Young drum academy: Conakry
Guinee kids learn to play by listening
In Guinea, West Afrika, students of jenbe and dunun drumming learn to play by listening. Being born to the music is, of course, an advantage since you’ve been hearing polyrhythmic melorhythms from the time of conception. While in Conakry in 2004 I’d awake each morning to a rooster crowing and by mid-morning the children were playing #10 cans outside Famoudou Konate’s compound in Simbaya, on the street in Conakry.
To the Western ear, it is incredible that these cans played by kids could sound so incredibly alive. All day the children would listen to the master as he instructed students from across the world. Private or group lessons isn’t the way children learn in country, even if they are apprenticed to a master. They learn to listen because listening is the key to learning to play. Learning to hear the intricate way in which the musical patterns fit together to create the melorhthm that makes traditional Mande music distinct is the gift they develop.
The language of the Malinke translates to the rhythmic patterns they play, so when the children learn they are extending the range of their ability to speak. Listening to the masters of the tradition when they play is an advanced study in membranic linguistics. They are speaking and the children, in learning to listen and repeat what they hear, are extending the oral tradition of their ancestors and carrying their culture forward . Play on young lions, play on!
Moussa Bolokada Conde, a master from the Sankaran region of Guinee, from the village of Morowaya, is a prime example of this early learning system when it turns masterful. Bolokada learned to play by listening and repeating what he heard, whether on a table, the floor, a tin can, or his mother’s back as early as two years old. This ear from the music convinced his mother that he would be a jenbefola, and she being a master of the Mendiani dance, took her son everywhere the music was played because she knew that exposure would tune his ear and fire the spirit guiding his hands.
But the mastery is no secret, as Bolokada says, it’s practice, practice, practice, and a devout love of the music, culture and its people.