translations from German and French--for example, the 2000 release of the English-language edition of Konaté's book, Rhythms and Songs of the Malinke (originally published in German in 1997), translations of the 1996 interviews with Konaté originally broadcast by German public radio in Berlin (published in Percussive Notes, 2001), the tri-lingual edition of Mamady Keita's A Life for the Djembe (Arun, 1999) and tri-lingual liner notes both on Keita's and Konaté's more recent CDs, the translation of promotional materials for Konaté's workshops in Africa and two North American workshop tours [3 tours as of 2003, and a 4th planned for 2004] organized by the Chicago Djembe Project under the management of one of Chicago's top advertising and promotions professionals, James E. Banks.

Based on these developments, North American students gained access to the same teachers, materials and opportunities that had been standard fare in Europe since the mid-80s, and the face of the US drum scene has changed substantially as a result. Drum circles consisting of novitiates flailing en masse and fortissimo at the skins, oblivious to the high level of sophistication with which these instruments are associated in the source culture, have diminished both in decibel and in number and we see an increasing presence of performing groups whose work accurately reflects the complexity of the Malinke tradition. Gone are the "anything goes" days where untrained musicians offered classes and performances to uninformed audiences under the illusion that these exchanges involved authentic "African music." But, while the project to inform and inspire both US-American and European practitioners has been successful from a musical perspective, it may be another decade before some of the social lessons associated with the traditions begin filtering through.

In 2002, I sponsored and hosted at my home in Chicago two of the most promising artists in Guinea today: Nansedy Keita and Sayon Camara. Both Keita and Camara grew up in the village tradition-it wasn't until a few years ago that they moved to the capital city of Conakry where they first began speaking French and first encountered many of the "marvels" of the western world-things like money, means and the value of the title "master drummer" on a market they'd never even known existed. Unlike many of the drummers currently emerging from the Conakry-based scene, where money has become the primary motivating factor for practitioners of the drum tradition as drummers and dancers flock to the drum camps during the tourist season, only to head out as soon as the last of the "Tubabs" has boarded a plane bound for less temperate regions in Europe and elsewhere in the industrialized world, Keita and Camara dedicated their lives to the music in spite of the fact that, even as the drum business was booming in the big city, commitment to the tradition was quickly becoming a boondoggle for drummers from the village who risked being viewed as provincial, backward, out of step with the times.

When Keita and Camara first arrived in Conakry, they were clearly recognized as a "threat" to the generations of novitiates who'd picked up their traditions and their trade in bits and pieces on the streets of Simbaya or in snippets from workshops designed to teach tourists and students from afar. Accordingly, attempts were made to marginalize them, to distract and detract from the invaluable lessons they had to teach as a result of having been raised and trained in the cultural milieu in which the drum traditions are embedded-in short, to eliminate them as sources of competition for drummers whose path to the drum has been anything but traditional.

Hearing their story, I couldn't help but note parallels between developments in Conakry and those here in the Midwest. I came to this country with several years as a professional practitioner of the Malinke rhythms under my belt. I had offered well-attended classes in the cities of Bonn and Wuppertal, performed throughout Germany in several all-women's percussion ensembles, performed in Berlin with some of the finest "first generation" European djembe drummers and even today am often asked to substitute teach at Berlin's UFA-Fabrik, a flourishing cultural center that has been at the forefront of developments in djembe drumming since even before Konaté arrived on the German scene in 1986. I had studied intensely with Konaté since he first arrived in Germany and was among the first workshop participants to work with him at his home in Simbaya-a place that has since become a thriving mecca for drum enthusiasts worldwide. In a sense, coming to the US from Europe in the early 90s, I was something of a "village drummer"-vilified, marginalized and despised for my insistence on maintaining the integrity of the tradition.

Persistently, here in the US students came to my classes, picked up skills, know-how and information and, just as the sounds they began to produce on the djembe barely assumed an intelligible tonality-began offering "their" wares on the commercial market-often in dumbed-down versions of what I had taught. When students suddenly quit attending classes, it was usually with the explanation (either explicit or implied) that they'd taken from my classes enough to qualify them as instructors. Even in those few cases where I expressed concern about whether they were really "ready" to enter the market as qualified professionals, my concerns were patently dismissed. Before long, I was out of a job and my students were making more money than I was on the very market I had invested so many years in helping to create-from both the supply and demand ends.

In my attempts to elevate the standards, I made available, through an internet website, information that had thus far only been available in German and, at the same time, organized for Konaté a US-workshop tour. For four consecutive years, I organized workshops in Chicago for master drummer Mamady Keita. These efforts ultimately translated into professional suicide for me as an instructor, as my students subsequently became students of Famoudou Konaté and Mamady Keita. Many of them erased from the record the fact that they'd sat at my side for months, in some cases, years, before they ever encountered Famoudou Konaté, his home in Simbaya or his home in Sangbarala, the village of his birth. The fact that my partner and I were the ones who secured the visas, booked the tickets and the venues, provided the drums, translated and redrafted the promotional materials, and developed the administrative infrastructure needed to give them access to Konaté and others was incidental. The fact that I had, in years of instruction, provided them the fundamental skills they needed to even begin to comprehend what Konaté had to teach was also incidental. As I have always explained to my students, though, "I am not a master drummer, nor do I know even a portion of all there is to know about these traditions: all I can do is put you in a position to study with the masters of the tradition." From this perspective, my career as a drum instructor has been enormously successful, even though I am now out of a job.

Discussing these developments with Nansedy Keita and Sayon Camara, I find myself fearing the path that lies before them, for in many ways, now-with the legitimacy that comes with having conducted their own US-workshop and concert tour-they are likely to be viewed as an even greater threat to "business as usual" in the Conakry scene with its international affiliates in Europe, the Americas, Japan and elsewhere. In speaking with them, exchanging stories about the way the dynamics of "eliminating the competition" work in any commercial context informed by capitalist interests from the west, I've learned a thing or two about contending with these dynamics without compromising integrity.

In Chicago, Keita and Camara selected as curricular material for their workshops several rhythms from a complex of harvest rhythms, collectively known as "Kassa," but each with a specific purpose and meaning. What I found most interesting about these rhythms was not their musical merit, but the contexts in which they are played in traditional Malinke culture. Kassa is the time of harvest, when the Malinke people leave their homes in the village, and set out on foot to trek to the fields where they set up camp, living and working together in the "outback" while the fields are harvested. There are Kassa rhythms to alleviate fatigue on the part of field workers, Kassa rhythms to give thanks for the harvest, and for many other purposes. The first of the two Kassas we were taught is played when a man touches a woman against her will. When the drummers strike up this rhythm, it signals a form of public shaming-the man's violation of the woman is broadcast to the entire community in song and the man is shamed to the extent that should prevent any future infringements on this basic rule of decorum. The event represents a form of reprimand and acts as a deterrent to future violators because the act of public shaming bears significant moral impact in a social structure in which individual survival is very much contingent on collective opinion.

The second of the two Kassas we were taught teaches us a lesson based on the eating habits of the Malinke people. The Malinke eat from the same plate, with bare hands, and each person at the plate is assigned a designated spot from which to eat. Much in the same way our standards for table manners mandate that we not reach across the table, the table manners of the Malinke strictly prohibit anyone from taking food from another's space on the plate. This second Kassa again involves a form of public ridicule in response to someone who has taken food from another's spot on the plate. In the indigenous context, the person who committed the violation is singled out and subjected to the disapproval of the entire community. The act of public shaming again acts as reprimand and deterrent. However, in a cultural context such as ours, public shaming cannot function effectively as moral reprimand or deterrent because negative publicity is better than none at all and furthermore, because we enjoy the "freedom" of not having to concern ourselves with what members of our community think about our actions, so the social function of the music becomes irrelevant and loses its purpose.

After the Kassa workshop, Nansedy Keita explained that he had left out one significant detail in his public telling of the tale, which we came to refer to as "manger malade"--or "the eating disorder": it is the eldest member of the community who places the meat at the center of the plate and who subsequently distributes it to more junior members of the community. In this way, proper conduct is rewarded and improper conduct discouraged, based on the judgment of the person in possession of "seniority" at the table who, by virtue of experience is considered uniquely qualified to "pass judgment".

These are some of the deeper lessons we have to learn from the rhythms of the Malinke--lessons which, though they are by no means estranged from the music, may not be immediately comprehensible to members of communities in the industrialized world where the distribution of food (and by analogy money, means and merit) is determined not by seniority, collective consensus or the modalities of collective survival, but rather by individual initiative propelled by egoistic considerations that exist in a vacuum where anyone with the means, the money and the motivation to buy out the slaughterhouse can bring home the beef, baste or broil it to his liking, and serve it up in individual chop-licking portions to be consumed by anyone with the knife and fork to carve it-savoring everything but the meaning in the most mannerly of ways.

Impolite though it may seem, I spent a lot of time observing the eating habits of my guests--I apologized profusely, explaining my fascination for the way I saw in their table manners a reflection of their approach to life, and accordingly, a reflection of their music. I didn't spend a lot of time fretting over what came first, the music or the meat. What fascinated me was the way that no matter how food was placed on the plate, all members of the community eating from the same plate (in this case, there were only two) ended up eating exactly the same amount of everything in equal proportion. Morsels of meat were slid from one side to another based on collective decisions made in the bat of an eye or indicated with a slight nod of the head, a raised eyebrow, a barely audible "awah."

This pattern of sharing was evident in everything the artists did-whether it involved divvying up work, wealth or the front seat in the car--everything was shared in equal measure. It is important to bear in mind the fact that I was witnessing a relationship between equals--two men with similar, though not identical, histories, with levels of skill and dedication to the tradition that were more or less at parity. There was no substantial disparity in status, skills or position between them. In another context, the person with "seniority" may have automatically been afforded certain privileges. I was reminded of the constant give-and-take so central to the rapport between instruments in the Malinke ensemble--the way that, in the traditional context, one drummer does not seek to drown out or out-drum the other, but rather, where each is given his turn to speak in accordance with his ability. In the case of younger, less-developed drummers, that may involve something as seemingly insignificant as holding down the kenkeni drum, a voice that generally remains static and unchanged in the Malinke ensemble, but which is nevertheless essential to maintaining the integrity and continuity of the whole. As the drummer's skills increase, he is given increasing opportunities for joining in the rapport, but he never shuns the duty of adopting less visible roles in the ensemble. If his skills on the kenkeni are needed, that is where he will go, and he will play with the same enthusiasm he demonstrates for the djembe solo. He will generally not embarrass himself by attempting to play a role for which he has not yet attained the skills to assume.

Clearly, the New Age "scramble for Africa" is on and North Americans have begun "discovering" the source culture for the djembe drum. Considering the history of "discovery" all North Americans share, it would seem this process might merit some measure of reflection about the way we seek to initiate and promote cultural exchange with indigenous cultures in Africa. Five hundred years ago, this continent was peopled by a population who shared the same fundamental conviction that it is wrong to derive nourishment from the food placed on someone else's plate. This conviction went hand-in-hand with the notion that it is a shameful thing for one man to be in possession of great wealth while others go hungry. Both ideas emanated from and served the interests of collective survival-then came "rugged individualism" and collective interests were clear-cut from the landscape in order to make way for the pilgrimages of "self-made" men.

Yet it's not as though there was no mutual exchange of ideas between the indigenous populations of the Americas and the incoming settler populations--this much is evidenced by the fact that the US constitution was based on the prevailing system of government created by the Iroquois. This example is ideally suited for demonstrating the dangers inherent in an incomplete or modified appropriation of indigenous concepts into western systems of thought and behavior: whereas the Iroquois League of Nations was a system of government based not on a principle of "majority rules" , but rather one of consensus, the US Constitution changed that part of the system to create a situation in which the country is in a chronic state of strife because any time the "majority rules," the presence of a disaffected "minority" is guaranteed. In the Iroquois system, all parties sat down at the table to draft solutions that everyone could live with. Another major departure the "founding fathers" introduced to the Iroquois system was to establish a government of, by and for the people. The Iroquois system was a government of and by the people for future generations. This "minor" divergence from the source culture's blueprint has contributed substantially to the social, economic and political short-sightedness for which this country has since become infamous.

The parallels between these developments and the process of cultural exchange between North Americans and the source culture of the djembe are striking: we now have a population diligently engaged in deriving from the Malinke certain knowledge and information. This situation has tremendous potential for mutually beneficial cultural exchange. But, unless we are vigilant in our efforts to take the music along with the social mores they reflect-we risk repeating the mistakes of history, to our own detriment. To me, it seems, we're even abandoning our own table manners in this process: how can you have any pudding if you haven't eaten your meat? The music of the Malinke is the dessert--the icing on the cake--the meat of the matter is in the mores. The music is but a reflection of the same. We would do well to recognize that a steady diet of pudding and cake is not likely to provide the nourishment we need to survive--collectively or individually--in the concrete jungles of the capitalist world.

Dr. Lilian Friedberg is a bi-lingual author/translator/scholar whose work has appeared in American Indian Quarterly, African Studies Quarterly, New German Critique, Transition, Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review and elsewhere. She has also served as the Assistant Editor for the German Quarterly. She holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a PhD from the University of Illinois/Chicago. As Artistic Director of the Chicago Djembe Project, she continues to organize North American workshops and concerts for indigenous artists from the source culture of the Malinke. For more information on these programs, please visit the Chicago Djembe Project website at


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