Famoudou Konaté

Alan's master on the djembe and dunu drums.

History of Djembe/Dunu

A bit of history is told of the djembe and its place in society.



Not a complete biography but a look at the sources.


What this Means for the World

We will have to continue to follow along to see.

Alan and Famoudou in Guinea many, many years ago.

History of Famoudou and Djembe

Famoudou Konate- 'How I became a drummer’.


Famoudou is an extraordinary man who has led an extraordinary life! Talented beyond compare, some of his history and wisdom is captured below. Many DrumConnection students have had the privilege of studying directly with the grandmaster over the years both in Guinea and in Boston. And we all knew at the time, this was historic and we could not miss it. His wisdom comes from his upbringing as much as it comes from who he was born to be and circumstances, of course.


It has been an honor the whole way with this man; from the night before we ever played together when we met under a crescent moon around 11PM in complete darkness, the moon brought us together for a moment. In French, he said 'the Moon is very beautiful, isn't it?' and as I said 'yes, it is'... he was gone into the night; to be seen the next morning for our second meeting at DJEMBE CLASS #1 - 10 AM 


Little known story written many years ago.


Some history to add to you knowledge of the path of djembe in Africa, Guinea and the World.


Famoudou is talking...

My family was from Kankan, the second biggest city in the country. My 

grandfather left this city and went to Kouroussa. Like many others, he fled 

Kankan to escape Alemamy Samoury, a despot who killed many people. In 

Kouroussa my grandfather lived near the Margo River. He had many workers, 

and with them and his children, he planted rice -- 'fursa' rice, the best 

sort of rice that there is and very scarce now. At that time there were no 

artificial fertilizers, so when the soil was exhausted a farmer moved 

elsewhere to plant anew, while the old fields lay fallow until they could be 

used again. So I was born in Manina , a village about 100km from Kankan. The 

village no longer exists. My father later returned to his old village.


Why did I become a drummer?


Drums are normally played only in blacksmiths' or griots' families. My 

father did not descend from blacksmiths or griots; nevertheless, he always 

enjoyed making drums for his family: djembe, dununba, sangban and kenkeni. 

So all of his children played drums at an early age. My father loved me very 

much, and when I was only a few years old, he made me a very small djembe, 

on which the drumhead was attached by small bamboo rods (this method of 

attaching the drumhead is no longer in use today). 


My Early Life


I was one of 45 children -- my father had seven wives. He was very well-to-do. There were 15 or 20 houses in the village, but on the occasion of big festivals the people from the village always came to my father's house. He had many cows and goats, and he had enough rice.


So on festive occasions it was at his house that the butchering and feasting took place. The women in the village built a house (the boulou) for their meeting. It was a lovely house with a large foyer through which one entered into the courtyard. When the house was finished, they wanted to open it officially with drum music. My big brother played the djembe very well at that time.


I was eight and could not yet carry the large djembe -- it was heavier than I was. 


The women came to my father and said, "We want your son Famoudou to drum for 

the opening of our newly-built boulou-house." My father said to the women, "But he is too little to play the big djembe!" But the old women answered, "We will manage it!"


At that time, if one wanted a drummer to play at a ceremony, it was necessary to donate ten kola nuts. This is still true today. So the women gave my father the kola nuts and I went to their ceremony. I played the drum while they talked and danced and sang. Of course I was playing fairly simple rhythms. And that is how the ceremony went. Afterwards, the women thanked my father.


When I was 18, there was a liberation movement against colonial France. There were two factions -- one wanted Guinea to continue under French rule, the other strove for independence. Both sides wanted me to play for them. So I was torn back and forth. One of my brothers was not for the revolution but for those adhering to France. Another brother, who played the djembe very well, was for independence -- and I, too, played for independence. But the others were stronger and had much more money, and sometimes they tried to bribe me with it. They came at night and said, "Don't play for the others! Play for us! We'll give you money."


The République de Guinea gains Independence


In 1958, we finally achieved independence. Keïta Fodéba, a man from Guinea, was living in France at that time. He had put together a group of musicians, from various African countries: Benin, the Ivory Coast, Togo and Guinea. They called themselves the Ballets Africains. The new president of Guinea, Sekou Touré, appointed Keïta Fodéba defense minister. When Keïta Fodéba returned to Guinea he organized a new group and called it Ballets Africains de la Republic de Guinée. I was recruited -- indeed really conscripted as if for the military service -- when the Ballet came back from its first tour of Europe. 


A big festival was held in every region, the members of the Ballet had all sorts of musicians play for them, and they registered the names of the good ones. I found the prospect wonderful that I might be able to travel to Europe -- I had never even been in the capital city of Conakry. All the drummers and dancers of the region were there, and all of them, like the members of the Ballet, wore neckties. We lit the fire for the drums and tightened them tauter and tauter to a higher and higher pitch. Then all of us -- certainly about 12 drummers -- played our rhythms. 


There was so much noise that it was impossible to distinguish anything any more. So the order was given that everyone should play his own solo, one after the other. Everyone played. Then they announced: Famoudou from Sangbarala! I played and played, and soon the entire Ballet stood up. A great dancer, Laiba Soko, began to dance like crazy. While I played, he suddenly made a giant backward somersault from a standing position -- with his necktie. He was very pleased with my djembe-playing and wrote down my name. 


So I was called upon to join. But I began to have some misgivings when the people in my village kept saying: To the Ballet? Isn't that dangerous, traveling so far?However, I had to go, it was a sort of a summons. So in December 1962 I went to Conakry. I was to play the dununba, sangban, kenkeni and djembe -- and dance. I did everything -- even danced! And, as I have already said, I saw most of the countries in the world during my many big concert tours. I stayed with the Ballet until 1987. Then I was invited to Germany, to perform solo there and to teach. I did not return to the Ballet after this experience.


Rhythms, Famoudou and a Timeline


During the 26 years with the Ballet I had forgotten many traditional rhythms. We did play in the traditional style with the Ballet, but even so, in a very altered, concert-like way. I didn't really like it, but I was powerless to do anything about it. I had to conform, as I was not the leader. After having left the Ballet, I began gradually to recall the traditional rhythms or to learn them again, as well as many old songs, from the people in my native village of Sangbarala. The Malinke had a very differentiated culture. One life is not long enough to learn all the rhythms 

-- there are too many.


I once wrote down the names of all the rhythms I know and arrived at more than 80. Moreover, there are of course the rhythms of the Susu, the Fula, and the other ethnic groups of my country. When I go to the village, I always hear rhythms that I don't know yet. These many, many rhythms are still played today. But little by little there are problems. In the meantime, we, too, have discotheques, and television is 

becoming more and more widespread.


The Future


When the villagers move to Conakry they slowly become estranged from their old culture. My children, for example, who live with me in the city, would no longer know much about it, but I teach them: I take them with me to the village, and of course when I hold workshops in my house, they learn a lot about the old culture. 

However someday, when there are no more people like me, our traditional culture -- including the music -- may be lost. Someone once asked me if I mind it the Europeans come and want to learn my music. I said, "For us it is a good thing! It helps us a lot -- it helps to make our music known and to keep it alive." 


-From the book "Rhythms and Songs From Guinea" by Famoudou Konate


DrumConnection is involved in the next Book of Famoudou Konaté at this time.