the Voice of African Music, December 1998. All rights reserved.

Conversations with Mor Thiam
(Feature Article 1)


Editor’s Note:
Anicet Mundundu, one of several speakers and artists at the October African Music Conference, initiated the following conversations. Leading the questions with support from Prof. Kwabena Nketia and Fred Onovwerosuoke, the session became historic in a way, because for the first time, drum legend Mor Thiam, shared some insights on the growing popularity of African music in the United States.

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 it’s 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, "What’s 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 you’re sitting on." I always feel I’m strongly blessed.

Anyway, about 1968, Nkrumah and other great African leaders decided for Senegal to host a big art festival…(When you’re blessed you’re always part of something). I was picked to receive the ‘greats’ from all over the world… You name it—Katherine 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 o’clock 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 couldn’t go! I just kept playing. They pulled her and said "They’re waiting." She said, "I can’t 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.
    The following day, when I was at the National Theater, someone came to me and said, "Katherine Dunham would like to invite you to lunch." To me it was nothing big, not at that time! At first they couldn’t find me because there were many drummers all over, but she had described me, how I looked like, and so forth... So that’s how I was found. Finally, I went to the lunch. When I met her she said, "Do you want to come to the United States?" I said, "No." Because to me I had everything I needed. Then she said, "How about coming for three months?" I said, "No." "How about 2 months?" I said, "No, my family is here and I’m traveling with the national troupe. I don’t want to go anywhere." "What about 45 days?" I said, "I’ll think about it."
    When I first arrived in the US, East St. Louis was probably the most violent place to be at that time. Not much of Dr. King’s message, it was very militant. Kids were killing each other in the streets; some people were cooking in the open, with almost no clothes on - everything bare,... and here I was, dressed up with my elaborate African garb. On my first night here 7 people were killed right next to the home where I stayed. It broke my heart. And I said, "I’m going home." Anyway, that’s how it all started for me here.

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 that’s mainly because the first class I taught, some students in the class pulled their guns to play the drums. I said, "No you can’t 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: I’d 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 couldn’t 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 60’s 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: I’m glad you brought that up because when you think about it, it’s hard…The African drum contribution has been a big big part of the success—economically, spiritually, physically and mentally.

Prof. Nketia: Because it helped to raise the level of consciousness. That was the most important—that you’re 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 Nkrumah’s 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. That’s 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: It’s an important beginning that laid the foundation of others to see the importance of this instrument, what it can do and so forth. But I’m 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." That’s 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 wife—I was looking for only Africans. I didn’t 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. That’s 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 60’s, 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?

Thiam: Around,…see I came in the 60’s. 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 didn’t 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 didn’t know where to find it.
    Camara also played a great role in popularizing the instrument. At the time Madame Dunham brought him she had dance schools on 42nd street. He stayed there with her, doing classes. She was incorporating Haitian movement and African, and she needed a drummer to link them. And when Olatunje started Drums of Passion he used Camara for some of the tracks of the record. Columbia said ‘this is great,’ so they recorded Drums of Passion. And then ‘Laji moved to work with Olatunje. Then he started to incorporate Charlie Parker. Later, these jazz players started to come in to find out what they could learn from the African drummers. My opinion is that Camara got trapped in that system. I don’t think he has moved around much since he’d been here, he’s still in New York.
    The difference for me, when Katherine Dunham brought me here, was that I was trapped with the militants and this led to new discoveries in intellectual and political environments. These exposures paved way for many other opportunities to expose the djembe to many people around the US and other parts of the globe

Mundundu: Olatunji. That’s the name you hear here, when people talk about career African musicians.

Thiam: That’s 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: That’s really amazing. Today when you talk about African music in the United States it is the traditional music which is most popular; and in people’s 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 won’t go with any other drums unless they see the djembe.

[To be concluded next issue]

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