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From Balandugu to Durham 

Mamady Keita's world-class djembe comes to town

A divine informed Mamady Keita's mother to expect fame for her son before he even left the womb. It wasn't long before he became known as a rhythm prodigy in his native village of Balandugu in the West African country of Guinea. He played kitchen percussion on his mother's pots and pans until she bought him a kid-sized djembe drum, with which he slept. By age 10 he was a full-blown master, hipped by his Malinke elders to the ancient local traditions. In the 54 years since that soothsayer's prediction, Keita's fame as a djembe drummer still takes him around the world on a regular basis. He toured with Guinea's national ballet troupe for more than 20 years, seven of them as the group's director. In the '80s Keita launched his own folkloric group, Sewa Kan, and founded a drumming school in Brussels, Tam Tam Mandingue, which has branched out like a baobab tree across Europe, North America and Japan. Outreach workshops each year take him on the road, literally, from Boise to Brazil.

Keita's "Sila Laka" workshop tour brings the West African drum master to Durham Sept. 15-16. Local percussionist and educator Beverly Botsford, a student of Keita's who is cosponsoring the visit, says Keita is "reaching out more to the United States of America" in recent years, lending his authentic knowledge of djembe rhythms in their original, undiluted form.

"Mamady has been such a great inspiration over a lot of years," says Botsford. "He's devoted to this mission to share djembe in its beautiful traditional form, to share some of the rhythms as they were originally developed in village situations, and he's devoted to sharing it with all walks of life."

Keita inherited the oral tradition of drum lore as it was passed on to him in his native Balandugu, but what makes him an international conduit for that knowledge is his ability to communicate West African musical idioms so that they make sense to people who may be used to listening for the downbeat.

"His teaching is impeccable. He's blown my mind for years, and he continues to get more effective. He's developed methods that work for people with a more Western sensibility, if you will. It's difficult to find people who are from those traditional cultures to translate it to our ears."

Besides authenticity and the effectiveness of Keita's teaching style, there's aesthetics, Botsford adds.

"The bottom line is the parts work together in ways that are profoundly beautiful to me. The parts are not full of fluff or flash; they are pure substance."

Beginning, intermediate and advanced djembe workshops take place Sept. 15-16 at the Duke School for Children at 1516 Hull Ave. A class on the deeper-voiced dunun drums will be taught on Sept. 16 at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at 4907 Garrett Road. For all djembe workshops, only West African djembe and ashiko drums will be allowed (no congas please), but rental drums will be available for $5. Instruction costs $25 per djembe class and $35 for the dunun workshop. A full class schedule and registration are available at the Web site For more information, contact Nancy Brown at 491-8003 or 491-8002 or e-mail

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