Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)


(Available through Marilyn Middleton, Bamidele Drummers & Dancers.  (413) 253-4297)

 Les Merveilles d'Afrique were assembled and are directed by Mohamed Kemoko Sano, who has had a long and distinguished career as a musician, teacher, ensemble director and choreographer. Among his many other accomplishments, Kemoko Sano directed the Ballet National Djoliba from 1973 to 1986, has worked with Les Ballets Africains and was Fulbright Artist-in-Residence at San Francisco State University in 1994. He created Les Merveilles d'Afrique in 1986 and on this CD they acknowledge their considerable debt to him on the songs "Kemo Sano" and "Kira". In the live performances of Les Merveilles d'Afrique and on this recording, Kemoko Sano has brought together a stellar cast of djembefolas, djelis (griots) and dancers from Guinea and Guinea Bissau.

As has been often noted on the djembe list, drummers and djelis have traditionally belonged to two separate and distinct classes within Mande society. Certain instruments, such as the kora and the bala have generally been reserved for members of djeli families such as the Kouyates (bala), Diabates (bala) and Cissokos (kora). Djembefolas and djelis also have distinct song repertoires and their social role within Mande society is also quite different. Despite these differences, both djembefolas and djelis take their inspiration from the common source of Mande culture and when they join forces as in the case with this CD, the effect is both beautiful and compelling.

On Diya two djeli instruments, the bala and the kora, are added to the djembe/dunun ensemble (with the occasional introduction of krin and tama). Yamoussa Camara plays first djembe and is accompanied by  Alouseny Soumah and Momozo Camara, who are both talented drummers. People familiar with the Mystique d'Afrique CD "Master of the Forest" (Mohamed Kemoko Sano did the arrangements for this CD) are well aware of the skills of Yamoussa Camara. The liner notes of "Master of the Forest" has the following to say about him: "The hottest young Djembe master to come out of Guinea! His superhuman speed, distinctive tonality and unique sense of phrasing on the Djembe is absolutely unbelievable" and his play on "Diya" justifies these accolades. Aly Diabate, who is also a djeli, maintains a solid groove on the dunun and kenkeni and, if you like dundun, you should like this CD because the dundun really stands out in the mix. Moussa Camara adds tasteful play on krin, kenkeni and tama. Several players are given credit for sangban (see the list of performers below), so I won't attempt to say who is playing on which track.

Keba Cissoko's kora is featured on the intros to several songs ("Sakawnonde", "Alladandala", "Kira") and on a solo piece
("Kora du Manding'). However, as a general rule, once the drums start playing, the kora disappears. In contrast, Abou Sylla's bala, not only adds rich melodic lines over the drums, but is accorded a very prominent place in the mix. Abou Sylla also plays a solo bala piece ("Balakan") and the bala accompanies the kora on some of the intros (the song "Kira" is a particularly good example of a kora/bala intro), so devotees of Mande bala music will find an abundance of riches on this CD. Sayon Bangoura, Yamoussa Camara, Fatou Camara and Keba Cissoko are listed as lead vocalists and without singling out any particular vocal performance, let me simply say that the singing, both lead and chorus, on this CD is strong and moving.

The songs performed have been well chosen and feature both dynamic drum rhythms and beautiful instrumental and vocal melodies, but being the unrepentant djeliphile that I am, I have to admit a preference for the two solo djeli pieces. "Kora du Manding" showcases Keba Cissoko's fine kora playing and singing. This piece begins with a 3 minute kora intro/solo, after which Keba Cissoko sings the first verse and, after an extended kora break, he is joined by a heavenly female chorus on the second verse. The result is poignant. On "Balakan", Abou Sylla begins with a beautiful version of "Bolaba", a classic piece from the djeli bala repertoire, and then segues seamlessly into "Sabara Mafinde", another traditional bala piece. As a novice bala player I can only marvel at the mastery of the instrument, the melodic gift and the sweet touch that Sylla displays both on this track and throughout the CD. The lover of djembe music in me is drawn to "Menifan" which ends with a fiery exchange between the lead djembe and bala and "Dundunba" which also has excellent djembe play. The CD ends with a long medley that fuses Mankan, Djole, Kadan, Tupu Cesse and Maneh; it features a suite of great drum grooves and fine soloing.

This is well-recorded CD, capturing everything from the thunder of the dundun to the delicate grace of the kora. My only criticism of it is that the lead and accompanying djembes should probably have been given a more audible place in the mix. Although this suits me personally because it allows the bala to be heard very distinctly, I suspect that most drummers would prefer the djembes to be a bit louder and the dunun mixed down a bit. The liner notes, which are in English, are good, providing information about the cultural background as well as a translation of the lyrics of many of the songs. In conclusion, the performances on "Diya" are both polished and inspired. "Diya" possesses all the attributes of a recorded performance of a major ballet company: skilled musicians and singers, tight intros and breaks, complex and dynamic arrangements, a diversified program designed to showcase the talents of the individual performers and a consistently high level of play. This CD offers 76 minutes of delectable music and is strongly recommended on the basis of the listening pleasure it delivers. In addition, it provides an excellent illustration of the wealth of Mande music. Although it is the drumming tradition that holds the attention of most of us, this CD also demonstrates the power of the kora, the bala and Mande singing. If one considers each of these four areas of Mande music separately and in and of itself, all the qualities of a fine musical tradition are present. When taken together, however, they unite to form a musical culture, that, in terms of its beauty and variety, has few, if any, rivals in the world.


Male Musicians/vocals/dancers:

Yamoussa Camara - djembe, lead vocals
Momozo Camara - djembe, vocals, dance, sangban
Alouseny Soumah - djembe, vocals, tama, dance, sangban
Aly Diabate - doundoun, vocals, kenkeni
Moussa Camara - krin, kenkeni, tama, vocals
Keba Cissoko - kora, doundoun, lead vocalist
Mamoudou Conde - arrangements, vocals
Abou Sylla - bala, vocals.

Female Musicians/singers/dancers:

Fatou Camara - lead vocalist, dancer, sangban
Sayon Bangoura - Lead vocalist, tama, dancer, sangban
Mamasta Camara - Vocals, castanets (rattle), dancer, sangban
Salematou Yansane - Vocals, dancer, sangban

Song Titles:

1. Intro/Solole
2. Sakawonde
3. Alladandala
4. Kira
5. Djembekan
6. Balakan
7. Kemo Sano
8. Menifan
9. Kora du Manding
10. Diya
11. Doundoun Ba
12. Mankan Final

Special thanks to Sue Mulvey, Bob Feuer and Irene Koloseus whose assistance on this review was invaluable.

Tom Daddesio