Africa Jamono, left to right: Ali Dieng, Mamadou Gueye, Pape Ba, Mame Assane Coly
When Africa Jamono performed at Colchester High School's auditorium in mid-February as part of the district's International Week celebration, supporting drummer Ali Dieng told the crowd, "We're going to rock your school today."
Midway through the performance, clapping to the beat of the drums wasn't enough for most members of the audience. Teachers and students scrambled on to the stage to join lead dancer Pape Ba.
Jamono means "Generation" in Wolof, the common language spoken by the group's founding members: Ba, Dieng and Baba Drame. When the three men got together in the spring of 2010 to form Africa Jamono, each man had a specific role. Drame was the lead drummer and Ba was the master dancer. Dieng's main responsibility was finding gigs and publicizing the group.
Drame and Ba are from Senegal, while Dieng is from Mauritania. Over the last eight years, the size of the group has fluctuated. At one point, it had 15 drummers and dancers. Today, it's slimmed down to a core of five people: Ba, Dieng, Mame Assane Coly, Mamadou Gueye and George Sliter.
As a group, Africa Jamono typically perform at least once a month, but the members also collaborate with other musicians.
For example, Gueye, 39, has performed with Jeh Kulu, Burlington's West African dance and drum troupe, and Sabouyouma, a band that combines traditional West African dance music with contemporary funk and reggae.
Gueye plays several types of drums, such as tama, an hourglass-shaped drum, and sabar, a drum that's usually played with one hand and one stick. The Senegalese native taught drumming in Istanbul, Turkey, for five years before moving to Vermont almost two years ago. It's hard not being able to be a full-time musician, said Gueye, who works as a housekeeper. But he hopes to start teaching drumming soon.
Coly, who's also from Senegal, began his formal musical career studying the sabar at age 18. Over the years, he has collaborated with several Senegalese bands and artists.
Coly, 41, moved to Vermont about three years ago. These days, the Winooski resident plays the drums for weekly dance classes in Burlington and Montpelier. Like Gueye, he has collaborated with Jeh Kulu and Sabouyouma. He's also a craftsman and specializes in making and repairing drums.
It's been tough trying to keep the group together, said Dieng. "People have full-time jobs." His djembe teacher — founding member Drame — has given up drumming for good.
As for Dieng, his work as an outreach coordinator for the Burlington School District and manager for Parent University keeps him busy. He's also a city councilor (D/P-Ward 7). Sliter works for the student support services at Champlain Elementary School, while Ba is a dance teacher in Middlebury.
But the members are experienced and skilled enough that they don't need to rehearse before a performance. "We know the type of rhythms," said Dieng. "We talk about how much time we have and what we're going to do."
Drumming involves improvisation, Dieng continued. Typically, there's a lead drummer for every performance, and the others take their cue from him. "The best listener is the best drummer," he said.
While the group's primary objective is to entertain their audiences, performing has also given them a sense of belonging, noted Dieng. And it gives the members an opportunity to connect with their wider community.
"Our main purpose is to bring joy, to bring compassion," said Dieng. "We are here and it is our obligation to share our culture and [be a part of] the greater Burlington community."
Cultural Mosaic is a series about performing artists in Vermont from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Got an artist we should know about? Let us know!