What makes a great song great?
Kojo For Kids welcomes musician and storyteller Amadou Kouyate to the show on Monday, Aug. 31 at 12:30 p.m. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Amadou Kouyate counts himself as the first of 150 generations of the West African Kouyate family to be born in Washington, D.C. He carries on its traditions as a djeli — an oral historian whose medium is music.
We’ll hear about his upbringing in a home with a West African soundtrack, and his decision to carry on the musical traditions of his ancestors. We’ll hear him play. And get your hands ready — because he’s going to teach you a little West African drumming too.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Amadou Kouyate Musician and Storyteller; @KouyateAmadou
KOJO NNAMDIWhat you're listening to are the sounds of the djembe, which is a drum from West Africa. We're going to be hearing more West African music. So, wherever you are listening today, you might want to clear some space. I've got a feeling you're going to want to get up and dance.
KOJO NNAMDIThat's because today's -- excuse me -- allergies -- that's because today's guest is a master of the djembe. Amadou Kouyate has performed at the Kennedy Center and other famous venues across the country and the world. He learned to play from his father, who was from Senegal, though he himself was born and raised right here in Washington, D.C. in a house filled with West African instruments and music. He's brought some of those instruments to Kojo for Kids to play for us and to give us a mini-drumming lesson. A reminder, adults are welcome to listen but we take calls from kids only. Amadou Kouyate, welcome to the program.
AMADOU KOUYATEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAmadou, you were born here in Washington and grew up here. Tell us where and what your childhood was like.
KOUYATESo, I was born here in the city. I grew up spending most of my formative years in Southeast, in Anacostia. And then I moved uptown to Northwest, in my teenage years.
NNAMDIAnd what was your childhood like?
KOUYATEWell, my childhood was that of growing up in a tradition of oral historians known as djeli. In the Mehndi culture, djeli had the responsibility for maintaining the continuity of history and for being a staple in the community. But my community was a community here in Washington, D.C. Growing up there was a pretty robust and strong community of people who wanted to connect to their African heritage. And it allowed my family and myself to be able to serve that responsibility here in Washington.
NNAMDIYour father was from Senegal, or is from Senegal. What did he teach you about his and your culture when you were growing up?
KOUYATEWell, my father, his name was Djimo Kouyate. He's an ancestor now. And growing up here in Washington, he made sure that we still practiced the traditionalist methods of the intergenerational transmission of information in the djeli culture, and also was very encouraging on being able to serve as a connector between the African cultures, as demonstrated on the continent, and that which was here in Washington, D.C.
KOUYATESo, there was a lot of just Africanisms in the culture growing up in Washington, you know, in the streets. And, you know, it allowed for us to be able to make these connections between the traditional culture and the contemporary Diasporic expression.
NNAMDIAmadou, your mother has a musical background, too. What has she passed down to you?
KOUYATE(laugh) Well, my mother, she's an incredible woman. She -- my father and my mother had a performing company that was called Memory of African Culture, which was a staple here in Washington, D.C. for more than 20 years in terms of presenting and outreach and education about Mehndi West African culture in music.
KOUYATEAnd just growing up at my house, like my father also had a jazz band, and my parents were very much just -- they made sure that we were all just completely engulfed in this experience, which, you know, allowed us to use the music and the dance to say and experience things that were relative to our lives. So, you know, my mom is incredible. I definitely want to give her thanks for continually supporting the process, even as I am today. You know, I still probably listen, you know, the critique of my mother probably more so than anyone. (laugh)
NNAMDIEven though you grew up here, you spent a great deal of time as a child in West Africa. And you, like your father, are a djeli. What is a djeli, and how do you get to be a djeli?
NNAMDIIt’s a little bit like a griot, isn’t it?
KOUYATEWell, the term griot and djeli, even though they're used interchangeably a lot, the term griot is a French word, and it really comes out with a mispronunciation of an ethnic group in West Africa, in Senegal, called Wolof. And their term for their oral historians was gewel. But the French, they don't speak Wolof, so they ended up coming up with the term griot.
KOUYATEBut djeli is an oral historian inside of the Mehndi culture. So, in West Africa, you have the (word?) ethnic groups, which are often synonymous with, you know, the Mali Empire. And, inside of their communities, they have families that literally serve the responsibility of being oral historians and custodians of a tradition. And it's their responsibility to awaken just the understanding and even the potential of the people who, in that community, have in their bloodlines by re-informing them of the history through music and through oratory skills. There are many different functions a djeli serves in the community besides just that of griot, I would say. Which, is, you know...
NNAMDIAnd how do you practice as a djeli here in this region, trying to tell people how to understand their history?
KOUYATEWell, it's an interesting place to be. I have a larger community that I was a part of here that I was able to really engage the practice of the djeli just personally. And then there's also this aspect of being the gatekeeper of certain, you know, aspects of practices of Mehndi culture or African culture to the larger community that we have in the United States and the world.
KOUYATESo, you know, as a -- in the traditional sense, you know, I still play music. I still serve and speak to the responsibilities that I have in my community. But I also, you know, study in the field of cultural sustainability. I'm actually in school studying culture to get my master’s and stuff, cultural sustainability at (word?) University. I worked in ethnomusicology for years at several different universities. But I feel like we already engaged in the practice of this communal dialogue in different respects and the different art forms that we have here in the United States that are part of the African experience, you know.
KOUYATESo, because of that, all I have to do is continually be engaged in making sure I'm serving the community in the best way possible. So, sometimes it means making music. Sometimes it means, you know, sitting in panels and having discussions about, you know, how do we maneuver this engagement of different cultural framework. So, it's a lot going on, but I really enjoy it, and my heart is in it. So, it's evolving every day, honestly.
NNAMDIAmadou, I'd like you to play your djembe for us, but before you begin, can you tell us a bit about this drum? What does it look like and what is its history?
KOUYATESo the djembe is an instrument that comes from the country of Guinea in West Africa. It's shaped like a goblet. Most of the cuts of the drum are shaped that way. A lot of times, you'll see it covered with either goatskin or, in different instances, you have calfskin, antelope. They use, you know, different materials now.
KOUYATEMost of the time when people see the djembe they want to see a system of the djembe incorporates rope which strings the drum and metal rings which hold them in place. And they tune it using the system. But that system developed where you see on djembe all across the world is actually developed by an African-American here in the United States by the name of Chief Bay.
KOUYATESo, during the time when there was an exchange of ideas and cultural intellectual property between African on the continent and African people here in the United States wanting to connect to their heritage, they developed this system which allowed the djembe to proliferate all across the world. Which now, it's one of the most popular hand drums, I'm pretty sure. Most of the viewers or listeners have probably seen one of these instruments, but it has its foundation in West Africa, in the Mehndi, in the country of Guinea.
NNAMDIIf you go to our website, kojoshow.org you can see a photo of our guest, Amadou, playing the djembe. And he's about to play for us now. What are you going to play for us on the djembe now?
KOUYATESo, what I'm going to do is a brief segment of what's called a djembe kan. So, a djembe kan is like a prayer or benediction. And it involves speaking through the djembe. It really just means that the voice of the drum, the sound of the drum. So, when we're playing djembe, there's a very intimate and energetic principle to it, which a lot of people are generally unaware of, but when we're playing a djembe kan we're literally connecting to that source and we are speaking through the instrument. So, here we go.
NNAMDIHere now, Amadou playing the djembe.
NNAMDIThis is music that you feel it arouses very strong feelings in yours truly, for instance. But that was Amadou Kouyate playing the djembe. Amadou, Jacob, 12 from D.C., wants to know, and I know the answer to this question will be coming up shortly. Jacob, 12, from D.C., wants to know if you play any other instruments.
KOUYATEWell, yes, Jacob. I play an instrument called the kora, which I'll be demonstrating, I guess, a little bit later.
NNAMDIVery shortly, yes.
KOUYATEI also play -- yeah, (laugh) and I'll play several of the instruments. I'm learning some piano. I played bass for a while, cello for a while. I've play many different kinds of percussion, conga. I mean, honestly, I was lucky enough to be in a household where there were many different multi-instrumentalists. And I picked up a couple things along the way.
NNAMDIWell, tell Jacob what the kora looks like, and how do you play it?
KOUYATESo, the kora is an instrument that is played from a gourd, a calabash, that is covered with cow skin. And there's a staff that runs through the length of the calabash in which there's 21 strings connected. And you play the kora with your index fingers and your thumbs on both hands. So, the kora's an instrument that is played by the djeli. It's the younger instrument in the orchestra of instruments that are dedicated to the djeli, who use them in that process of sharing history. So, I guess, in synopsis, that's pretty much a kora. Remember, it's 21 strings. It's made from a calabash covered with cow skin.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating. And we're going to ask you to play the kora for us now, even as we ask for calls, 800-433-8850. Do you play an instrument? What do you like about it? You can only call if you're a kid, 800-433-8850, as we are about to hear Amadou Kouyate play the kora. Your turn, Amadou.
NNAMDIWhat a beautiful sound. Amadou Kouyate playing the kora. And the kora is an absolutely beautiful instrument. Amadou, koras are handmade and some who play them actually make them. Did you ever make a kora? What was that like, and how long does it take?
KOUYATEWell, yes. I made the kora I'm playing now. Honestly, growing up here in Washington, D.C. with my father, we made hundreds of koras over the years. And even after my father's passing, I continued to make them. I'm going to teach my children how to make them.
KOUYATEAnd when you're making a kora, if you have all of the materials, it may take about a week straight to create one. So, what I tend to do is -- like, koras are made very personally, at least in the traditional sense, becomes an extension of a very spiritual and energetic connection to the player. So, you know, I've been very discerning in the past, you know, who I'm making them for. And what I generally do is build the kora to a certain player. And then after I sit and I meet with a person who may be interested in learning and get a sense of their energy and dedication to the process, then I'll complete it with them.
KOUYATESo, it's been something that's very regarded inside of the djeli tradition. The kora's becoming popular, as well, now. So, you see many young people are interested in learning. I try to make sure that they engage the learning process from a point of entry that connects to this tradition. And the same thing with the djembe, as well. But I probably, in my life, made more than, you know, maybe 100 or so.
NNAMDIKoras, wow. You've also brought your music to the Black Lives Matter protests in the past few months. Can you tell us about those gatherings and why you think music you play can play an important role in the protest movement?
KOUYATESo, there's always been a strong connection between this process of reclamation of African culture being directly connected to the experience and empowerment of black people here in the United States and throughout the Diaspora. Like, the very companies that have been created over the years, in the beginning, there were hubs for connecting to the same music that you're listening to today. They were strongholds in the black communities in various cities, especially here in Washington, D.C.
KOUYATEYou have a Memory of African culture, which I mentioned earlier. You have KanKouran West African Dance Company. You had Andrew (word?) from years ago. You had Sankofa Dance Theater in Baltimore. You had so many different institutions, African heritage with Bob and Melvin Diehl...
NNAMDI(overlapping) A bunch, so you've got to mention Melvin Diehl's name.
KOUYATEYeah, definitely. He is literally a cornerstone of these communities of people who are connected to the experiences of black people both here in the United States and, you know, abroad in the larger Diaspora, and those experiences being very much connected to articulating, you know, our struggle and our empowerment, as well.
KOUYATESo, I've been getting a lot of calls to participate in these events in which you have people who are standing up to communicate the need for change and.
NNAMDI(overlapping) And you have participated in those events. I interrupt you only because we're running out of time. In the 30 seconds we have left, for kids who have heard you play today and want to learn more about West African music and culture, where can they go?
KOUYATEOkay. Well, you can go to Facebook and Instagram. You can look up my name, Amadou Kouyate. I also have a Sunday core medication that I do every Sunday on Facebook live.
NNAMDII've seen that and -- but, yes, you can be found fairly easily. I'm afraid we're just out of time. Amadou Kouyate, thank you so much for joining us.
KOUYATEThank you so much for having me. And I appreciate -- I've listened to you for years, so thank you for doing the work you’re doing, brother.
NNAMDIThank you. Kojo for Kids with Amadou Kouyate was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about going back to school was produced by Julie Depenbrock. I wanted to take a moment to remember actor and humanitarian Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer this past Friday at the age of 43.
NNAMDIMr. Boseman, who became known for his portrayal of iconic black figures from James Brown to Thurgood Marshall, started his acting career right here in Washington, at Howard University. His theater professor, Vera Katz, said that even then, he was a champion for the people, always fighting for justice. Mr. Boseman joined the show back in 2013 to talk about taking on yet another iconic role, Jackie Robinson, in the film "42."
CHADWICK BOSEMANIt was intimidating. When I looked at the whole thing, it's intimidating. I think it's something that you break down in parts. I mean, if I look at my entire life, my entire life might be intimidating, as well, but it's moment-to-moment. You know, it's breath-to-breath, and I think you just look at it from that point of view, that I have to live this step by step.
NNAMDIOne moment at a time.
BOSEMANYeah, one moment at a time.
NNAMDIThat seems to have exemplified his approach to life. And what a life. In his role as King T'Challa of Wakanda, otherwise known as the "Black Panther," Mr. Boseman will become the face of Marvel's first film headlined by a black actor. The groundbreaking superhero movie, which starred a predominantly black cast and broke box office records, has been celebrated for its cultural impact. Here is Mr. Boseman accepting a Screen Actors Guild award for the cast of "Black Panther" in 2019.
BOSEMANWe all know what it's like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured, yet you are young, gifted and black. We know what it's like to be the tail and not the head. We know what it's like to be beneath and not above. We knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world, that we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing, that we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.
NNAMDIFor his enduring legacy and so much more, we are grateful for you, Chadwick Boseman. Wakanda forever. Coming up tomorrow, ever wonder what to recycle and what to just throw away? We'll answer all your questions on trash and beyond. Plus, we remember legendary Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson and discuss his life and legacy in the Washington region. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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