Mamady Keïta was born in 1950 in Balandugu (Guinea), a village of the Wassolon region, near the Fé River. His father was a master hunter and a fida tigi (master of the plants, that is to say a healer). His mother, wishing to know the destiny of the child that she was carrying, consulted a soothsayer who announced that it would be her last son: “The child must be left to amuse himself because it is there that he will make is name.”
From when he was old enough to crawl, Mamady descended on all the pots and pans in order to turn them over and beat on them. “My son will therefore be a djembefola;” his mother said to herself and she had an instrument constructed to his size.
Very quickly he surprised everyone by his natural gifts. No one could believe their ears and they would ask themselves how a small boy could draw such a sound from a drum. Mamady “Nankama” (Mamadywho-was-born-for-that), and “Balandugudjina” (the devil of Balandugu) are his two nicknames.
He owed his initiation into the history of the Mandeng and its music to Karinkadjan Kondé, an old djembefola (djembe player) of his village; in Malinke they say “Words come forth from an old mouth to enter a new ear.” Curious about everything, he would not rest until he knew, firstly all the rhythms of the Wassolon, then of the Mandeng and those of the neighboring ethnic groups.
The new president of Guinea, Sekou Touré, wished to spotlight Guinean Culture through music and dance and therefore devised a system of local, regional and national competitions that would attract the best artists of the land into the National Ballets of Guinea. Out of over 500 competitors, Mamady Keïta, at the age of fourteen, was selected as one of 5 percussionists, only three of which were djembe players. There were forty-five artists that comprised the National Ballet Djoliba and Mamady was the youngest member. For over twenty years, Mamady travelled around the world with Djoliba, only resting between tours for short periods in his native country.
He was named lead djembe soloist only one year after Djoliba was formed, he was just 15 years old. At seventeen, the young drummer was cast in a Harry Belafonte film titled Africa Dance. After 15 years in the Ballet Djoliba, when he was 29, Mamady became the artistic director and fulfilled this function until 1986 when he left the ballet for good; this was the first time that a drummer was given the position of artistic director.
Desiring to get out of the cocoon formed by the ballet and to establish his own name as an independent musician, he joined Souleymane Koli’s Koteba ballet based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He stayed with the band for a year and a half and completed two more world tours. It was in this
period that he was cast in his second movie, La vie platinée.
By 1988 Mamady’s name began to travel beyond West Africa. It was then that a group of percussionists in Belgium who had formed a non-profit organization called Zig Zag negotiated to bring Mamady to Brussels to teach and perform at their music school called Repercussions. Later that same year, Mamady established his own performance ensemble, Sewa Kan. The name refers to a Malinke proverb which says, “Ni kan tiyen, sewa tiyen. Ni sewa tiyen, kantiyen,” “Without music there is no joy, without joy there is no music.”
In 1989 Mamady recorded his first album with Sewa Kan titled Wassolon, produced by Zig Zag and Fonti Musicali in Brussels. Mamady was the first percussionist to organize a drum and dance workshop in collaboration with the Republic of Guinea’s Secretary of Arts & Culture; his first camp in 1990 was officially recognized as an international cultural exchange and 35 European students were hosted by the Secretary of Arts & Culture in Conakry for an intensive 4-week drum and dance camp. Mamady has continued to bring students to Guinea each year since.
In 1991, Mamady opened his own school of percussion in Brussels, Belgium called Tam Tam Mandingue, “Drums of the Manding.” The school rapidly gained an international reputation and in just a few years he opened branches in Paris, Munich, Conakry, USA, Japan and Israel. Today there are over a dozen Tam Tam Mandingue schools around the world.
Also in this same year, 1991, Mamady’s own life-story was put on the big screen in an award-winning documentary film titled “Djembefola (the Man Who Makes a Djembe Speak).” Directed by Laurent Chevallier, this film introduces us to Mamady Keïta, the world’s greatest djembe player and shares his magical and emotional journey back to his birth village of Balandugu, after a 26-year absence. Mamady hears from his older brother how the local soothsayer predicted his destiny when he was still in his mother’s womb. The film won several international awards and propelled the culture of the djembe around the world.
In 1992, Mamady released his second album titled Nankama featuring Sewa Kan, produced by Fonti Musicali. In 1994, contacted by Japanese producer Nonoue Katsuo, from Sponichi Creates, Mamady completed his first tour of Japan with his group Sewa Kan. The documentary film titled Mamady Keïta and 38 Little Hands follows Mamady to a tiny island in the far south of Japan, called Mishima, where Mamady takes 19 Japanese children under his wing to teach them the culture and music of the djembe. Together, Mamady and these 38 little hands travel north to perform in Japan’s largest cities but in the end must say a very emotional goodbye.
In 1995, Fonti Musicali and Mamady Keïta travelled to Conakry, Guinea to produce a live recording titled Mogobalu, featuring two of Guinea’s elder djembe masters, Fadouba Oulare and Famoudou Konate. This double disc also features many of Guinea’s finest vocalists and musicians playing such traditional instruments as the Balafon, Kora, Bolon, and Flute.
In 1996, they returned again to Conakry, Guinea to record a second live album titled Hamanah, which features djembe master Famoudou Konate. This album is dedicated to the rhythms that belong to the dunumba family of rhythms, that is, dances of the strong men.
In 1998, Fonti Musicali brought Mamady into the studio in Brussels to record his fifth album, titled Afo, this time with his group Sewa Kan. In this same year, Mamady released a series of instructional videos with Sponichi Creates, produced by Nonoue Katsuo.
During January of 1999, Sponichi Creates produced a second documentary film, which follows 4 very lucky Japanese children together with Mamady as they return to Mamady’s birth village, Balandugu. Once in his village, the children take classes with Mamady side by side with local children and at the end of one week they all perform together for the surrounding villages in a great celebration.
Later this same year, “Mamady Keïta: A Life for the Djembe,” the book written co-written by Mamady Keïta and Uschi Billimeier, is published by Arun-Verlag. The book is not only practical, with 60 rhythms notated and an instructional album with 21 rhythms included, but it also gives historical and cultural information on the instruments and the rhythms themselves. Today, it is regarded as the best reference on the djembe and traditional rhythms; it is on its fifth edition and available now in 4 languages (German, French, English and Japanese).
During this same trip, Mamady recorded his sixth album with Fonti Musicali, which was released in 2000. This double album, titled Balandugukan, features Mamady and local musicians from the Wassolon region of Eastern Guinea playing rhythms unique to this area.
Back in Brussels, Director Laurent Chevallier produced a second documentary film titled Mogobalu in which Mamady discusses what it is to be a Master drummer, from initiation and knowing the secrets of the djembe, to the responsibilities of passing on this tradition to the next generation and ensuring its survival. This film features excerpts from an extraordinary concert with Mamady & Sewa Kan at Couleur Café in Brussels, recorded in 1998. In this concert, some of Africa’s greatest musicians, such as Manu Dibango, Mory Kante, Kadja Nin, Paco Seri, Doudou N’Diaye Rose, Famoudou Konate and Soungalo Coulibaly are featured.
In 2001, Fonti Musicali released Mamady Léé. This album was also recorded live at Mamady’s home in Conakry, Guinea. In 2002, Fonti Musicali released A Giate. The idea behind this album was to feature traditional music from many of Guinea’s ethnic groups from the 4 regions of Guinea (Coastal, Central, Southern, North Eastern).
In 2003, Mamady began making his transition from Europe to the United States. In collaboration with Tam Tam Mandingue USA, he produced a video titled DjembeKan (the sound of the djembe), which features 4 solo performances captured during his teach ing tours in the United States from 1998-2002. This video is a musical journey, a story expertly woven by Mamady Keïta, which carries the viewer beyond this universe and shows the true power of the djembe.
2004 proved to be a very busy year for Mamady, not only did he go on tour for one month with Sewa Kan throughout Europe, but he also completed his move to the United States and set up his school’s headquarters in San Diego, California (USA). At this time he also released his 9th album, Sila Laka, recorded live in Conakry as well as a new set of instructional albums, titled “Les Rythmes du Mandingue” Volumes I, II and III, all of which are produced by Fonti Musicali. With his move to the United States, Mamady also set up his own production company, called Djembefola Productions, which will allow him to manufacture and distribute past and future products around the world.
Mamady Keïta’s first full-length live concert, titled Mamady Keïta & Sewa Kan LIVE @ CouleurCafe was released in 2005 in a collaboration between Zig Zag World, Fenix Music and Mamady’s own Djembefola Productions. In addition, Mamady’s long-time student Rainer Arold released a series of 12 instructional albums this year. In this set, each album contains one rhythm broken down into its component parts and features 3 play along tracks at different speeds, each beginning with Mamady playing that rhythm’s sequence of traditional solo phrases. 2005 also sees the launch of Mamady’s new Official website.
In 2006, Djembefola Productions and Fonti Musicali collaborate to release on one project the two newly re-mastered films Djembefola and Mogobalu.
Today, Mamady continues to teach at his school in San Diego alongside his wife Monette Marino-Keïta. Together they travel the world carrying out his mission to preserve the tradition and the music of the djembe. Visit the Mamady Keita’s website for his calendar of Events/Workshop.
For information on all of Mamady’s Tam Tam Mandingue schools, go to Tam Tam Mandingue schools website.