Djembe and Mande Music/Bamako Foli
(last revision 02/02/00)

The preceding tracks complete the "festival" part of our CD. I would now like to present to the reader some extra impressions or ideas of what happens at jenbe festivals in Bamako. I thus quote extensively from the liner notes I wrote for the CD: Dunbia et alii, 1997: Dònkili, Call to Dance: Festival Music from Mali. Leiden: CD PAN 2060, PAN Records.

In Mali–as in many other parts of the world–drum and dance festivals accompany almost exclusively a community's rites of transition: namegivings, circumcisions, initiations into secret societies and spirit possession cults, weddings, just to name a few. The festivals are the most important occasions where music is performed and experienced. Festival music aims mainly at framing and synchronizing the close interaction between the musicians hired for the occasion and the audience that participates actively in the dance, song, rhythmic accompaniment and other forms of artistic and emotional feedback which are part of the event.

In Bamako, the Malian capital, festivals simply take place in the streets in front of the compound of the family organizing the gathering. While the drummers and singers wander in, refreshing drinks of ginger or mallow as well as huge amounts of food are being prepared. An awning is stretched from one side of the street to the other and dozens of small chairs are rented for the occasion. A man is trying to plug in the wires somewhere to power his antediluvian amplifying system.

A couple of minutes before the festival begins, the chairs are still stored in a corner; the audience is not yet present. The drummers informally set the event in motion. Playing expressive phrases without steady time, they announce their arrival and greet both their instruments and the scene of the performance. Some children are sent to arrange the chairs into a rough circle or ellipse in such a way that the drummers, with their slightly asymmetrical positioning, are situated in front. It is the younger drummers' job to liven up the party. Due to their vociferous style they first attract a wild crowd of children who hop across the dance floor. (The elders would complain that high speed, volume and rolls alone are not sufficient to play sweet music.) Meanwhile the master drummer and leader of the ensemble remains seated on the side. He indifferently observes the development of the event, waiting for the moment when the young ladies or married women leave the compound in order to enter the festival ground.

Now the drummers rise to play standing upright. The dununs hang down from the players' shoulders on a cord, the jenbes are attached around the hips with a strap. The master drummer now has to be continually ready to act in his special role. A dancing woman emerges from the audience circle and heads for a position face to face with the drummers. Her movements and the master drummer´s jenbe patterns progress in close coordination and mutually incite each other for a short period of intensely energetic communication. The master drummer increases both the tempo and the density of the rhythm and pushes the dancer's solo towards its climax.

At that point –a solo doesn't last longer than a minute–he suddenly ends by playing a signal phrase. Immediately, the dancer rushes back into the rows of spectators from where the next solo dancer will come forward. After the lead jenbe has cut off the first solo dancer´s performance, the master drummer steps back to again join in position with the accompanying drummers. He reduces the tempo and density. Playing short phrases he waits for the next dancer to enter the ring when he will again push the lowered dynamics towards another climax of excitement.

Thus musical and motion related dynamics are repeatedly raised to a series of stormy peaks. This helps maintain an atmosphere of high enthusiasm. People come closer, their mood being stimulated to the point where the distinction between performers and observers is neutralized, all present become participants.

The co-operation between drummers and dancers shapes the basic process of the festival. Two clearly distinct phases, incitement and exhilaration, continuously alternate with each other. But there are further elements which are musically integrated into the performance by the drummers. At many festivals female singers will appear. They might come, as the drummers do, because they are hired and paid as professional entertaining artists. But every female guest experienced or enthusiastic enough may reach for the microphone to sing.

After a while, when the rhythmic flow between drummers and dancers has cooled down, it is the singers' role to renew the sequence with a new song. Soon a line of dancers forms and begins to move at a measured pace in a large circle: the movement is dignified in character and slow in tempo. Every song is, in itself, a request for a certain dance, with sparse accompaniment on the drums. The dancers soon join in singing the song. Their clapping or rattles further supports the rhythmic foundation. Musically the solemn songs dictate the dynamics, while the drums remain subdued.

A younger woman impatiently breaks away from the group dance formation, and a junior drummer responds too early, pushing up the tempo and volume. Since the elders are still in charge, they emphatically command the younger drummer not to disturb their song and dance. During this stage of the dynamic cycle, the tempo slowly increases, and the energy and enthusiasm rises. The progression reaches a point of no return when suddenly the jenbe soloist radically heats up the rhythm, the formation of dancers dissolves and the overall level of excitement gallops forward like a bolting horse. The drum ensemble's volume and density pushes the singing into the background, and the focus shifts back towards the mutual incitement between the individual dancers and the jenbe soloist.

Figure 5:
Jenbe player Jaraba Jakite and dunun specialist Madu Jakite follow the
dancer's movement with their eyes in 1997, Badialan, Bamako.
Photo: R. Polak

Drummers are the only male participants in the modern festival culture. Festival culture was transformed and invented anew in Bamako and other urban centers after WW II and especially flourished during the 1960s, the decade of African Independence. Male passers-by strictly ignore the happenings while family members stay in their houses or display indifference by preparing tea on the next corner. The scene is an overwhelming combination of female pride, elegant dressing, graceful movement and joy. The highly sophisticated drum ensemble creates an atmosphere of permanent emotional tension inducing trance and ecstasy. Excitement crescendos as the alternating solo dancers are electrified by the master drummers' phenomenal, ever increasing speed.

During their short and extremely energetic performances, the dancers often deliberately push themselves towards the threshold of losing normal consciousness. Some continue solo dancing until they become "mad" or "possessed by a spirit". In most cases, at weddings, namegivings and children's' festivals, they are pulled away by their laughing friends. In some situations where trance is tolerated and partly stimulated by drugs (such as at circumcision festivals), it is called "madness" and a rude joke may be made of it. In more controlled circumstances, when a healer is present in a festival organized by her spirit-possession cult, the loss of normal consciousness is used to therapeutically cede control to another identity, to theatrically act out the spirit that had caused illness in kind of a psychodrama.

This range of trance experiences, from the most profane entertainment to therapeutic and religious ecstasy, offer rare opportunities for female physical and emotional catharsis in a generally Islamic and male-dominated society. The drummers specifically emphasize the dancer's actions and movements which do not conform to normal patterns of urban public behavior. The drummers work themselves to the edge of their physical endurance to serve the dynamics of the festival. Their bearing is often dominated by athletic bravado rather than economy. The ones who play with the greatest passion and intensity, often nearing the point of collapse - themselves performing dances with their drums - and staying in continual communication with the solo dancers will most frequently attract orders for future engagements.

Drummers may even reverse gender roles in different situations. Performing dressed up with a single head scarf is a rather unobtrusive version. Young drummers, who get even more scarves thrown to them while dancing, regularly escalate the wild and joyful atmosphere. They wind the scarves around their hips and often imitate womens' characteristic movements. In this respect the drummers not only function as hired musicians but also serve as catalysts meeting the requirements of a female festival culture. Their decidedly low status - a drummer may face quite serious difficulties in finding a girl to marry - is a result of this role.

Figure 6:
Dressing up for a festive ay. 1994, Badialan, Bamako.
Photo: Barbara Polak

As I have tried to describe before, the basic alternation of two dynamically different periods marks the overall structure of the festive day.
Parameter phase 1 phase 2
Dominant Musical Element song drum ensemble
Dance: formation solo
Tempo: slow fast
Density: low high
Character: grave ecstatic

Overtly the festival is framed by singers and drummers successively assuming predominance concerning musical structures and interaction with the participants. But an external viewer would never guess that singers and drummers are independently hired ensembles with different historical backgrounds, social contexts and musical traditions; their performances are closely coordinated and proceed simultaneously throughout, supporting the whole event during each other's part.

A considerate jenbe soloist punctually throws apt ornamental phrases into the song phase just as an experienced singer is able to cheer on enthusiasm with rhythmic shouts. This capability of musical communication across genre borders seems to have informally developed only according to the needs of its context, a female urban festival culture, in the last three decades. Indeed it is practiced uniquely in the festival context itself; there are no rehearsals or even much verbal communication between drummers and singers. Sometimes even performers not hired for the occasion, e.g. clowns, jugglers, acrobats or karate fighters, attract attention.

Every serious Bamako drummer has to know how to musically fit this wide range of performances into the overall festival performance. A performing ensemble is able to assimilate passing drummers in much the same way a hockey team is able to change lines on the fly without losing control of the puck. This means that Bamako drummers do not only share as common repertoire a pool of rhythms; they also share a set of ways in which they can apply their rhythms to the different needs of other performance groups: ways to begin, to accompany, to support, to lead, to incite, to respond, to take off, to cut off, to end.

Parallel performances at the festivals may develop into two or more markedly different lines of action taking place at the same time. Sometimes it is not clear whether a period of solo dances has already ended: the singers will give a sign to the drummers to start a new song while a tardy solo dancer continues the previous sequence by heading in from another direction. At this point the drum ensemble may split its attention, because they have to meet every demand. The two periods do not exclude each other but simply proceed in a parallel manner.

Another point of frequent splitting of action happens when parts of the ensembles move to honor a certain guest situated in the circle of participants or even in the house. Jenbe players quite often leave the general performance formation in order to produce solos face to face with a notable from whom they expect to receive a tip. They might continue to do so even if coordination with the rest of the ensemble becomes impossible due to distance. These incidents could be superficially interpreted as structural failures or at the very least as lapses of communication. Yet even when two weddings are taking place in the same street, say within 20 meters, the simultaneity of performances does not lead to chaos, but rather it is a joyful game of dissolution and constitution, a way of aesthetically playing with the ambiguity of relationships.

Analogous to this, an ambiguity of perception generally distinguishes African musical rhythm: it is an underlying intention of many African musical structures (off beats, polymetrics) to allow synchronization with them in more than one way. Africans often embody this multiple perception of one and the same musical Gestalt by what scientists call "polycentric" dancing. This means that African dancers are able to physically perform and experience what Westerners might perceive by viewing optical illusions like the classical face-goblet inversion or the more recent "magic eye".

Rhythmic conceptions of Malian music peculiarly are characterized by ambivalence even at the micro-rhythmic level of "elementary pulsation", the smallest time unit. Duration of played notes is systematically varied. These strategies of drummers´ performance practice, partly comparable to "swing" in Afro-American musical practice from Jazz to Hip Hop, aim to generate friction between two parallel pulsations simultaneously framing acoustic perception. African rhythm is not only a stable base for the linear flow of time underlying music, fulfilling this necessary task, it offers at the same time ways to playfully explore multiple framing of perception and spaces of tolerance, ways to surpass the rigidity of unilinear relations between acoustic Gestalt, motional patterns and the self.

To end this series of analogies: Malian vocals are arked by the melodic technique of heterophony, in which each part sings in parallel the same melody, but in its own idiomatic way. The most exciting example of splitting and reconstituting linear festival performance is perhaps the moment when, late in the afternoon, large groups from the wedding festival at the bride's house arrive at the bridegroom's to join the ongoing celebration there. You have to imagine a line of 20, 50 or 150 dancers, singers and drummers marching right into the festival, bringing with them their own songs, rhythms and dances. After a period of parallel performance par excellence–such as two festivals mingling, which would appear to be complete chaos from a single-minded perspective–they will merge together in tempo and dynamics, fusing into one song, dance and rhythm, reorganizing as one circle and line of action. This revolution creates the highest tension and constitutes the climax of the entire festival.

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