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Djembe History and Culture from Drumculture Gambia


This djembe history guide is taken from my very simplistic research and is based on the stories I have been told by various djembe teachers, other music teachers, elders and historians that I have spoken to whilst travelling in West Africa. I can’t guarantee its accuracy and would welcome feedback from any interested reader who thinks that any part of it is incorrect.

Early West African Cultural History

It focuses mainly on the history of the Mande Empire of West Africa and how it has influenced djembe playing today. The ‘modern’ history of West Africa was mainly influenced by colonialism (and its subsequent demise) but this has also led to some confusion as the different languages (French, English and the indigenous dialects) often use different words to describe the same thing. For the purposes of this study, the following interpretations are used:

Mande – the original homeland considered to be the larger stretch of the river Niger roughly between Kouroussa (Guinea) and Bamako (Mali). (Mande can be referred to as Mali).
Malinke – those people who remain geographically within the homeland of Mali and Guinea
Mandinka – those people who have settled further West in the Senegambia area (Senegal and Gambia)

The most important thing to remember is that the period of history we are talking about here was before colonialism and before the borders of Guinea, Senegal etc., were formed. You have to imagine, therefore a vast area without these borders (but I will of course refer to the names of these ‘modern’ countries for ease of understanding).

The West African Mande empire was established early in the 13th century by a legendary warrior called Sunjata. At its height, in the 14th to 16th centuries, it was an extremely powerful empire and had expanded to Gao in the East (just near the Niger river at the Mali/Niger border), Timbuktu in the North and all the way West to the Atlantic coast.

In the Mande society, there were four classes of hereditary professional artisans; blacksmiths-sculptors (numu), leatherworkers and potters (karanke), musicians/singers (jeli) and orators (fina). It is thought that drumming is closely associated with the blacksmith/sculptors and goes back thousands of years, well before the Mande empire was formed. The Jeli, regarded as the guardians of Mande music and oral traditions, played the Balafon, Koni and Kora. They were an extremely important part of Mande culture and society and were coveted by the king.

There is a clear and fundamental distinction in Mande society between jeli and nonjeli musicians; the jeli have a duty to devote their lives to music and this will be transferred through generations. The nonjeli, however, often faced resistance from their families if they chose to dedicate their life to music. They also tended to work in nonjeli spheres of music (such as djembe and drumming).

Those West Africans with knowledge of the history of the Mande empire will often recount the following story:

One day, two brothers of the Traore clan, Danmansa Wulanin and Danmansa Wulantamba, killed a magic buffalo that had been terrorising the local people. The brothers were rewarded with a gift from the local people; a woman called Sogolon Konde. The brothers took her to marry a Mande chief called Magan Kon Fatta, of the Konate lineage.

Magan Kon Fatta’s first wife, Sasuma Berete, had already borne him a daughter, Nana Tiriba. The first born son (Dankaran Touma) from his first wife, and first born son (Sunjata) from his second wife, became bitter rivals for the chiefdom of the Mali empire.

Magan Kon Fatta had his own Jeli, Jakuma Doka, whose son, Bala Faseke Kouyate (the founder of the Kouyate line of jelis), was appointed as the Jeli for Magan Kon Fatta’s son, Sunjata.

As a young child, Sunjata was unable to walk; inspired by seeing his mother being ridiculed by Magan Kon Fatta’s first wife, he one day forced himself to walk, using an iron rod for support; he ultimately became a very powerful and strong hunter. When Magan Kon Fatta died, his son Dankaran Touma inherited the throne of Mali. Sunjata and his mother went into exile, but made alliances with many local rulers during their travels; the blacksmith Camaras, the Cisses and Tounkaras.

The young king sent Sunjata’s jeli, Bala Faseke Kouyate, on a peace mission to Sumanguru Kante, the blacksmith sorcerer and king who ruled the Susu territory and was a constant adversary to the young king of Mali, but the Susu king kept Bala Faseke Kouyate captive. The Susu king, Sumanguru, eventually captured Mali. One day Bala Faseke gained access to the Susu king’s secret chamber, within which he found a huge magical Balafon. He began playing the balafon and the Susu king heard the playing, became very angry, and went to see who it was that was playing. When he discovered Bala Faseke playing the balafon, Bala began to sing the praises of the king. The king was enchanted and took him as his own jeli.

Sumanguru eventually destroyed the capital of Mali (Niani). Sunjata was urged to return to his homeland, and was met with great acclaim; he raised an army from his former allies that he met whilst he was in exile and went to battle with Sumanguru to reclaim the throne. Sunjata’s former Jeli, Bala Faseke Kouyate, managed to escape during one of the battles and return to his former master. During one battle, Sunjata’s half-sister, Nana Tiriba, discovered Sumanguru’s ju-ju and shot and grazed him with a cockspur arrow; Sumanguru fled, never to be seen again, and Sunjata reclaimed the throne.

Sunjata unified the 12 Mande kingdoms and Bala Faseke Kouyate became the honoured keeper of the balafon.

The above story illustrates the importance that music, and the tradition of the jeli, has on West African culture.

After the reign of Sunjata, the Mali Empire continued to expand


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