Beating Hearts

E ven in the din caused by 40-odd hands and sticks, there are distinct patterns that emerge in a drum circle. Consciously or not, pockets of three or four drummers might start syncing with one another, locking eyes and grooves. Other times, a single sonorous drum or especially passionate drummer emerges to lead the whole.

At the Guinea-inspired drum and dance circles that form in the large E Room of Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center the last Sunday of every month, it’s organizer Aly Tatchöl Camara’s drumming that most often takes that lead. Camara wears shoulder-length dreadlocks and a silver pendant in the shape of Africa. There’s a slight slant to his teeth, showing often through wide-rimmed smiles. When excited, his English comes out fast and light, in the Caribbean way. “Speed” becomes “spee.” “Everything” becomes “e’ryt’ing.”

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A spiritual man, Camara treats his drums as conscious beings. “They need people to touch them. Like human beings they need attention.” When he feels they’ve sat unused too long, he’ll climb up to the balcony of the E Room and touch the drums, one by one, some 50 in all.

“If it wasn’t for these drums…” he says wistfully before trailing off. It seems safe to finish the thought by saying that if it wasn’t for the drums, Camara probably wouldn’t be here.

Camara, a shy boy in his youth, says he spoke through his drum. He grew up with maternal grandparents in Kouffin, Guinea, where he learned the traditional mask-dances and drum rhythms of his village. “There are drum rhythms for weddings, baby namings, farm work… circumcisions,” says Camara. After gaining independence from France in 1958, Guinea began an effort to preserve the diverse quilting of drum and dance that enshrines the nation’s cultural heritage.

Through school and travel, Camara carried his village’s patch of the quilt. He remembers inter-school folkloric drum and dance competitions and friendly inter-tribal tournaments where villages were pitted against each other to see who could produce the most impressive display. In this atmosphere of artistic competition, Camara honed his practice, then began performing professionally in 1984 with a variety of groups. First he joined Les Ballet Dougouffissa in Guinea, then the Ballet Variety and Ballet Unite Africa in Senegal. In 1993, Les Ballets Bougarabou of Senegal snagged him. He recalls being told, “Hey man, pack your bag. Let’s go.” Just like that, Camara was off to North America.

Bougarabou toured from Canada to North Carolina to New York City, where they performed until 1995. In 1996, after Bougarabou had dispersed, Camara made the hop to New Haven and started Kouffin Kanèckè, his very own drum and dance company, with which he’s been teaching and performing for the last twenty years.

Kouffin (the village he was raised in) Kanèckè (a word loosely translated as “one who comes and clears space for a village”) is currently made up of a core of eight drummers and dancers. Kouffin Kanèckè also has a name more familiar to English ears: the New Haven School of African Drum & Dance. It’s been a presence at Educational Center for the Arts for six years, Neighborhood Music School for 10 and the Afro-American Cultural Center for 15.

If you’re not a student at ECA or NMS, you can still attend the classes at at the Afro-American Center, which are open to the public. Camara gives back-to-back drum and dance classes—$15 for one, $30 for both—Mondays (drum: 6 to 7:30 p.m., dance: 7:30 to 9 p.m.) and Saturdays (drum: 3:30 to 5 p.m., dance: 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.) and organizes a donation-based, free-form drum circle on the last Sunday of the month.

Unlike the ordered chaos of the drum circle, in the class Camara pushes students to learn more difficult drum beats, managing polyrhythms and weaving solos in and out of the patterns that emerge. At the class I attended, the progression Camara had students learn and solo over was called Kakilambe—which was once used by villages to announce their coming to other villages, particularly in times of crisis such as drought, hunger or a worrisome spike in miscarriages.

Later, for the dance class, Camara changed into long white pants with purple, yellow and green ribbons hanging off the waist and green frills around the ankles. With Camara at the lead, his dreads whipping back and forth, the dancers hopped, bounded and whipped in kind. They moved with vigorous full-body motion down the length of the hall towards the front of the room, where Kouffin Kanèckè member Grey Freedman—on the dundun—and Camara’s son Seny—on the djembe—set the beat.

Seny is a skilled drummer in his own right. 18 years old now, he’s been a member of Kouffin Kanèckè since he was 8. “He’s my weapon,” says Camara with a smile.

When Camara returns to Kouffin, Guinea, the people that knew him when he was young are amazed at how far he’s gone in the world. “They look at me now like I have some kind of power,” he says. Camara hopes to take his son back to Kouffin some day to show him where his roots lie, and though Seny can’t speak his father’s native tongue, Camara is sure he’ll have no trouble communicating the way his father still does: through his drum.

Kouffin Kanèckè | New Haven School of African Drum & Dance
Afro-American Cultural Center – 211 Park St, New Haven (map)
Year-Round Classes: Mon 6-9pm, Sat 3:30-6:30pm
(203) 887-2737 | tatcholcamara@gmail.com
www.guineadance.com

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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