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West African Drum Ensemble brings full house

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Traditional rhythms are explored in the drumming group’s performance.

Marla Bahloul
Arts Editor

Crowds gathered in the Dailey Theatre to witness Steve Biondo’s musical masterpiece, the West African Drum Ensemble as they entertained students Wednesday.

The music department brought together both drumming classes to make this event possible and explored the traditional rhythms of what was once the Mali Empire in West Africa.

Biondo introduced the 12 different rhythms, detailing each of their importance to the Maliké people of Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia and Senegal.

“I would like to thank all of my students for their enthusiasm and patience,” Biondo said.

With nearly all seats of Dailey Theatre filled, some audience members had no choice but to sit along the stairs and watch the performance.

Mendiani, the first rhythm, was performed by Biondo’s alumni class. Originating from the northeast region of Guinea, this rhythm had an emphasis on virgin girls from the ages of 6 to 13.

After the six rhythm performances of the Mendiani, Toro, Saa, Kuku, Kontemuru and Bariti style, Biondo welcomed seven fifth graders from the Bonita Unified School District. They performed a total of two rhythms – Jata and Djole – and charmed the crowd.

On stage Biondo explained to the audience the steps he takes in teaching students new rhythms and demonstrating their abilities to adapt the new sound quickly.

After a performance of four more rhythms – Alou Kassa, Baö, Sökö and Diansa – Biondo concluded the performance, welcoming members of the audience to speak with the students involved in the ensemble.

Sophomore English major Brittany Lawrence performed in the ensemble, participating in the four concluding rhythms.

She noted that the success of the performance came from strict practice and vigilance.

“We practiced very often and were allowed to take the drums home,” Lawrence said. “The Wednesday night class allowed us to get a sense of direction from the professor, which made it better for all of us.”

“It was also helpful that the professor has the rhythms listed on his Web site,” Lawrence said. “Overall, it was a fun experience.”

Members of the audience also shared an appreciation for the performance, enjoying the new experience.

“I thought it was very unique, like nothing I’d ever heard before,” said senior Kristin Harper.

The West African Drum Ensemble was founded in the fall of 2001 by the Department of Music at the University.

The course informs students of the cultural context of the rhythms, allowing them to grasp a sense of West African tradition.

The rhythms, according to Biondo, date as far back as the 12th century, separating the instruments into two categories: the djembé and the dunun. The dunun account for the voice of the drums, further divided into three categories: kenkeni, sangban and dununba.

The performance welcomed back four alumni drummers of the course, and 24 new drummers, divided into two classes, given on Mondays and Wednesdays.

The rhythms explored a number of celebrative occasions, each one with a specific focus.

Toro, another Northeast Guinean rhythm, is used after a boy’s initiation. Prior to the event, they spend 3 months in a camp where they learn the rules necessary to become men.

Saa, origination from the Faranah region, is played for the man who circumcises the boys of a village.

Kuku, originating from the Manian traditional ethnic groups of Forest Guinea and Ivory Coast, is one of the broader rhythms, played at a number of festivals. This rhythm is typically accompanied by a dance.

Kontemuru is a more individualistic rhythm from the Faranah Region of Guinea.

Bariti, from Coastal Guinea, is another broad rhythm, performed at popular festivals.

Jata is a more modern rhythm, created by Soungalo Coulibaly of Mali.

Djole, finding its roots in Guinea and Sierra Leone, is a mask dance popularized by the Temne ethnic group who live along the Guinea border.

Alou Kassa is played to encourage cultivator in the fields. The rhythm is also performed to acknowledge accomplishment.

Baö, originating in the Macenta Region of Guinea, is played for girls after their initiation. The initiation involves a scarification where small incision are made on the backs of the girls. The rhythm is played upon healing.

Sökö is played before the boy’s circumcision, with all village members invited to the event.

Diansa originated as a competitive dance for young men, but is now a popular West African rhythm.

For more information on the West African Drum Ensemble, contact Biondo at 909-593-3511, ext. 4917, or

Marla Bahloul can be reached at

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