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West African music celebrates a culture

Steve Biondo, music department coordinator, leads the West African Drum Ensemble during a concert Thursday in Morgan Auditorium. The students of the West African Drumming class of fall 2010 performed 12 songs. The songs displayed various traditions from the different regions of West Africa. / photo by Warren Bessant

Brenna von den Benken
Staff Writer

The University of La Verne’s West African Drum Ensemble celebrated traditional rhythms from the Malinke people of West Africa at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Morgan Auditorium.

“We are so happy to perform this concert for the first time in this new space,” instructor Steve Biondo said.

Biondo is the founder of the West African Drum Ensemble, which was established in 2001 on a recommendation by Reed Gratz.

While the audience filed into the auditorium and filled it to capacity, a documentary about traditional West African drumming from the region itself was shown.

As the video faded to a conclusion, each member of the ensemble entered the stage and sat accordingly to their corresponding drum already set under a red spotlight.

West African drumming emphasizes rhythm. In the film, a drummer: “Everything, all work, all sound, everything is rhythm. There is no movement without rhythm. Every step we take is rhythm. Every word we speak is rhythm.”

Biondo, the ensemble of 31 student drummers and a few alumni guests performed 12 traditional West African numbers, including “dibon,” “meni,” “mamaya,” “alou kassa,” “kono,” “favreau,” “djole” and “diansa.”

These drum numbers each represent varying meanings for the West African cultures.

For example, the “meni” is played on the day a child is named, which is typically one week after its birth.

“Mamaya” is a rhythm that accompanies an elegant dance which shows off the beauty of the male and female dancers.

“Alou kassa” is a rhythm which is played to encourage the cultivators in the fields.

The “kono” is created for Guinea ballet and the other songs encourage fishing, represent pride or have sacred and modern meanings.

The “djole” originates from Sierra Leone and the “diansa” comes from Southern Mali while the rest of the 12 songs performed come from Guinean regions.

Some of the present day countries that comprise the West African region are Mali, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia and Senegal. The origins of the music date back as far as the 12th century.

The cultural context noted in the program explains the ritual significance of masks, initiation, dancing, community celebrations, village life, singing, and dancing as it interacts with drumming.

The instruments used can be separated into two categories: the “djembe” and “dunun” which are both skin-covered drums.

While “djembe” are meant to be played with hands, “dununs” are played on their sides using two different types of mallets.

One mallet is a traditional hammer type of tool that is used to strike the drum.

The other mallet that is used has a bell attached to the top of it, both creating a hollow sound as it strikes the drum.

The students who performed have studied the techniques, methods and history of West African drumming during the fall 2010 semester.

They have had 12 to 14 weeks to develop their techniques, learn the repertoire and study the history of the rhythms they performed.

“It’s interesting to see a mix diversity of races that make up the ensemble,” attendee Luis Naranjosaid. “It seems like it’s not just a class performance, but also cultural networking that an assorted audience can connect with.”

“It’s not something you just walk into on a regular night out,” attendee Gregory Cole said. “To tell someone ‘I’m going to a West African drumming concert’ is exactly how it sounds: Intense.”

Brenna von den Benken can be reached at

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