Keeper of the Beat
The sound of the drums is so overwhelming that James Didi, an instructor at the Zenon Dance School, needs to shout to be heard above the din. Traditional West African drum music demands to be felt as much as heard, and the two dozen students in this evening's West African dance class appear to feed off the aural intensity. They divide into two groups, each half taking its turn moving across the floor--arms swooping, chins jutting--as the nearby drummers, led by Guinea native Fodé Bangoura, adapt their rhythms to each new set of steps. Two days from now, while Jonny Lang wanks his way through Jesse Ventura's inaugural blowout at the Target Center, Bangoura and his half-circle of percussionists will make incidental drum music in the arena's cold corridors. But tonight, he plays for an impassioned audience, and this audience can dance.
It's not until you immerse yourself in this sort of rhythmic barrage that you begin to hear all the component parts of West Africa's well-documented influence on modern Western music. You can hear all the rhythms of rock, jazz, and funk, and the time-bending, trance aesthetic of every dance-music you can think of, from dub to techno. Whatever you're listening to (short of Tuvan throat singing) owes something to this music, and as you hear Bangoura and his group play for the dancers, the sound overtakes you. Slowly, like a Magic Eye print, the patterns of the beats reveal themselves, and the matched movements of drummers and dancers form a distinct melodic tapestry. "When he plays a solo, he manages to touch everybody's accompaniment and the dancers at the same time," says Brian Van Tassel, Bangoura's manager and student. "He brings everyone into the music."
Bangoura is certainly a generous spirit with strangers. When I approach him after class, he throws an arm around my shoulder and greets me kindly in his heavy Susu accent. Though in his late 40s and a tad wirier than his colossal drum sound, Bangoura seems young and virile with his short, almost-dreaded hair and a smile that seems built into his lightly bearded face. "A drumbeat is a kind of talking," he tells me the next day at his studio apartment near downtown Minneapolis. "You can teach people, and they'll understand where the beat comes from."
Though you've likely never heard of him, Fodé Bangoura commands something akin to awe among a score of local musicians, and he's a sort of statesman in the local West African community. Bangoura has lived and taught in the Twin Cities for five years, and performed as an opener for everyone from West African pop star Baba Maal to motormouthed reggae great Eek-A-Mouse and the Violent Femmes (who persuaded him to accompany them on a leg of their spring tour last year). Bangoura and his band, Barinya, have a blistering track on the new Twin Town High Music Yearbook compilation, and he counts among his students R&B producer Stokely of Mint Condition, One World drummer Joel Arpin, KFAI on-air personality Tony Paul, and hip-hop poet Truth Maze. Currently, his collaboration with Maze in Sistah Mimi's Initiation series (cabarets usually held in the 7th St. Entry) represents an auspicious bridging of African music and Afrocentric rap.
All the musicians listed above will tell you that Bangoura is an African giant living in near obscurity here in the Cities, that he's one of the few people you'll meet who has drummed with Fela and played for the Pope. "African people constantly tell me he was a child star and a household name in West Africa," says Van Tassel. "Apparently Bangoura was kind of a Michael Jackson in Guinea."
Born in 1952, Bangoura was just 6 years old when Guinea (which is located near the center of Africa's Atlantic Coast) voted its way to independence from France and cut all economic ties to the old colonial power. While the new regime, led by strongman Sékou Touré, funded indigenous-based cultural programs like the national dance troupe Les Ballets Africains, Bangoura grew up sheltered from politics in the capital city, Conakry, drumming on tomato cans with his friends and putting on concerts for his family. When he entered school, a teacher noticed the 6-year-old's incessant table-tapping and surprised the pupil by telling him his talent would one day allow him to see the world. The prediction panned out more rapidly than Bangoura could have imagined.
"I grew up famous in the community," he remembers. "I don't know how it happened. But all the children, all my friends, they came back to my house all the time. I played for families first, then the community, then the nation." The Bangoura name was well-respected in Conakry, and members of his extended family hold government posts to this day. (Another Bangoura, Mahawa Bangoura Camara, now serves as an ambassador to the United Nations.) Not surprisingly, it didn't take long before the young drummer caught the ear of officialdom, changing his performance venues from weddings and baptisms to concerts for the Conakry mayor. Soon the prodigy was playing at the behest of Touré himself, often for visiting African presidents. He toured the world with state-sponsored drum-and-dance troupes including Les Ballets Africains, which continues to perform today. By the '70s, he'd taken top honors for drumming at the Pan-Africa music festival in Lagos, Nigeria.
In the years following the dictator's death in 1984, the government sent Bangoura to Amsterdam, where he joined Fatala, an expatriate Guinean drum ensemble named for a river back home. The group performed around the globe, playing the Eiffel Tower on France's bicentennial and opening for Peter Gabriel on tour. Bangoura's sudden decision to quit Fatala and move to the Cities came after a second swing through town in 1991, when the Guinean found himself falling in love with a Minneapolitan. "Love made me stay here," Bangoura says simply. He met his future wife, Jennifer, after a performance at First Avenue, and returned the following year to marry her, gaining permanent-resident status which allowed him to work for a stint at the Drum Center, a local learning circle for African drum enthusiasts. Two years ago, Bangoura's now 4-year-old son, Babba Bangoura, gave his first drum performance, and as we talk, Bangoura proudly shows off his son's small, specially ordered djembe.
The djembe is Bangoura's drum of choice, "the Stratocaster of African drums," as Van Tassel terms it, and "the drum par excellence of the Wassoulou region," according to World Music: The Rough Guide. Bangoura helped popularize the instrument throughout West Africa, and he has used it in lessons ever since, teaching all over Europe during his Fatala days and throughout America. The goblet-shaped drum is perfect for bandleaders and soloists, producing both high-pitched cracks and the deepest bass tones, yet its very name reveals the communal nature of those musical roles in West Africa: Roughly translated from various Manding languages, "djembe" means "everyone come together in harmony."
In both life and art, Bangoura seems to take the words to heart. His home has become a kind of social center for visiting African musicians. "Any time my people come over here for a tour, they want to bring me back," he laughs. And while he misses his homeland, Bangoura seems to have carved out a niche here. As he relaxes on the couch, several friends and then a Somali neighbor drop by the apartment. "I'm playing for the government tomorrow," Bangoura tells them excitedly, on the eve of his inauguration gig. Just like old times.
Fodé Bangoura will perform at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Blue Nile; (612) 338-3000.
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