Djembe and Mande Music/Review Section 
(last revision 12/25/2000)

To say that Mamady Keïta’s latest recording, "Balandugu kan" is remarkable is an understatement. Picture the ultimate field recording made in the very heart of the Mali Empire—with one of the world’s greatest living djembefolas added to the mix. Balandugu is a small, fairly isolated village in Eastern Guinea, about five kilometers from the Mali border. In January of 1999 Mamady returned to Balandugu, along with the sound wizards of Fonti Musicali, in order to make a recording with the musicians from the village where he was born and raised. As the liner notes put it, "Mamady demonstrates as he plays with the musicians of his village that his art has not lost touch with its roots." There is a beautiful picture on the first page of the liner notes of Mamady paying homage to the oldest of Balandugu. This picture truly speaks a thousand words.

Particularly special is the participation of the Séréwa, the jelis of the brotherhood of hunters of Djondugu, playing the donso koni. The Séréwa are held in high esteem and their presence was a very great honor for Mamady; their willingness to share their music adds an additional magical quality to this project. Beyond being fantastic music, this beautifully recorded double CD set is an opportunity for a closer aural "glimpse" at traditional Mandingue music in the village context. There are no opening or closing breaks in the music. Singing opens most of the pieces, with the instruments joining in, usually with the dundun first. While Mamady’s djembe solos are as crisp and inventive as ever, the rest of the djembes are much lower than those we are all familiar with. Mamady demonstrates how deeply rooted his understanding of traditional Malinke music remains, interacting with the village musicians at least as comfortably as with the professional musicians on his other recordings. Very prominently featured are the handclapping and singing of the village women and girls, emphasizing that they retain a prominent role in village music. In addition to the donso koni, there are several other traditional Malinke instruments featured on different tracks that have been given little exposure to Western ears. In the Wassolon region where Balundugu is located, there are no bells played with the dunduns. Rather the bells heard on the recording are small hand bells called karignan, played with amazing dexterity with quick movements of the wrist.

The first disc opens with "20 Janvier 1999" a short extract from what is described as "the djagbe, the festival marking the end of Ramadan." This is followed by "Djagbe" itself, one of my favorite rhythms, with its distinctive sangban part. It is interesting to hear such a familiar rhythm in a different, more traditional context. Different, yet the same. Next is "Nama," featuring the undescribable and eery sounds of Fodé Doubouya playing a trumpet-like instrument called kérébudu, consisting of a gazelle horn with a gourd attached at the end forming a bell (there is a nice picture in the notes.) In "Kögnö Föli," the women sing a song about a good mother hen, to a backdrop of Mamady’s tasteful licks interacting nicely with the dundun. Then "Soboninkun," another familiar rhythm marked by its classic sangban part. Soboninkun is the name not only of the rhythm and the dance, but also of he who dances it, wearing a mask of a gazelle or other small animal. (I love the picture of the young dundunfola in the notes of the page with Soboninkun.)

"Samokoro" is the name of a bedbug; malicious gossips and flatterers are compared to it. "Konden" is an important mask dancer who provides protection to unitiated boys. (There is an excellent picture of Konden in the liner notes.) "Kéné Föli" is a rhythm for the circumcision ceremony. It features a transverse flute used only on this occasion (again pictured in the notes.) "Séné Föli" is a farming rhythm; the accompanying song telling of the work of the farmers preparing the fields. The first disk ends with "Fankani," another old favorite of mine. The song says "Play the strength! Today it doesn’t work, it’ll go better tomorrow."

The second disc opens with "Jeux de Fillettes" a short recording of young village girls singing and clapping their hands as they play. This is followed by "Fé," a dance in which the girls provide the rhythms for the songs when they "manipulate, throw, and spin half-gourds fitted with little bells while they dance in perfect ensemble" (nicely pictured in the notes). Next is a version of "Djaa," a seduction dance formerly danced only by girls, but now danced at every celebration. This is followed by "Mendiani." In addition to the rhythm and dance, the word Mendiani refers to the young girls that dance Mandiani, as well as to the costume worn by them. The costume is a symbol of purity, and can only be worn by young virgins between seven and twelve years old. (The picture of the young Mendiani—standing on a man’s shoulder dressed in the Mendiani costume—is practically worth the price by itself.) The last drum piece is another version of "Kéné Föli" featuring the taman, an armpit drum. Although now played on djembe, this rhythm originally was only played on the taman.

The final four tracks feature the powerful music of the Séréwa, the jelis of the brotherhood of hunters of Djondugu, playing the donso koni, which is a kora-like instrument but with six strings, and a different playing position. A metal strip covered with rings attached to the end of the neck adds a rustling sound to that of the strings. Accompanying the donso koni are the karignan and the foule. The hunters dance while armed and the sound of a rifle going off will sometimes punctuate the Séréwa’s narration. "Lolamba" is a song of welcome dedicated to the village of Balandugu, and the festivities that were taking place there. "Alla Gnalen Mamady La" is a song of praise to Mamady Keïta. "Tanan" tells that the return from a fruitful hunt is an occasion for rejoicing and gives rise to the recounting of the incident of the trip and the hunter’s exploits. "Tomnadan" is a song created on the death of a great hunter and mixes his praises, the memory of his bravery and the good deeds that he had done.

All in all, "Balundugu kan" is an extraordinary recording, demonstrating both the vitality of the Mandingue culture, as well as Mamady Keïta’s skill as a musician and as an ambassador for that culture. As the liner notes say, "the experienced professional musician Mamady Keïta and the percussionists of the Wassolon villages had no problems relating to each other when they played together; the music fused into a whole as of itself." We are lucky to have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate this special music.

Doug Kane

This CD (as well as Mamady Keita's other recordings), can be purchased on the internet at . They are also available from Tam Tam Mandingue professor Michael Moonbear and other fine vendors on these lists.

[ToC] [ToP]