This is an on-line version of an interview I did with World Percussion and Rhythm Magazine for their Nov, 2007 issue. There is one small difference - in the print version, I referred to the caste of blacksmiths as the 'Nalu' - that was a typo - the caste of blacksmiths in djembe culture are the 'NUMU'.
Click here for the pdf to get the whole issue
By Terry Reimer
Taylor hosted Mamady Keita in Chicago recently and WPR was able to speak with him about his own career as a “djembist”. Taylor received his Tam Tam Mandingue teaching certificate, is a Tam Tam Mandingue Certified Instructor (the only one in the Midwest), a recording artist, producer, educator and performer. Taylor is also the only person in the world, as yet, to receive a Tam Tam Mandingue Diploma, (which enables him to certify others to be Tam Tam Mandingue Instructors and teach up to professional level workshops in the Tam Tam Mandingue curriculum).Taylor is also the Founder and Director of Holy Goat Percussion, performances, sales and repairs djembe and dunun and Director of Tam Tam Mandingue-Chicago, doing workshops, lessons and youth outreach.
WPR: How did you discover the djembe?
Taylor: It was 1994. I worked with two composers for a play and the music had to be live percussion. We started playing on pots and pans, walls, chairs and anything we could bring. Michael McElya, one of the directors of the play, heard about the African djembe and we got two of them. I thought, Wow! “This thing is incredible!” I couldn’t put the djembe down. I began going to the lakefront in Chicago to play; that’s where you and I met. I didn’t know anything though, but that didn’t stop me from going forward full-steam ahead. In those days, I felt like the rhythms were channeling through me – I didn’t know any traditional rhythms, but I played constantly. Later, I would see that much of what I was doing existed in the tradition of djembe. I didn’t even know there were teachers for this instrument.
WPR: How did you begin to get serious?
Taylor: I had produced and recorded a CD of drum music with Chris Pawola. You reviewed this CD for WPR. I played on Lake Michigan and people would join us. I had seen and participated in Grateful Dead drum circles before Arthur Hull and drum circle facilitation was even in Chicago. I went to a Guitar Center workshop with Paoli Mattioli and was playing floor toms as dunduns. Then I met Michael Markus, and hung with Paolo Mattioli and Charmaine-Renata Hubbard, who were teaching at Indiana’s Midwest Drum and Dance Fest in 1994. Felix, who used to manage the drum department at the Belmont and Clark Guitar Center in Chicago (who died some time ago), saw me in Paolo’s workshops and said I should do a workshop. So I was doing workshops for 100 people in Guitar Center before I even knew there were teachers of djembe. Jeff Bodony, an important associate of Morikeba Kouyate (Kora Master and Jali) and instrument maker, was in one of my workshops and asked if I was looking for a teacher. I thought that was a great idea to get a teacher. Morikeba was teaching kora so I called Aly M’Baye who said he taught djembe but charged $75/hour. I also called Yaya Kabo who taught djembe but charged $25/hour so I went with him. I was his first student in the US. The first traditional djembe rhythm I ever learned was Yankady. When I first heard the tone and slap Yaya got in clear African technique, I practically laid an egg! That was the beginning of my path on the African side of things. I would later learn that Aly M’Baye and all the other Senegalese drummers from Ballet de Silimbo learned djembe from Yaya. The Ballet de Silimbo du Senegal came here to Chicago in the early 90’s to play but no producers were provided so they got pissed and defected. Some were at 6950 S. May Street in Chicago. It was “Africa House” there for a long while. YaYa eventually formed a group class at Malcolm X College.
WPR: Can you give us a time line of events in your career?
Taylor: I started playing in ‘94. In ‘95 I established Holy Goat Percussion and recorded and co-produced my first CD (having begun recording in ’94). I met Michael Markus in August of ’95 at the Midwest Drum and Dance Fest in Selma, Indiana. I met YaYa Kabo in November of ’95. I started teaching at Old Town School in ’97.YaYa encouraged me; I thank him so much for that among other things. In ‘97 I made my first trip to Guinea with Michael Marcus and M’Bemba Bangoura. In ’98 I went to Guinea again; also that year I performed the first major scale production of my performance art piece called The Jungle, at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. In 2000 I quit my day job and went into djembe 100 percent. In 2001 I went to Guinea with Mamady Keita’s program; that same year I produced my 2nd CD called Silence. In 2002 I went again to Guinea with Mamady Keita. In 2003 I produced my first instructional DVD, Remembering How to Drum and I did a third CD, Silence in the Rhythmic Soup, Music for Yoga and Meditation, which you also reviewed. In 2005 I got my Certification as a Tam Tam Mandingue instructor. I’m the only one in the Midwest. There are eleven in the US and about 40 worldwide (4 TTM Schools in the US and 13 worldwide). In 2005, I also produced my second instructional DVD, Akaran Iko Iko. 2006 was a kind of blur year; I don’t remember it very well. But then in June 2007 I was the first person ever to receive the Tam Tam Mandingue Diploma Degree from Mamady Keita.
WPR: What is special about that degree?
Taylor: For the Tam Tam Mandingue Teaching Certificate exam (the first degree), there are criteria that Mamady has created. There are rhythms you are tested on to demonstrate a level of proficiency that’s consistent with what the Tam Tam Mandingue Certification is. It doesn’t mean you can direct a school. Being the director of a TTM school has more to do with your business presence, tenure, experience, internet presence, teaching at major institutions and things like that. The Diploma is the highest degree that he created to focus more on deeper, more intricate aspects of djembe orchestra music. You have to have a Teaching Certificate, and be the director of a TTM school to even take the diploma test. Also the diploma gives you the ability to certify people for the Teaching Certificate (for them to be TTM Instructors). Mamady wants that to happen so this tradition will live on. Both tests are extremely difficult. On the diploma test especially, Mamady is very unforgiving of mistakes; he needs to know that you really know your stuff. Part of taking these tests is Mamady’s perception of how ready you are, how you handle knowledge and who you are as a person. It is important to him to know you as a person and be comfortable with that, since you will be representing him, his schools and his international organization; I love that about Mamady.
WPR: Tell us about the difference between traditional and non-traditional djembe music.
Taylor: I started djembe in a non-traditional way, then I discovered the centuries old historical and cultural depth that was just fascinating. The tradition is wonderful. Nontraditional music is great too. But what we need to be careful about is how we speak about the djembe’s origins and its traditional aspects. When we speak about the tradition of djembe, it behooves us to go to where that rhythm is from and talk about it in a way that preserves its oral tradition. It is not against tradition to play djembe in a non-traditional context but it’s a matter of nomenclature (naming). If you have a rhythm and you don’t know what it is named, where it is from or why it is played and by whom, just say so. Some folks would attach names to rhythms that were not the rhythm in any geographical, traditional or cultural context. A lot of people were doing that without knowing, in the mid and early 90’s. Then I’d go to the place where this rhythm is from and they don’t play it like that at all. Mamady’s been really directed on cleansing the world of incorrect information about the oral tradition of his culture. A lot of rhythms are just from Guinea or just from the Ivory Coast or just from Mali. They are not from Senegal, Ghana, Togo, etc. Mamady, Famoudou Konate, Fadouba Oulare (you have to go out into the bush to get to him!), are the three, oldest living initiated grand Malinke djembe Masters. The Malinke ethnic group is one of the more dominant in djembe culture. There are LOTS of ethnic groups in djembe culture though. Some are the Bambara, the Xasonke, the Malinke, the Baole, the Senefo, Guoro, Toma, Gerze, Landouma, Nalu, Baga, Mendenyi and Susu – these groups are from Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast.
WPR: Do Senegal, Nigeria or Ghana among other countries in Africa have their own djembe culture?
Taylor: As far as my research indicates and from my discussions with Mamady, among the countries you mention, only, the Tambacounda region in eastern Senegal has an historical link to the djembe. In regards to Senegal, they are far more connected to sabar (like Master DouDou N’Diaye Rose plays), serrouba and bugaraboo,. The bugaraboo is a cowskin drum that looks kind of like an ashiko; straight sided with usually one person playing it with jingles on his wrists. The other places you mentioned, Ghana and Nigeria, don’t have a djembe tradition. That’s a very important point.
WPR: My first djembe teacher was from Ghana.
Taylor: Maybe he went somewhere else to learn djembe tradition or maybe, like so many others, he just put his own culture’s rhythms on another culture’s instrument – in this case the djembe. My first teacher YaYa Kabo is Senegalese had a teacher from Guinea and a teacher from Mali. So even though YaYa was from Senegal, his information was totally intact. The Mande area is where the Malian Empire used to be. It was made strong by Sunjata Keita, the great Emperor and conqueror of the 12th and 13th centuries, CE. The djembe was originally carved by the NUMU (this was typo’d in the print version of this article as 'Nalu'), the cast of blacksmiths in the old Malian Empire; the women had created the rhythms before the djembe was first carved, clapping them out while singing. The way I was told from Famoudou and Mamady, it was the women who asked the men to play the rhythms on djembe. It predated colonization so you can’t say djembe was from this or that country. It’s not even from the north of Mali. Up there it is all sand and desert. You need trees to make a djembe. In the north you have the sand/silica/ceramic doumbek.
WPR: Life seems to have begun in this area and in ancient times, people created instruments to make sounds to express themselves. How do you trace the “family tree” of instruments to djembe? Did the log drum or slit gong come first? I remember the Museum of Science and Industry had a great African exhibit on this.
Taylor: That’s a good question. Mickey Hart talks about this in his book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic. There were idiophones (things clapping or striking against one another) and then membranophones (skin drums) came a little later. They were able to forge metal in the Malian Empire so maybe they also made bells too. But I don’t know of the djembe as a precursor to other instruments. It’s a very common shape with the basic physics to produce a resonant sound.
WPR: Was it a culture shock to go to Africa? Tell us about your trips.
Taylor: My first main impression in Dec ‘97 was that when I got back to America, I was humbled to see how many things we use were so unbelievably unnecessarily. I found the excess in the Western World repugnant. It made me more silent and gave me that shocking awareness of what is truly necessary and how often we confuse the words “want” and “need”. The culture shock of being in Africa was a whole different thing. I would wake up when I was there and would see what I thought was a Master Drummer. Five minutes later, I’d see another. I thought everyone was a freaking Master! Well, it certainly doesn’t mean what I thought it meant in ’97 in Africa. There can be some common agreement that Fadouba Oulare, Famoudou Kouyate, Adama Drame, Soungalo Coulibaly, Doudou N’Daye Rose, Noumoudy Keita, Gbanworo Keita and Mamady Keita are Masters. Outside of that, it’s very subjective. It’s a combination of many things that make a Master.
WPR: Maybe inherent talent, the genius factor, the conviction of your head, heart and spirit, have something to do with it?
Taylor: Good point. The first couple of years I was in Africa at M’Bemba Bangoura and Michael Markus’ camp, I studied with Gbanworo Keita (he was with Mamady in Ballet Djoliba and after was lead soloist for Les Ballets Africains). It was very “village”. He would show you what to do, then he would solo and that was the deal. It was a very different kind of learning from folks like Mamady, Famoudou and M’Bemba who broke it down a lot more. M’Bemba is special to me because he’s my teacher’s teacher (Michael Markus, that is) and was also hand chosen by Mamady Keita to be in the Ballet Djoliba as second in command to do all the breaks and solos, when Mamady wasn’t there.
WPR: How did your personal or spiritual growth change as you studied djembe?
Taylor: Drumming and vibration and rhythm are things that the whole universe is made of. When the universe is out of sync, we are too. The core of everything we know and everything that has been known, the cosmos, nature, atomic structure, is cyclical and therefore rhythmic. In any culture, ritual practice is all about that. A lot of cultures practice with chanting or music or spinning fire or doing dances with different costumes or whatever; many involve the use of fetish objects. It’s all ritual practice. It’s all moving energy around. The djembe is no different in that way. The wisdom is 1,000’s of years deep. I’ll just say it; it feels like I was born again when I met djembe.
WPR: Was it terrifying, beautiful and sad at the same time to “connect”?
Taylor: That’s interesting…It was more beautiful and sad…I can see how people would feel terrified of something so different that kind of rips you out of your roots, spinning you around in this effluvium of just everything, right? A lot of the ease I felt in the beginning of traveling through it, I can credit to my ignorance. I didn’t know enough to be afraid or perhaps I am just the sort to welcome being uprooted. I was fascinated by this feeling. As I progressed and became more and more familiar with the feeling of connectedness I experienced while drumming, when I saw people clearly not connected, closed off, their disconnectedness became much more clear and louder to me.
WPR: Do you think the world as a whole is moving toward connectedness?
Taylor: I think the world may be moving toward a necessary destruction by the human race. Maybe that would be the greatest gift to humans, to wipe ourselves out so earth can start again and perhaps be a more peaceful place. When I teach the tradition I tell people to listen and to remember. In my opinion, everyone knows how to drum but we’ve forgotten. My mission is to bring people together, to spread community by way of the drum. I am optimistic that, as a planet, we are moving toward greater connectedness; a greater sense of community.