Bamana dance-drumming

Bamana (French: Bambara ) is the name of the largest ethnic group within Mali. Segu (Ségou) today is the center of an adminstrative region; historically, it was the capital of a Bamana state in the 18th and 19th centuries. The masquerade and puppetry performances of the Segu Bamana have attracted focus as cultural heritage in the Malian media and as creative living tradition in the research of scholars such as Mary Jo Arnoldi and Elisabeth den Otter. Bamana music is understudied, by contrast; for an exception, see Lucy Duran's  article on Bamana griot music and its relations to the blues.

In Feb 2012, I visited Kirango, a former village that today is part of the town of Markala, some 30 km north of the Segu, to work with the drummers Sidiki Diarra and Boukader Coulibaly. Bamana drum ensembles in this locality feature three instruments. The bòn is a cyclindrical wooden drum with one goatskin membrane sewn on and fastened with lacings. Drummers produce a sharp high-pitched sound with a thin stick in the right hand and a deeper, resonant sound with the bare left hand. The cunba is a huge, heavy wooden kettle drum. Played with both bare hands, its cowhide membrane produces a roaring bass. The cylindrical ngangan has two goatskin membranes and is beaten with a light stick that produces a trenchant sound. A typical ensemble consists of two bòn, one cunba and one ngangan. The first bòn would improvise the lead part, while the second one provides an ostinato for accompaniment. The cunba and ngangan together create a timeline that serves as a "hook" to identify each piece in the repertoire.

Ngòn Fariman: drumming, song, and dance

"Ngòn Fariman," the "Mean Chimpanzee," is a prominent character in Segu Bamana masquerade. The drumming, song, and dance repertoire of the same name shown in the video would accompany the mask performance in public events on certain occasions such as the agricultural New Year's festival. Our article on Mande drumming (Polak and London 2014) contains a short excerpt of Ngòn mask performance, filmed by Elisabeth den Otter.

The above clip documents a studio session at the Markala youth center, which I commissioned and recorded in Feb 2012.  Lansina Diakite leads the drum ensemble. The players are, from left to right: Amadou Traore, second bòn; Lansina Diakite, first bòn; Boukader Coulibaly, ngangan; Sidiki Diarra, cunba. The singers and dancers are Maisatou Coulibaly, Fatoumata Doumbia, Aminata Diarra, and Assitan Keita.

Ngòn Fariman: basic drum ensemble groove

In this version of the same piece, the trio omits the lead drum part (first bòn) to ease the understanding and appreciation of the basic motives and the ensemble’s rhythmic feel. The players are: Amadou Traole (left) on ngangan, Lansina Diakite (center) on cunba and Boukader Coulibaly (right) on bòn accompaniment. Videographer: RP, Kirango/Markala in Feb 2012.

You can hear that the ternary beat subdivision is uneven, with the first (onbeat) subdivision in each beat being longer than the offbeats (midbeat and upbeat). In our article (Polak and London 2014), we argue that this timing is designed to allow for a quaternary embellishment of the same rhythm. The quaternary subdivision is created by interpolating an additional drum-stroke within the span of the long onbeat pulse; it is performed mainly in the lead-drum part, which is omitted here. A similar nesting of ternary-in-binary or quaternary-in-ternary occurs in some styles of jazz (open shuffle), Afro-Cuban rhythm (rumba columbia), Moroccan gnawa music, and, not least, other Mande drum ensemble styles from Mali and the neighboring countries.

Ngòn Fariman: a novice ensemble's performance

This is a youth troupe of  drummers, singers and dancers,  all about 16 years old at the time of the recording. Notice that while the drum ensemble' beat is somewhat less stable and not as tightly synchronized as their elders' performance, the swung beat subdivision is of the same structure and plays the same role for the music's rhythmic feeling. From this fact we can learn that swing timing is basic to the performance of this music; everybody, even smaller kids drumming along on toy-drums or chairs, start with the fully swung version from the outset.

Singers: Assitan Keita, Fatoumata Dogora, Fatoumata Diakite and Aminata Diarra
Dancers: Moulay Coulibaly, Sadio Traole, Lansina Diarra, Ousmane Diakite
Players: Adama Boare, Sajo Diakite, Soungalo Tangara and Bakary Diakie.

Videographer: RP, Kirango/Markala in Feb 2012.