Now living in Portland, African master drummer Namory Keita plays for Midcoast kids

The man with the booming percussion and the big smile

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 3:00pm

    He was only here in the Midcoast for a weekend, and gone in a blip, but Penobscot Bay Pilot got a clip of master drummer Namory Keita in action with a booming percussive arrangement on the dunduns—traditional African drums with the deep voice. (See accompanying video).

    Growing up studying his world famous uncle, Famoudou Konaté, Keita was only 7 years old when he began playing the traditional djembes and dundun drums in his village of Sangbarala, Guinea, in West Africa. “I learned traditional rhythms mostly from my uncle, but I stopped playing when I had the chance to go to school,” he said. “When I was 18, I picked it up again, following my uncle.”

    One of only a handful of initiated masters of the Malinké drumming tradition, his Uncle Famoudou Konaté is universally respected as one of the world's premiere djembe drum masters. A drumming prodigy himself who started out at 8 years old, Konaté first performed in community festivals and was soon in demand by international audiences as a djembe fola (literally djembe player) across the region.

    In 1999, Namory became the village djembe fola, and like his uncle, began teaching hundreds of students from around the world in Europe and North America.

    About five years ago, he met and married a woman from New Hampshire and moved to the U.S. Though the marriage didn’t work out, he found his purpose in New England, as well as a drumming community. A couple of months ago, he settled in Portland.

    Like many self-employed artists, Keita has more than one job. He teaches drumming classes in Kittery, Portland and Boston, as well as performs in a West African drumming ensemble in New Hampshire called Akwaaba Ensemble.

    Thanks to his friendship with local dance instructor Denyse Robinson, as well as support from a Hope-based nonprofit, Partners for Enrichment, Keita led workshops for adults and kids all over the Midcoast Oct. 2-3.

    From a kids’ eye view, before them was a man with a big smile and an easy demeanor showing drumming techniques. They could not know that this art form goes back nearly 400-800 years, created during the Malian Empire by the Mandé people. Or that, traditionally, only those born into a family that played the djembe would be allowed to play the djembe as they grew up. Today, a very rare few can pick up the djembe or dundun and learn the authentic way. For Keita to make it all the way in his journey from a child in Guinea, watching and emulating the masters, to teaching children the age at which he started, is no small thing. The deep voice of the drums told a little of that tale.

    Kay Stephens can be reached at