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Chinese drummer spreads African rhythm at home

When Zhao Yu plays the djembe, his pleasure is infectious each stroke on the goat skin-covered drum indicates his love for the instrument and the West African Malinke culture it originates from.

Zhao discovered the djembe when he was 25 and one of his colleagues gifted him a toy djembe as a souvenir.

The young man was intrigued by the tiny drum and after listening to the rhythms it could produce, decided to learn how to play it.

However, he could not find a teacher in Beijing. So Zhao started to learn by himself.

After five years of practice, he felt he couldn’t improve on his own anymore and decided to meet the musician he admired most, Mamady Keïta, the renowned master drummer from Guinea.

Determined and passionate, he traveled to the United States in 2011 to participate in the annual workshop organized by the Guinean djembefola (“djembe player” in Malinke).

From then on, Zhao’s life was never the same.

“After the first time I studied with Keïta, something changed. I realized that if I played well, maybe I could change my life. So I quit my job and opened a studio to teach the djembe.”

This life-changing decision surprised his family and friends, who considered the djembe to be only a hobby.

In spite of his parents’ disapproval, Zhao went ahead with his decision and today, the former journalist is more satisfied than ever with his decision.

“After school, my dream was to travel around the world, and see different oceans, different cities. Sometimes I had money but no time, sometimes I had time, but no money. Teaching the djembe I cannot make a lot of money, but I travel around the world. So my dream came true.”

Every year, Zhao attends Keïta’s workshops, organized all over the world and by pursuing his passion for the djembe; he has visited the United States, Japan, Mexico and Guinea.

His admiration for the African drummer is clear.

“He is like my father,” Zhao told ChinAfrica, praising the wisdom of the 66-year-old djembefola.


Learning the djembe means a lot more than just practicing an instrument – It means delving into the ancient Malinke culture.

“If you play the djembe, you need to know about the culture because culture is very important. I always tell my students why we play the djembe: because we want to connect with different cultures, different people, and different countries,” explained Zhao, now 35.

According to Zhao, there is a growing interest in the djembe in China.

“Every city has a studio, classes, and teachers,” he said. Traditional African percussion attracts a wide variety of people. Zhao’s youngest student is eight, and the oldest 65.

For Keïta, this interest can be explained by the similarities between Chinese and African rhythms

“In traditional Chinese music [too], you have percussion instruments. I think when they [Chinese] discover the djembe they love it because the djembe is always played with joy.”

But Chinese and Africans share a lot more than the djembe.

“Tradition, respect and food,” the Guinean musician explained. There is a strong human connection, reinforced by the continuous China-Africa cooperation at the government level.

“Since the independence of Guinea, we have always had a very good relationship with China,” Keïta concluded. “Good diplomacy and good business between the two countries.”


Source: China-Africa New | Jan 6

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