The drum master's hands hit the goatskin with power and lightning-fast strokes as he leads his 10 students into tantalizing song. The Arts Habitat classroom in Seaside is filled with the thunder of ancient West African rhythms.
Outside, on a blustery day, a father and his young daughters hurry toward their car. But the girls start dancing when they hear the music and pull the man back so they can move to the enticing beats a little longer.
Abdoulaye Diallo (Ab-dool-EYE Dya-LOO), 39, is from Senegal, on Africa's west coast. A resident of Monterey County for 11 years, the tall, thin, energetic man crafts traditional Senegalese drums — djembe, doum doum, sangba and kiniki ki — and teaches a drumming class every Sunday morning.
The students — a mix of men, women, shorthairs, longhairs and greyhairs — concentrate to keep up with the teacher. One older woman closes her eyes, sways and smiles as she plays. Other students watch for hand or vocal cues from Diallo.
One student, Aaron Heinrich of Monterey, says the student group is so dedicated that "five of us get together to practice during the week, so we can be ready to play in class on Sundays."
Diallo's hometown is Casamance, which he calls "the heart of Senegal, because most of the food is grown there. We have jungles and many people live in the forest, they bring food and they bring their cultures."
All his schooling was in French, so he speaks French and ten other languages from his country. He learned the African languages through the music in different neighborhoods, he said. His English is tinged with traces of French and African tones. "I teach my students to play different rhythms and teach them to sing the responses in the Mandinka language," he said.
"I've been playing drums since I was little," Diallo said." The elders would teach us. It is difficult to make a living in Africa, so many times skills need to be self-taught.
"When I began playing drum seriously, my mother was not very happy because she had seen so many young men end up on the streets." he said. "But I felt happiness. Some people don't know what peace is. The drum brings peace. In Senegal, we often don't know what's going to happen next. But I keep drumming and say 'bring the peace.' Let the good things happen."
Researchers say the name of the djembe comes from the Bambara language adage "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace" and defines the drum's purpose.
Diallo remembers that in the villages drums were also used to signal big events. "The people knew to gather around to find out what was going on."
He fashions his drums from sun-dried dimba wood, which is hard and dense and thus carries sound well. "People I know in Senegal make the drum shapes, hollow out the wood by hand, then ship them to me. I pick them up in San Francisco and bring them to my home in Salinas," he said. "I carve the drums — I have electric tools here, routers and other things — in Africa few people have such tools. So I finish the design, rub shea butter inside to make the wood strong. I pick the skins and attach them to the drums."
He makes four types of drums, all dependent on rope for tension of the drumhead:
· The goblet-shaped djembe, with a goatskin head, is played with bare hands. Most West African drummers play djembes.
· The large cylindrical doum doum, with a cowhide head, is the largest of the bass drums. It is played with a small hardwood bat and its voice is thunderous. They keep the beat.
· The smallest bass drums, the sangbas, have cowhide heads and are played with sticks. Diallo says they control the timing, the heart of the music.
· The midsize kenki ki also have cowhide heads and are played with sticks. This drum, Diallo said, "adds the seasoning, as in a food, you can make different things from the same ingredients."
A typical djembe group song begins with the call, usually played by Diallo or a designated student. It introduces the song and sets a starting tempo. Then everybody joins in with the basic rhythm.
The West African rhythms seem familiar to Western ears because of their influence in Afro-Cuban and Latin-American music. The djembe also has been used by many modern artists, including the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Paul Simon, U2 and Cirque du Soleil.
Diallo has been playing hand drums for so long that the skin on his palms and fingers are hard as shoe leather. When his hands touch a table, they make a clicking sound.
So what's his long-range plan? He imports goods, including clothing and drum bases, from Senegal. He goes there once or twice a year, and sometimes takes students or tourists with him.
Little by little, he has been buying land at a coastal area called Abene. He hopes to buy more land and build a small resort. He hopes to have it done within 10 years.
"My grandfather taught me," he said, "that if you get some land, you can build a house, you can have food and you can make a little money. Without that, you have nothing. "
If all that were to happen, would he stop drumming? "Oh, no, no," he laughed.
Pick up the beat
Abdoulaye Diallo teaches a class Sundays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Arts Habitat, 840 Broadway, Suite B, Seaside, at the corner of Broadway and Fremont. Lessons are $15 per session. He can be contacted at 595-1837 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Pick up the beat