Apprenticeship in Mali

I have apprenticed to master djembe drummers in Mali since 1991, during fifteen stays totalling some three years of time I have spent in Mali. My apprenticeship mostly involved performing the role of accompanist (second djembe or second dunun) at about 200 drum-dance celebrations, on occasions such as weddings and spirit possession ceremonies in Bamako or Islamic holidays and communal peasant work in the rural area south of the capital (Manden). I have used my immersion into the life-world and work-life of musicians as a radically participatory form of participant observation, that is, as a research method. However, learning from, and making music together with, Malian drummers has been a deeply rewarding experience in more than one respect. Furthermore, it goes without saying that however transforming fieldwork may be as a form of "second socialization", it will never make me a Malian musician. As a Bamankan proverb goes: As long as a log of wood stays in the water, it does not become a crocodile (jiirikuru mèn o mèn ji rò, a tè kè bama ye).

Teaching and playing at home

In parallel to my academic work, I have taught Malian djembe music to adults since the mid-1990s. From 2004 I have specialized in the professional development of  djembe players in the German-speaking countries. In 2006, I organized and co-directed a summer academy for djembe players at CODARTS Rotterdam and from 2012 to 2016 taught djembe ensemble practice at the Cologne University for Music and Dance. Next to teaching, I have organized and participated as ensemble member in concert and workshop tours of musicians from Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast. Sporadically, I have performed in cross-over bands and djembe-dundun duet projects; listen to some of the latter below.

Bamako Fòli Duets

Rainer Polak and Juerg Wohlwender play Bamako djembe repertoire (Bayreuth 2008). I am on djembe in kirin, jina-2, dansa, and sunun, and on kònkònin (dundun) in jina-1. Juerg makes the djembe speak in jina-1 and hits the kònkònin in the other tracks.


The masters to whom I have apprenticed owe my deepest respect, namely, djembe players Jeli Madi Kuyate (b. 1947), Jaraba Jakite (19542005), Yamadu Dunbia (1917 2002), Namakan Keita (b. 1966), Sedu Balo (19602013), and Drissa Kone (b. 1960). Finally, respect and a big thank you to my friend and research assistant since 1991, kònkònin (dundun) player Madu Jakite. Aw ni ce, as they say in Bamana: "you and the work"!