Yankadi and a little West African history

This week we went to see “The old Woman, the Buffalo and the Lion of Manding” Created and performed by Jan Blake, Kouame Sereba, and Raymond Sereba.

It is the story of the birth and early life of Sundiata Keita, founder of the great Malian Empire of West Africa in the 13th Century. The empire covered the modern day countries of Mali, Guinea, Burkina Fasco, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal and Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Niger and lasted well into the 17th century.

One key moment in the story is Sundiata is in exile from Mali in the kingdom of Meme or Mema, when his former homeland is invaded by the Sosu or Sousous. Sundiata returns and liberates Mali.

There is a rich and interesting history to West Africa and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundiata_Keita is a good starting point.

European Colonists obviously had a drastic effect on the existing Kingdoms and Empires of West Africa, through invasion and the transatlantic slave trade.

Cities like Timbuktu in Mali were great cities of learning and scholarship with libraries  containing Islamic texts from the 10th Century and earlier. (Check out Michael Palin’s Sahara series and book for easy to digest information and footage)

The Mande empire was incredibly wealthy (mainly through gold and precious stones) and at its peak was the size of Western Europe. Other empires – for example the Ashanti empire of Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast) existed and traded together and again it is fascinating to read about.

West Africa has an ethnicity that is strongly tribal. Borders between lands were often marked by major rivers – Niger (Joiliba) and Senegal rivers for example. The straightline borders of Mali were drawn up by the French in 1892 – Mali was known as French Sudan and Senegal as French West Africa.

There are marked differences between the Northern and Southern regions of Senegal. Dakar in the North has a lot of French colonial character whereas the Cassamance region of the South has more traditional tribal villages.

Incidentally, the very narrow shape of Gambia along the river of the same name is often said to derive from a British gunboat firing its guns as it travelled up the river and claiming the territory reached by the shells. Considering the treatment of West African people and civilisations by the European Colonists, it seems, sadly, quite believable.

The rhythms I teach are virtually all Malinke rhythms (deriving from the Ethnic group  originating from Mali and the Mali empire) but one rhythm which I teach (and is very widely taught around the world) comes from the Sousous people of Guinea. This rhythm is Yankadi and its partner Macru.

This rhythm was first taught to me by the Senegalese drummer, Magatte Dieng who passed away some years ago but was the first African djembe player I ever saw perform and for many of us, the first African teacher we learnt with.

The Yankadi rhythm (which I have discovered means ‘it is good to be here’) is a seduction dance where men and women dance in lines facing each other. In the Macru dance, they partner up and the tempo and intensity of the rhythm rapidly increases.

In the version I teach – the transition from Macru back to Yankadi uses a long break which is similar to the one found on the Nankama album by Mamady Keita.

There are lots of videos of Yankadi Macru drumming and dance arrangements on Youtube.

The ‘flowing’ nature of Yankadi lends itself to slow spins and graceful movement. It is a popular rhythm to teach because of the ‘feel’ of the rhythm. It is hard to write this down in musical notation and so we learn it by listening and how it feels to our bodies when we play it – which to me is a very African way of learning.

Working with the body, our feelings and listening enables us to move away from excessive thinking and analysis by the mind. In this way we can engage with the music more deeply and its more fun. I hope we can arrange a dance class using Yankadi at some point at my Durham class or in Newcastle.

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