A Journey Home with Mamady Keita: How Codification of Dance Changes the Form

By Joti Singh

September 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In December 2007, I had the opportunity to travel with Mamady Keita to his native village of Balandougou in Guinea, West Africa. Mamady Keita is the most celebrated djembe player in the world. Keita’s biography from his website states, “his mother, wishing to know the destiny of the child that she was carrying, consulted a soothsayer who announced that it would be her last son: ‘The child must be left to amuse himself because it is there that he will make is name.’” As soon as he was able, Mamady Keita was beating on everything he could, so his mother, understanding her son was to become a djembefola, (a master player of the djembe) had his first instrument constructed for him. Mamady Keita, at the age of fourteen, was one of five musicians chosen amongst a total of 500 competitors to join Ballet Djoliba, one of two national ballets in Guinea. He traveled with the group for over 20 years; at the age of 29, he became the Artistic Director for the group. After spending over 20 years with Ballet Djoliba, Mamady spent 2 years playing djembe in Ivory Coast and then traveled to Belgium where he formed his own group, Sewa Kan. He now has a drumming school called Tam Tam Mandingue with branches all over the world, and leads trips to his home in Guinea every year. Mamady is a keeper and sharer of tradition. Students look to him for authoritative knowledge of the history of Guinea’s various regions, ethnic groups and their rhythms.

After two weeks of teaching them djembe compositions, Keita led several of his students to his village to perform. His students came from the U.S., Canada, Belgium, and Japan. Having been a student of Guinean dance for 10 years, and this being my third trip to Guinea, I was eager to travel with this legend and learn about a region firsthand that I had read and heard so much about secondhand. Everyday the group would travel to different surrounding villages and the villagers would welcome us by singing and dancing, giving us a local performance. They were the “opening act” to the main spectacle of this group from abroad. These performances provided glimpses of local traditions: masked dances I’d never seen, different ways of playing and tuning the drums than I’d heard or seen, elements of spontaneity and improvisation not usually encountered in the staged shows I’ve otherwise witnessed.

Even most of my Guinean teachers here in the U.S., who have spent years in national ballets traveling the world, have never seen these dances and masks. They learned about them and their significance from their teachers and pass this information on to their students. Yet, my teachers here are marked with authenticity, seen as the representative of these dances and cultures that many of them have never actually seen in person. It is through their bodies, their movements, and their interpretations that these dances are carried on throughout the Diaspora. I extrapolate from my experience in Balandougou to explore conceptions of “tradition” and “authenticity,” and the diversity and malleability within these traditions.

I practice and teach Bhangra, a harvest dance from Punjab, India, traditionally only danced by men. I am a perpetuator of this tradition, yet I am not a man and not a farmer. The way dance is conceived of and talked about here in the Bay Area, especially what we call “world” and “ethnic” dance erases a lot of subtleties and effaces the histories of these dances—mostly very troubled histories tied to colonialism. Simplifying and categorizing “traditional” forms creates a false sense that these dances have been the same for 1000 years and that they never change and that each country is made of people who have the same exact traditions, and the same access to power and cultural expression.

Many of the cultural dance forms taught in the Bay Area are tied to state-sponsored cultural programs in the nations where they come from. Dance becomes fixed in its relationship to the nation through stylization and codification. Choreographers fix certain movements so that they become representative of the dance and are reproduced by dancers. For example, after Guinea gained independence from France, Sekou Toure invited the dance company, Les Ballets Africains, to become the national dance company. The Artistic Director, Kemoko Sano, traveled throughout Guinea, observed dances from various villages, and picked out certain movements from them. He then returned to Conakry, the capital city, and choreographed dances based on those particular movements. The result being for instance, that his company learned a fishing dance from the Beyla region and a circumcision dance from the Boke region. Now when these dances are taught inside and outside of Guinea, the teachers explain that, for example, Djole is a mask celebration dance from the border of Guinea and Sierra Leone, and many teachers teach the same basic movements. These codified versions of the dances may not closely resemble the dance I might see if I actually traveled to the region where the dance comes from.

I had the chance to see this distinction during my trip to Balandougou. I witnessed a masked dance called Subunikun. Only the similarities in the rhythm clued me in that this was the same dance I’ve learned on comfortable sprung wood floors. In the village, bare feet pound away on stones and dirt, impervious to the pain. Subunikun that I saw consists of only a few steps and a lot of improvisation. Usually, the ballet, urban version of these dances involves more jumping and flexibility and less improvisation.

How does one dance practice become representative of a great diversity of people, and why? Dance is an important site where identities are performed, especially national, ethnic, and gender identities. You have Latin dance, Kurdish Dance, Gay Jitterbug, etc. What is lost in these conceptions of unified dance types is that often dance is borne of violence. Guinean ballet gained importance immediately after independence from France. In the book The Festive State, David M. Guss explains how dances are essentially removed from their contexts.

An example he gives is the Tamunangue dance, lauded by the Venezuelan government as representative of African, indigenous, and European peoples. The Venezuelan government co-opts various folk dances of multitudes of ethnicities and regions in Venezuela to present a picture of national harmony. It becomes a way for the state to face the threat of a dissenting region, one characterized as excessively masculine, deficiently civilized, and “too black,” under the guise of promoting harmonious, national culture. In Guinea, a similar phenomenon occurs: different ethnicities and their troubled relationships with one another are washed over, as dances from each ethnic group become part of the same ballet repertoire.

These examples illustrate the potential for the nation-state to appropriate dance in a movement of strategic national unification and historicization.

It is a reaction to colonialism as well, the desire to show a well defined and unified, post-colonial nation state. Through imagining a common historical and progressive trajectory demonstrated through a communal dance, differences and dissent become unpatriotic and anti-national.

Mamady Keita has never forgotten where he comes from. The roots of his power as a djembe player lie in Balandougou and in the spirit that protects the village. As a serious student of Guinean music and dance, it is essential for me to learn the complexities of this tradition, and not reduce it to a simple transference from village to city to Diaspora. The great artists in this tradition, like Keita, take it as their responsibility to show their students the differences between what artists create and present as Guinean cultural tradition and what exists amongst people in disparate villages in a rich, diverse nation. Keita, who has the varied experiences of village musician, urban, national and international musician is both a true cultural ambassador as well as an amazing musician. Through his music, he seeks to create the unity imagined by the ballet repertoire, not effacing difference but celebrating it.

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of In Dance.

Joti Singh is a dance creator and dance innovator, sprung from the U.S. American south to parents from northern India. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company and choreographs dance from Punjab, India and Guinea, West Africa. Singh began her dance training in Punjabi circles, carrying through her body the culture that is in her blood and memory. As an adult, West African dance entered Singh’s purview, transforming her body’s culture. Through this multilingual body, she explores where history intertwines with contemporary continuities of celebration and injustice.