Braima Moiwai and the djembe
by Thomasi McDonald
photographs by Peter Hoffman
Sierra Leone, West Africa, Dodo village, 1965: It is a land of cascading rolling hills. To get there, travel eastward from the Atlantic Ocean, journey through virgin forests dotted with oil palm and cotton, shade cocoa, coffee, and upland rice fields; scaling a topography like a series of steps. By the time you reach the highest plateau in the village of Dodo, some 250 miles inland and two miles above sea level, you can spot the borders of Guinea and Liberia.
It is up there, nestled in a rainforest, that a drummer stands among the mbelay and njile trees and begins to play. The drum in his hands is the djembe, pronounced “jem-bay.” It is goblet-shaped, rope-tuned, membrane-covered, and carved from a hardwood tree. The man is called a djembefola, one who plays the djembe.
Braima Moiwai, who has lived in Durham for the past 30 years, grew up in Dodo village and remembers this man, his music, and its significance. “Based on the patterns the drummer plays, the entire village would know if someone had died, or had been born, if there was a naming ceremony, a rite of passage, or if slave catchers were nearby,” he says. “Back during slavery, Dodo village was the place where people who lived in the other villages would come to hide.”
The djembe, arguably the most iconic instrument on the African continent, dates its origins to the 12th century in Mali, West Africa. According to Mali’s Bambara people, the name djembe comes from the saying, “anke djé, anke bé,” which translates to “everyone gather in peace.” In the Bambara language, djé is the verb for “gather” and bé translates as “peace.”
Moiwai’s fore-parents migrated from Mali to the forest region of Sierra Leone in 1557. He grew up listening to the call of the djembe. Now, decades later and 4,500 miles away, he builds them, he plays them, and he tells their stories.
Master storyteller, capable musician
On a sunny, late June morning in West Durham, Moiwai, 55, is stirred awake, not by the call of the drum, but by a clock radio that rouses him to the sounds of WUNC. The voice of Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s then-presumptive nominee, is explaining why Britain’s exit from the European Union is a good thing, and that America needs to secure its borders.
Moiwai sighs and starts his day. He will spend the morning repairing and completing three drums: a dark-wood djembe from Senegal that’s more than 30 years old, a small brown-wood djembe he’s making for a kindergartner, and a kinkine, the smallest of the three drums that make up the djembe’s bass accompaniment in West African music orchestrations.
Dressed in a blue striped mudcloth dashiki and colorful trousers he calls his “djembe pants,” Moiwai gets to work on his second-floor balcony, surrounded by drums from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. He has been building djembes for more than two decades, and rarely sells them. Instead he uses them as teaching tools.
Sharing his culture by building drums, playing their music, and telling stories has enabled him to make a modest living in America, where he has raised two children who are now grown. For the past 30 years, he has put on a rough-hewn dashiki, matching pants, brogues, and a wide-brimmed, conical straw hat, stuffed his battered blue Volvo with djembe and djun djun drums, and driven across the southeastern United States to perform for audiences and students of all ages in classrooms, community centers, colleges, former slave plantations, hospitals, and informal settings.
When he performs, he becomes the music; dancing and telling stories with a wide grin and eyes that light up, bringing to mind a modern-day Anancy – the famed trickster of West African lore. “Man, I grew up in a village, and when I came to America that village jumped out of me!” he says with a big grin.
The stories Moiwai shares were first recited to him over 50 years ago as a little boy. He remembers being enthralled by the knowledge and wisdom his grandmother shared with him while he came of age. “Grand Mam Ma say …” is Moiwai’s enduring overture to the tales he shares from this ancient, Confucian-like wellspring about any thoughtful matter, great or small. Her legacy lives on in stories and in food.
“Grand Mam Ma say, Ba-le-ma bi-la-meh-hema!, which in the Mende language means, ‘Remember your food!’” The college-educated man delights in the wisdom of the beloved elder who guides him, even today.
Turns out, a lot of the people in Moiwai’s homeland remembered that sage advice, even when they were in chains. During the transatlantic slave trade, many of them – the Gullah people in particular – were stolen away from their villages to South Carolina and Georgia because of their knowledge of rice cultivation.
Some believe that rice and music are linked, that one may have begot the other. They point to the goblet-shaped mortar used throughout West Africa to clean grains – and the deep resonant sound it can create when struck with a pestle – as the djembe’s possible inspiration.
Sending a message
Moiwai inspects a cylindrical-shaped kinkine drum that he has covered with skins, one goat, the other calf. Moiwai soaked the skins overnight to make them easier to work with before placing them over the drum shell openings and weaving them in place with rope. Hair remains on their surface.
He talks about the instrument while he works.
“The name of the drum depends on where you are,” he says. “There’s the Mali influence, the French influence, and the Mandé influence. Mbe is the Mandé word for drum. It has always brought people together. When you strike it, it sends a message. When you want people in one village to know something is happening, you just hit it. The way you strike it, the pattern that you play, can tell that someone just died. The way you hit it can tell that someone has been born, or that it is time to come together.”
Moiwai uses four metal rings to hold the skins in place with a series of rope loops. Two rings are placed on either side of the drum. One is placed inside of the curled outer ring of the skin. The other ring is placed on top of the skin, “like a hat,” Moiwai says. Then he takes a long piece of rope and runs it up and down on both sides of the drum.
After the skins are woven onto the top of the drums, Moiwai ties them and puts them outside on his balcony for several days, depending on the weather, to dry. Then he’ll pull the ropes in earnest to tighten their skins, and let the drums settle outside. He’ll use a broken piece of glass to shave the skins’ hair, and tighten them once more. Then he will play it for a few days to help the skin settle in place.
It’s important to have enough rope left over after the initial weaving, he says, so there’s enough left for tuning.
“In any kind of traditional weaving – like hammocks – the rope goes through the loops twice because it’s going to allow the rope to move more freely in those loops,” he says as he works. “You go under two ropes, over one, under one, and then twist it and pull it. If you do that it gives you the shape of a diamond.”
Before long, Moiwai has three horizontal rows of diamonds that circle the barrel of the drum. The diamonds tighten the skin until it’s pulled taut. “That’s the tuning,” Moiwai says.
The finished drum produces a startling variety of sounds. To the uninitiated, it can sound as if more than one person is playing.
“If you give life to the djembe, it becomes a living entity in the sense that it has magical powers, even for a child,” Moiwai says as he works on the kindergartner’s little drum. “I’m just one of the spirits who makes it a djembe. There’s the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the animal, and the spirit of the music. As the maker and how you pull the djembe, you bring that spirit.”
Making the djembe talk
“What was surprising was the sound that came from it,” says Durham’s Khalid Abdul N’Faly Saleem, an African music specialist who is considered one of the djembe’s premier ambassadors. He has served for more than 30 years on the music faculty of the American Dance Festival, and was a founding member and first musical director of the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble.
Braima Moiwai studied with Saleem in the 1980s, but he credits Fahali Igbo, another musician who worked with Davis’s AADE, with teaching him the finer points of building djembe drums.
Nevertheless, Saleem has done as much as anyone else to spread the music of the djembe far and wide. He first heard the instrument in the early 1960s at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. “The type of sound that it produced, the range of the sound, the brightness, the excitement of it, especially with the orchestra” hooked him, he says.
Saleem, 66, is a beloved figure in the African dance world. Gracious and modest, even while onstage performing, Saleem embodies the Malinke people of Mali who say that a skilled djembe drummer is one who “can make the djembe talk.” He has had a powerful influence on the development of the djembe and played throughout Asia, including Japan and Korea. In 1982, Saleem and dance titan Davis moved to Durham and got busy generating interest in the art form. The duo traveled throughout the Triangle, all over the state, and into other Southern states. And while Davis demonstrated the joy of dance, Saleem was like the Johnny Appleseed of the African djembe; a pioneer for the instrument’s acceptance in the South no less; a land where at one point in its history, a black man owning a drum was guilty of an offense punishable by death.
Saleem also taught community classes at a local elementary school and at his former West Durham home. He helped to launch the careers of a great many djembefolas, storytellers, and dancers who were his students, and he made the Bull City one of the nation’s African drum capitals that continues to attract other world-class djembefolas from all over the world: Pline Mounzeo from Congo, Osei Appiagyei of Ghana, Teli Shabu from Liberia, and Cheikh Dieng from Senegal. Modibo Keita, Fahali Igbo, and Akunda Lumumba from Detroit have made Durham their home; so have Fred Strauther from east St. Louis, and Bradley Simmons from Brooklyn. Homegrown virtuosos like Atiba Rorie and Bashir Shakur make the community even richer.
Saleem made significant changes to the djembe’s tuning system that have been universally adopted. Though he first heard the drum played professionally at Madison Square Garden, he had seen the drum before, usually at antique stores. The instruments were typically in bad shape. When the African musicians brought their instruments over, Saleem noticed that instead of using rings and ropes, the skins were sewn into place with strips of rawhide. Sometimes the drummers used pegs and wedges that were placed between the rawhide and drum surface to tighten the skin, but then had to use a hot plate or other heating source to keep the skin taut.
“One day I decided that I wanted to devise a no-hole system and one that didn’t use the sewing method,” Saleem said. Apparently others were thinking the same thing. Another African American drum legend, “Chief Commander” Ebenezer Obey, is widely credited with developing the new system for building and tuning the djembe.
“We must have been in a parallel universe, thinking the same thing,” Saleem said about the recently deceased Obey’s innovative effort. Saleem said it was in the 1970s when he first tried using bands of wood and rope to tighten the drum skin.
Then he started thinking about the construction of conga drums and tried using coat hangers to make the rings of the drum before relying on galvanized steel.
“Now people think it’s from Africa,” Saleem said with a wry smile, “There’s no ‘Mali roping system.’ They got it from us.”