White Women and African Drums

Drummers' hands playing African Drums

White Women and African Drums

Are we cultural ambassadors or cultural appropriators?

My mom used to tell a story about my love of drums when I was little. Apparently she would take me to a parade and then lose track of my whereabouts! This happened in the Days of Yore, when children wandered off from their parents and no one was concerned. She would eventually find me marching down the street alongside the drum line.

When I was in elementary school and the music teacher asked which instrument I would like to play in the band, I said, “DRUM!”

“Oh I’m sorry,” I imagine he responded, “but only boys get to play the drums. Girls can play the flute, clarinet, or bells.”

I still get a lump in my throat when I remember that day. I may have shouted, “That’s not fair!” which would have had no effect. I wasn’t interested in any of those other instruments, so I became a singer instead. But my love of drums never wavered.

Someday soon I will write the whole story of how that love drew me to West African drums — djembes and dununs — and to my teacher, Master drummer Mamady Keita. He, and the other teachers at his TTM Academy around the country, taught me how to play these drums. He gave me one of my life’s most precious gifts.

Mamady Keita dedicated his life to assuring that the Mandingue (Malinke) traditions would be honored and preserved. As his student, I made a promise to play djembe rhythms in their authentic and historically accurate forms. In response, Mamady named me an ambassador of Mandingue culture, as he did everyone who studied with him. I do not take this designation lightly.

The author and her teacher, Master drummer Mamady Keita

In San Diego, where my husband and I spent many of our winters in the RV, I played my djembe with the San Diego Women’s Drum Circle. One year, a few of us were invited to perform at a national convention for women in psychology. Our little group of drummers included one Black woman and probably six or seven White women.

In an odd parallel, the convention participants included one Black woman and maybe a hundred White women. We drummed for them at the end of their morning session, right before lunch break. As we played and our audience swayed and clapped, I kept watching the lone Black woman, who sat in the middle of the third row. She didn’t move or look at us.

We finished playing, and our group started packing up equipment, while the psychologists gathered their belongings and left for lunch. Only the Black woman remained seated, still looking at the floor. I sat down next to her and asked if she was okay.

“No,” she said. “No, I’m not okay.”

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.

“I see all you White women playing those African drums,” she answered, “and I don’t know if I love you or hate you for it.”

I’ve forgotten what I said in response, but it must have been something that encouraged her to continue. I did make notes later as I sat in my car, and to the best of my memory, this is what she said:

When my ancestors were stolen from West Africa, they had to leave their drums behind. Those drums were an integral part of their daily lives — their grief and celebrations, births and deaths. They arrived here without their drums and were not allowed to build new ones. Their rhythms were lost to them. Their identity was stripped away from them. This is who I come from — people who lost their drums. And now, everywhere I look, I see White women playing my ancestors’ drums. It’s brutal. Do they even know the history? Is it because they’re the ones who have money to buy the drums and pay for the lessons? The lessons with African teachers? Does anyone see the irony here? I’m enraged that White women are free to play my ancestors’ drums. I resent them. I resent you.

But. At the same time, if it wasn’t for White women, these rhythms would not be spreading all around this country. You are the ones who have the means and the opportunities to do this. You are the ones keeping the traditions alive, making sure they’re not forgotten. You White women are the ones who brought the sounds of my ancestors to this room, to me. I am grateful to White woman for that, and I’m grateful to you.

I monitored my own emotions closely as she talked. There was guilt when she spoke of resentment, followed by relief when she expressed her gratitude. I did my best to keep my reactions to myself, although I wanted to cry more than once.

When I take notes after an interaction like this one, I write down what the other person said but often fail to record my own words. So I can’t remember how I responded to her. What I can tell you is that our conversation was the beginning of a friendship. And when my husband and I left Oregon on our book tour several years later, she was the first person to schedule a reading for us.

I often hear her words in my head when I’m drumming. Then I hear Mamady Keita’s words: “The drum knows no color. The drum knows no gender, no age, no nationality. Do not ever allow this drum to become an instrument of separation or discord.”

I want to honor Mamady’s instructions, yet when I have an opportunity to play with African American drummers, I feel uneasy, like I shouldn’t be there. Like I’m imposing my whiteness into their sacred space and using something that doesn’t belong to me. Although I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome in such settings, I often choose not to participate. It’s painful that something that feels so good can also feel so wrong.

How do I hold these contradictory truths at the same time? And my friend — how does she hold both resentment and gratitude? There are no easy answers here.

I’d love to know your thoughts.

Photo by Lee Pigott on Unsplash

No Comments

Post A Comment

eleven + 8 =