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The circle of dancers swayed. The crowd clapped. The music crescendoed, and someone howled.
Into the circle sprang Moustapha Bangoura, a virtuoso dancer from Guinea. Across from him sat Mamady Keita, the godfather of Guinean percussion, astride two djembe drumshis smile wide, his hands a blur. Their eyes locked, and Keita’s hands appeared to momentarily possess Bangoura’s feet. With a flurry of moves reminiscent of a Michael Jackson moonwalk, a James Brown swagger, and a John Travolta twist, Bangoura finished off the evening’s festivities.
Held Sunday night at the Kirov Dance Academy on Harewood Road NE, the performance served as the grand finale to a weekend of special master classes taught by Bangoura and Keita. After decades of touring the world with Africa’s premier musical ensembles, the duo has stepped off the stage and into the classroom. This weekend’s tutorials marked the final stop on the pair’s monthlong teaching tour of 11 U.S. cities.
The two-day workshop featured beginning and advanced drum classes taught by Keita and master dance classes led by Bangoura. Keita also played drums for Bangoura’s classes. On Saturdayand again for Sunday night’s finalemore than 30 spectators crowded into the studio to listen as Keita and six students performed for the dancers.
For a musician who was dubbed the best drummer in Africa at a pan-African festival in Algiers some 30 years ago, the basement of a D.C. ballet school might seem like a second-rate venue to be playing today. But for Keita, it’s all part of his master plan.
“I became a guardian because I saw the traditional music dying out,” says Keita.
His mission means finding and training the next generation of djembe players. To this end, in 1991, Keita founded the Tam Tam Mandingue school in Brussels, Belgium, to promote the performing arts of Guinea’s Malinke ethnic group. Two of Keita’s American djembe proté#gé#s have returned to the U.S. and opened satellite chapters of the school. One of those schools makes its home here in D.C.: The local chapter of Tam Tam Mandingue can be found at the Coyaba Academy of the Arts on 8th Street NE, near Catholic University.
Although the musical traditions of West Africa have historically been passed on directly from teacher to studentas at the workshopsKeita has also written a book and produced a series of instructional videos for the aspiring djembe player to study at home. Learning firsthand from the masters, however, remains an experience that’s tough to beat. Felix Gillette