Dancing to a different cultural beat

If you entered Cold Smoke Coffeehouse last Friday, you were greeted by the sound of drumbeats — West African drumbeats, to be specific. Powerful yet simple rhythms reverberated through the shop, sending ripples through everyone’s coffee. The source of this music was Yamama, a local all-woman drum group. Their performance was accompanied by an all-woman dance troupe called Tindi Donalou. For two hours these women beat their drums and danced in the traditions of West Africa. And as the performance went on, they also promoted a locally-run charity organization — Guinea Exchange — which, according to their website, is “dedicated to promoting and sustaining the culture of Guinea West Africa through dancing, drumming and cultural exchange.”

Guinea is a West African nation with a population of 10.5 million. It was formerly a French colony, but the Guinean people voted to gain independence in 1958. However the official language in Guinea is still French. Its population is largely Muslim — approximately 85 percent of Guineans practice Islam. There are also three major, distinct ethnic groups within the population; the Fula, the Mandinka and the Soussou. Perhaps it is this diversity that created such a rich musical heritage in Guinea.

Much of this traditional music is played using three major instruments. One is the Djembe, a goblet-shaped drum that originated in West Africa and is played using only your hands. Traditionally it is played in groups and makes up the melody of the song. Its name derives from the Bambara people of Mali — in the Bambara language “djé” is the verb “to gather” and “bé” translates to “peace.” The name literally means “to gather in peace.” Another of these instruments is the Dunun, a cylindrical drum that is generally larger than the Djembe and is played using sticks. The Dunun is usually played with an ensemble of Djembe players, and provides the bass of the song. The third major instrument is the Balafon, a kind of wooden xylophone that generally has 17 to 21 keys. The Balafon can accompany the Djembe and the Dunun, or it can be played solo. For example, West Africa has a tradition of Griots — travelling historians and storytellers that sing traditional songs, often accompanied by a Balafon.

The Yamama performed on all three instruments, but that was only half of the experience. As the rich African rhythms poured from the drums, the members of Tindi Donalou performed flowing, synchronized dances. West African drumming is almost always accompanied by dancing. In fact, each specific drumming rhythm has a particular set of steps that accompany it. These dances are generally used during celebrations, simply for entertainment, but there are also ritualistic or culturally specific dances. For example, a particular culture might have a dance that is performed directly after a wedding, during a rite of passage ceremony or to welcome visitors to their village. No matter the purpose, a dance is always a community effort.

That is why Tindi Donalou encouraged anyone from the audience to join them in their dances on stage. At one point a group of children participated in a traditional Liberian welcome dance, moving their arms in strange patterns to music that originated on a continent six thousand miles away. This is the kind of rare cultural exchange that makes the time we live in so unique. The interconnectedness that we have grown accustomed to in recent years is truly a powerful tool. As the music was performed that night a small projector displayed images of Guinean people on a screen next to the stage. The photos were gathered by the Guinea Exchange organization during their visits to the country. As the audience was washed in West African culture via the music, they were also exposed to the every-day lives of Guineans. During a break between songs one of the members of the Guinea Exchange organization, Kelly Ann Brown, pointed out and explained some of the slides. One slide in particular stood out: a Guinean smiling, wearing a Bridger Bowl t-shirt.

The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that technology is making the world into a “global village” wherein all of humanity is connected. The dances performed on Friday were not in our village, nor a Guinea village, but instead in the global village. When music can go from African heritage to Montanan hands and feet, it is truly an incredible time for culture.

To find out more about Yamama, visit their website at

sistersofdestiny.net/Yamama.html. To find out more about Guinea Exchange visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/guineaexchange.