Drums Echo West Africa's Past

An American team goes on-site to record traditional music live

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT was a bush recording studio - but it worked.

In a village near this capital city, two Americans wearing earphones sit by a tree, adjusting a digital tape recorder powered by a car battery. Two small microphones are set up in the dirt in front of Saikouba Badjie, a drummer who beats his four drums so furiously that an assistant has to keep mopping Mr. Badjie's forehead to prevent the sweat from blinding him.

Women banging palm-frond clappers provide the downbeat, as they sing in a semicircle around the drummer; several other women dance wildly.

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The result of live recordings like this one, made earlier in the year, is an authentic and surprisingly crisp and clear set of CDs by Village Pulse, a small company based in Seattle.

Listening to their recordings is like entering a musical archaeological dig: Years and layers of music have been scraped away to reveal some of the purest traditional music still played in Africa.

The Mandinka, whose drumming is featured in one of the company's three releases, have inhabited Senegal and Gambia since the 1200s -

and their music predates recorded history. The drumming of Sufi Muslims in Senegal, the focus of another recording, evolved in the 1700s.

``In the long term, all this music is in trouble,'' says Adam Novick, who writes technical manuals for industries, and who started Village Pulse with Carl Holm in 1992. Children in West Africa still bang out rhythms on plastic tubs and cans, but the traditional way of drumming - with just drums - is giving way to accompaniment by electric guitars and synthesizers, he says.

Western music, however, is apparently having little influence on the basic drumming rhythms, according to Mr. Novick.

``It's really the other way around: Popular world music is being affected by West African music. The flow [of African music outward] is still flowing.''

But West African drumming is not static. Drummers keep coming up with new variations.

``Any good idea that comes to your head, you must try it,'' says Mamadou Ly, a master drummer from Gambia who led the Mandinka drum troupe of the National Ballet of Senegal for 25 years. He is featured on one of the recordings.

Until Nov. 5, Mr. Ly is touring the United States with Ballet Sinemeyo, which is based in Dakar, Senegal, and performs traditional dances and percussion.

Mr. Ly started drumming as a child. ``I took a tomato tin can and pulled a skin over it,'' he recalls. ``My parents didn't like it.'' His father, a chief, said only certain people should drum.

Ly paid no attention. Later he went to Georgetown, Gambia, and started studying drumming with a master drummer. Once he became a teacher himself, he broke tradition and taught women to drum. He also teaches Westerners.

``I don't have other work - I put all my heart into my drumming,'' Ly says.

But today, at the shade-tree recording ``studio,'' Ly is just listening. He puts on a set of earphones and smiles. One of the dancers charges him in jest, and he laughs.

It's too bad the recordings can't be sold as a video - listening is only part of the fun.

The market for these recordings is small, Novick admits. ``We're just starting to break even'' from sales of the three recordings, which were released in April 1993. He expects to produce several more next year, including the one done here.

* Village Pulse recordings are distributed by Sterns: 598 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012; and 116 Whitfield St., London W1P 5RW England.

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