©the Voice of African Music, December 1998. All rights reserved.Conversations with Mor Thiam
(Feature Article 1)
Anicet Mundundu: Good morning. My name is Anicet Mundundu, from the University of Pittsburgh. I am very grateful to be here and to meet for the first time, Mor Thiam. Thanks to Fred [and the St. Louis African Chorus] who helped make this gathering possible. I have a lot of questions and things that I would like to know from the rich experience of Mor Thiam - him being one of the pioneers of African Music in this country.
Some of us (the new generation of performers, directors, promoters and administrators) now engaged in this field would like to know what happened in the past; what kind of struggle pioneers like you went through; your successes, failures, challenges, etc... I would like Mor Thiam to start this session by introducing himself and to give us some background information about his beginnings in Senegal.
Mor Thiam: Thank you very much. I would like to thank Allah. It is a great blessing to be here with all of you especially Prof [Prof. Kwabena Nketia]. African people should not be worried about anything. Whether its music, dance, voice, all that - we can get whatever we want out of it. My feeling is that everybody can make all of us proud. Our individual contributions can help to speed our mission - which is to promote African culture. To me, that is the purpose of my being in this world. My father always told admonished me that Knowledge is Pride.
I remember what President Kwame Nkrumah [of Ghana] told me when he came to Senegal. I will never forget that! I was playing at City Hall, Dakar.(You know he always respected artists, especially musicians). He came and asked me, "Whats your name?" I said "Mor Thiam", and he said, "Just play." Then went on, "this chair will never break. Any other chair will break except the chair youre sitting on." I always feel Im strongly blessed.
Anyway, about 1968, Nkrumah and other great African leaders decided for Senegal to host a big art festival (When youre blessed youre always part of something). I was picked to receive the greats from all over the world You name itKatherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, all came to participate in the Negro African Arts Festival. Every morning, my assignment was to go to the airport at about 6:00 in the morning, with my drum, to welcome the dignitaries with music. I was playing at about 11 oclock one morning as they came. And guess who arrived: Duke Ellington, Katherine Dunham, among many others! The plane landed, and they started coming out. As they all walked pass me, Katherine Dunham suddenly stopped. She just would not or couldnt go! I just kept playing. They pulled her and said "Theyre waiting." She said, "I cant go!"
Mundundu: There was something more.
Mor Thiam: Yea!... Then she came to where I was playing, and looked at me,... and
looked at me - I guess taking a picture in her memory. Then they took her and she went
with all the people. The festival went on.
Mundundu: Do you remember your first concert or performance here?
Thiam: My first concert was at Forest Park. When I played, no one had heard this sounds before. The sound of the drum must have sent a message to militant leaders like the Black Panthers, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, because not long afterwards everyone started to want to make me part of their events. When they did speeches I would do the drums for them. When they finished we sat out. They used that as a weapon.
Mundundu: Did you play solo, or you had a small group playing with you?
Thiam: At first I played alone. But thats mainly because the first class I taught, some students in the class pulled their guns to play the drums. I said, "No you cant do that." They scared me to death. Eventually they used their hands... Anyway, that was the first class I taught at Southern Illinois University. Can you imagine that!
Mundundu: Id be scared.
Thiam: Later, I started training drummers, kids, wherever I went. In East St. Louis the school kids were charmed by the drum. They couldnt wait to get out of class to meet me to play. And that helped. Instead of going into the streets to engage in violence, killing and smoking marijuana, they yearned for the drum. You know, at that time, marijuana was the biggest thing in the United States. Later, of course, cocaine and other attractions came. But marijuana use was big. They would smoke outside and then come back and say, "Shooting each other is nonsense." Finally, some of them began to grasp some of the techniques. Eventually, Illinois University began to send me to other universities like UCLA, etc., to give lectures. I became like an ambassador to these other universities.
Mundundu: In the 60s when you came, you came right in the middle of the civil rights movement. So people talk about this and what happened and all those beatings, but you heard very little about the African drum or other African musicians like you, involved in those kinds of things. Can you describe the Africans here, or how you felt about that and how African Americans during that period accepted or used the African drum to promote the culture...
Mor Thiam: Im glad you brought that up because when you think about it, its hard The African drum contribution has been a big big part of the successeconomically, spiritually, physically and mentally.
Prof. Nketia: Because it helped to raise the level of consciousness. That was the most importantthat youre black, that you must be free, you must be independent; and then rely on the power of the drum to remind everybody that this is where you come from. Your identity is almost defined by its rhythms... Did some people support you or were you just by yourself?
Thiam: I have many different projects in the United States. I have a group called Drums of Fire. There are 6 of us. And then I have a band. We travel nationally and internationally. I also have a small ensemble called United Ballet Africa. I have come to believe in a lot of Nkrumahs philosophies for and about Africa. His speehes have done so much to my thinking. I only see unity. Anything that is not unity to me is not together. Thats why I came up with United Ballet Africa. We go to schools and colleges and when it comes to African music then I have Drums of Fire. Then I do a lot of collaborations with top African American jazz artists here in the US. They are constantly asking me to collaborate with them. You see, I think what they are looking for, only in an African can they can find it. They want to go back and research for what is missing in their spirit.
Nketia: Another thing, when you were playing in the African Arts Festival did you have some people joining you or were you playing all by yourself?
Thiam: I was playing all by myself. Then later I saw a lot of interest. A lot of people were worshipping me to just to hear what I was doing.
Mundundu: I think at the time you came, you were a very rare specie. Nowadays, we have hundreds of specialties, playing djembe. Some of them becoming masters overnight!
Prof. Nketia: Its an important beginning that laid the foundation of others to see the importance of this instrument, what it can do and so forth. But Im interested in the process of how you got students or people to join you to learn from you, and so forth.
Thiam: Well Professor, once you believe in something, eventually you will have a following... If people connect with your positive vibrations they will either worship you or want to be your students. At a point everyone wanted to learn to play the drum. The question of letting females play even became an issue. Here in the US I had so many complaints like, "We females want to join the drum but some of the students, some of the drummers tell us that women are not allowed to play the drum." My response then was like, "Go to Ghana, go to Ivory Coast or go to Guinea. You will see females play drums or go to Senegal to see female drummers." Thats what I used to tell them.
Mundundu: When you came, did you go back [to Senegal] before returning here or have you remained here since your first visit?
Thiam: When I finished the 45 days I said I wanna go back, because like I suspected, it has been a long journey and very painful For one, I was alone. Even though the company made me feel like one of them, to me I was alone because I could not speak English (Senegal was under French colonization) and no one had heard my language. Two, is someone to be my wifeI was looking for only Africans. I didnt care where she came from - Ghana or Nigeria or Lagos or Liberia. For example, when I heard that there was a Nigerian student at a university near Joliet, I went all the way to Joliet just to see her -another African. Thats how much I missed home.
Mundundu: Were there other support other than from Katherine Dunham? Were there foundations, organizations, people, who supported you, or was she the only one who supported you and African culture at that time in the 60s, bringing people and the arts here Also another question, did you come before or after Ballet de Africa here in the United States?
Thiam: When I came here, there was somebody else before me.
Mundundu: With the djembe?
Thiam: Yes, with the djembe. It was Alhaji Camara - in New York.
Mundundu: When did he come?
see I came in the 60s. Camara must have come right after
the independence, a year before. But the difference between me and Camara is that, he came
in and stopped in New York. He was wrapped up in the New York environment. At that time
also Olatunji himself, from Nigeria, was looking into what he could do to bring something
that was new to the country. And he was mostly around the Atlanta area. Olantunji first
noticed the attention the drum was getting. (You know, if you read American history the
drum was banned down in New Orleans; they didnt want them to touch the drums because
people could communicate with the drums.) Anyway, Olatunji saw the opportunities then and
started recording. But he was only dealing with Nigerian culture. That was what he
understood the best. Then there were drummers from Guinea. When the Drum Ballet Guinea
was touring they came to all major cities. So people saw the djembe as beautiful but after
that it was over. It came and went. They didnt know where to find it.
Mundundu: Olatunji. Thats the name you hear here, when people talk about career African musicians.
Thiam: Thats because of the exposure Olatunji got from the record he did with Columbia, Drums of Passion. He did a song called Akiwawa. It made Olatunji. Akiwawa a la kehinde,...O se, o se o, o se o..." So you have three people who came, Olatunje, Alhaji Camara, then I came.
Fred O: But in this area, the St. Louis area, did anybody or group come before you?
Thiam: No, no.
Mundundu: Thats really amazing. Today when you talk about African music in the United States it is the traditional music which is most popular; and in peoples minds when they talk African music they see the djembe. So the djembe has gained a lot of respect, a lot of value. For some people if you bring any kind of instruments, they just wont go with any other drums unless they see the djembe.
[To be concluded next issue]