Drumming to a Traditional African Beat
While many of his musical colleagues `go Western,' Arsene Kounde reaches deep into his homeland's culture for his rhythms
NAIROBI, KENYA — IT was past midnight; the time of night when West African drummer Arsene Kounde truly comes alive.
Slipping behind the drum set of a Kenyan band, the Sumu Tamu ("Sweet Poison"), Kounde picked up the drumsticks and slowly worked his way from a simple beat to a more complex one, becoming the driving engine of the band, rousing sleepy dancers at the party back onto the floor. As he became absorbed in his beat, his eyes and eyebrows, mouth and cheeks became the outward signs of concentration. Sweat began pouring off his forehead. The band's lead guitarist turned to him, and the two locked eyes as their rh ythms complemented each other in unrehearsed sync.
His is an African beat. It is a world apart from a hard-rock beat or other Western-sounding music, although he can play those as well.
The Paris-based drummer, who studied at two music schools there, has drummed for West African singing star Mory Kante and gone on concert tours with various groups in the United States and Canada, including one this year, with another scheduled for the US this fall.
But like a number of other African musicians interviewed here recently, Kounde, born in Benin, claims that too many African musicians, including Mory Kante, are losing the African quality of their music. They are becoming more Western, to appeal to a broader audience, to sell more. Ironically, he says, some who change are also losing their popularity and beginning to sound less authentic. The exceptions, Kounde says, seem to be Zairean musicians, who do better than many at holding onto their African soun d on such tours.
"America has become the reference point," Kounde says. "Our culture disappears to adapt to somebody else. It should be the other way around." Many African musicians find a base in Paris, with its good recording studios, from which they head to America and Canada for concerts.
Now we are sitting at a table of the outdoor terrace cafe at Kounde's hotel here. "It's not Africa's [responsibility] to adapt to America, but America's to adapt to Africa," he insists. "I want to conquer America, but as me - an African."
Guillaume Cyrille, manager of the group Kounde came to Kenya to drum with, the Soukous Stars, says flatly: "We're not at the point where they [North American audiences] accept pure African style." And some musicians who have played at nightspots in the US say Americans often prefer more of a rock beat to dance to. On the other hand, some African musicians, like locally popular Kenyan singer Joseph Kamaru, aim at a narrow African audience. Kamaru sings traditional songs in Kikuyu, explaining they sell bet ter in Kenya than those in the national language of Swahili.
Kounde admits his own style has changed during his years in Paris. "My style is a synthesis.... Culture is what you learn everywhere. There's no fixed style; there's evolution."
"But," he says, holding out both hands, "you remain African forever."
His visit here was his first in eight years to Africa. "I feel back home. I'm also emotional, moved," he adds, speaking with his hands, which are seldom idle.
To reorient his own beat to a more African sound, Kounde is reaching back to his teenage years when his grandfather, a Togolese university graduate, taught him drumming, using five tom-toms together. Kounde is currently incorporating those traditional beats into his drumming, not on tom-toms, but using his sophisticated drum set of five stand-up drums, one snare, a bass drum, three high-hats (double cymbals operated by a foot pedal), six single cymbals, and two electronic drum pads.
And, yes, he is blending it with other sounds, but trying to keep the rhythm distinctively African.
To illustrate how he infuses the five tom-tom beats of his grandfather's into his routine, he starts drumming on the table with his hands. Then suddenly he looks up sheepishly, glancing around at customers seated nearby, who appear oblivious to his table concert. "It's crazy?" Kounde asks.
No, it's not crazy. It's wonderful.