Day 9 & 10 – 3/1/13 & 4/1/13 – Iya Sako: the gentle master

Imagine a master djembefola with an everlasting smile, an unfazed sense of calm in his face and body, a unique village style of playing and broken English and you’ll get Iya Sako (whose real name is Mory Sako). He hails from a village called Samakofadda from the Wassolon in North Guinea and is the other teacher for this workshop. I was looking forward to his class ever since I met him on the first day and ever since I could hear what rhythms he would play during our silent moments with Mamady. I had this similar feeling when I was to learn from Famoudou Konate for the first time in San Diego.

I found a replacement drum thanks to the wonderful Coral. This was a smaller drum but sounded beautiful. I reached class and found our dununfola waiting for us: Muniru, Suntu and Mokulo (or Mokhtar)

Too cool for school – (from left to right) Muniru, Suntu and Mokulo – our dununfola

We learned the rhythm Kontemudu. I presume that this rhythm is similar to Kontemuru (as taught by Mamady) but as Iya started demonstrating the parts I realized that the dunun and djembe parts are totally different. Kontemudu is a Dununba family rhythm which is a ‘right to passage’ rhythm. This is the best thing about learning from various teachers; one gets to learn many different things that one can store in different compartments and call upon whenever one needs. This way one is honouring the gifts offered by every teacher.

The rhythm is simple to play on the djembe and fits right in a Rhythm Ensemble. The dunun patterns are mostly on the up beats, (especially the kenkeni) which is something I am getting used to more and more in Senegal purely by virtue of listening to these rhythms more often.

Our second classroom – with Iya Sako

Iya then started with the solo techniques by dividing the group into two halves and teaching one half a couple of phrases at a time while the other group kept the djembe accompaniment. This way one is playing the djembe for two hours nonstop with a five minute water break about an hour into class. These days with Iya will prove to be great way to increase playing endurance, improve my sounds and learn new rhythms. Iya’s teaching method is similar to Famoudou’s where things develop organically and there’s always a drum playing throughout class. Mamady has structured things to suit a western student whereas the others have retained their traditional way of teaching. Iya and Famoudou even have the same radiant look on their faces when they play and teach.

My hands are starting to get sore and to avoid any unnecessary accidents I’m trying to take as much care as possible when I play. Doug told me something that Babara Bangoura (djembefola extraordinaire) told him, “It takes your hands a week to get used to Africa.” it sure seemed like this. Every African djembe players hand I shake seems like it is coated with concrete. Their hands are hard because of djembe playing. The only exceptions are Mamady and Famoudou. Their hands are as soft as a baby’s behind. It’s all about developing the correct technique I think. Personally, my hands are getting used to more and more playing which is a great thing. I am also happy to have procured a good amount of chea butter to keep my hands protected.

After class, I went over to get my newly bought African pants stitched because I spotted a tear. Big Lamen, true to his ‘professionalism’, was happy to rectify this. He invited me for a cup of very strong and sweet black tea made by him on the roadside. Many Senegalese people do this: sit around all day, making extremely strong and sweet tea and watch the world around them go by. For 30 minutes, so did I. He was explaining to me how the Gambians are the more hospitable people in comparison to the Senegalese. I met his cousin Keba and his friend M’bake. Each person in the conversation takes turns to have his tea. They all won’t have it at the same time but one by one. As much as I would have liked to soak the hospitality in, I had to get back in time for the evening session. Every time we walked around in the village we heard calls of ‘djembefola’, and ‘wonderful performance’ from random people on the road. Not that they wouldn’t come up and talk to us anyways, but there seemed to be a genuine sense of admiration in the behaviour of the villagers towards the entire group. This was a wonderfully rewarding feeling to have. I was proud to be associated with this group and to be Mamady’s student.

That night we went out to watch another djembe Rhythm Ensemble ‘Forre Sacre’ perform at Che Vero, a club close to the beach. After some reggae dancing which seems customary by now, the band took center stage. There were 6 djembefolas and 3 dununs.It was a power packed 60 minutes that constantly kept us moving and reminded us of a high energy African Drum Circle. I was happy to be able to recognize most of the rhythms and was amazed at their tight and well executed arrangements.

The next day we learned the rhythm Djaa. Iya sensed that we were tired and that the weekend was nearing and hence he chose this rhythm which was simpler to play and whose djembe technique was less strenuous than the previous day. Djaa according to Mamady, is a Malinke rhythm from North East Guinea and is a dance of seduction that is played by and for young people. The boys and girls form semi-circles on either side. A boy from  the group will lead with a scarf in his hand and after his short solo, will place this scarf on a girls neck. It is then this girl’s turn to do her short solo and then pass the scarf on to another boy. This way the entire group gets to know one another. Many a marriage is a result of this ceremony.

At the end of this day, ‘Soliwulen’, a band that played at the Abene festival was slated to play a private concert for us at Le Belles Etoille since Mamady missed their performance at the festival and their entire set was dedicated to the master. The group hailed from Guinea and looked up to the master as we all did. The previous day they all came to greet the master and take his blessings and his advice. I sat in on this session to understand Mamady’s relation with the many ballet groups he has inspired in this lifetime. He focuses on technique, tightness, clarity and strength of course, but more importantly he focuses on the cultural aspect. He explained that the West thinks that African culture is a savage culture and it is this that has to change with their every effort and with each and every performance. They should be clear of their roots and understand their sense of purpose as to why they are doing what they are doing.  Everyone listened very carefully an absorbed every word like sponge. Their respect for the great man was evident. Tonight would be a great opportunity to watch them in close quarters.

Mamady talking to the ensemble, ‘Soliwoulen’

We contributed towards setting up lights so we could take in their spectacle fully. I would have much rather had a large bonfire around which the band performed to experience a ballet performance like it would be in the village but this wasn’t too bad at all but for the exceptional generator fail and consequent disco light effect. The performance was great but for the overall lack of energy that I remember experiencing at the festival but maybe this was due to the presence of the master himself. Mamady’s presence does intimidate the best of them. The dancers took the cake that evening with their ueber-energetic and synchronized moves. Having said this, everyone in the crowd was encouraging and supportive, creating a lovely ambiance for a beautiful performance under the starlit sky.

Soliwoulen performing for us live @ Les Belles Etoille

Come. Drum. Be One.

Taal Inc.