When Drums Express the Abundance of Heart

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It’s unmistakable, the percussion that stirs downtown during the Tucson Meet Yourself Planet Djembe and Mamaxe dancer performances. Sinde Rubiner, a founding member of Planet Djembe, reflects on the traditions of these West African rhythms and the powerful experiences conveyed during Tucson Meet Yourself, over the past five years of the group’s participation:

Tucson roots

Adama Dembele with Planet Djembe at Berger Center
Adama Dembele with Planet Djembe at Berger Center

According to Sinde, Planet Djembe was started by two cousin artists in Tucson from Ivory Coast, Africa: One was Bassirima Soro, an afro-pop/reggae singer who came to Tucson to train for the Olympic marathon and who wanted to honor his parents/ancestors by having traditional tribal music played at his first CD release party. His Tucson group is now called Farafina Musica. The second was Bassirima’s cousin, Adama Dembele, a Djembe player from Ivory Coast who became Planet Djembe’s mentor and who developed many of the group’s arrangements. Because the West African rhythms have been passed down from oral tradition, no one can date the definitive origins of the teachings, but Adama says his knowledge has been passed down 33 generations.

Defining rhythms
The rhythms are very specific to village life, Sinde continues: “There are different and specific rhythms for different aspects of village life. There are specific rhythms for planting, harvesting, hunting, initiation, celebration, full moon, and even dating. Specific dance movements correspond to the act of planting, harvesting, hunting, etc., for these rhythms. Often a specific song is sung. Some rhythms are associated with a mask, or deity of sorts, that will appear in the village once or twice a year for healing, fertility and divination.”

At TMY, a base rhythm is created by three sizes of Dununs bass drums that are played with sticks. “The largest, deepest tone is called a Dundun, the middle is called the Sangban, the smallest, highest tone is called the Kenkeni,” Sinde describes. “The Mamaxe and community dancers listen to the dununs, which identify the rhythm and dance. The hand drum is called Djembe. The djembe will play the melody or solo above the rhythms of the dununs in response to dancer movements. So the dancers are responding to the dununs and the djembe soloist is responding to the dancers (who then respond to the djembe, and back and forth, on and on.)”

Planet Djembe
Planet Djembe

Keeping culture alive
As she explains it, TMY helps keep important traditions as part of our city’s cultural mix: “Our teachers are grateful to us that we have the interest and discipline to keep these rhythms alive. We always try to educate our audiences about where this music originates, giving credit to our teachers and to the fact that it is not just entertainment, but also a traditional African way of building and sustaining a sense of community. That is what the rhythms are about.”

Community reflections
Sinde conveys an experience of the group which occurred over the last two years Planet Djembe and Mamaxe performed at TMY: “After our performances, an African American elder, Baba Eno Washington, who was one of the first to bring West African dance to the US, came up to us and with tears in his eyes, thanked us for keeping this important tradition alive with such integrity for the community…and for honoring our teachers and their ancestors by…playing, dancing the rhythms in an authentic way.”

TMY is all about community, and Sinde indicates the Planet Djembe message is the same in all performances: “This is a community art-form, so the audiences are a part of what will happen here…..what will we create together. As our audience dances, the lead djembe player plays in a playful call and response with them and we create a beautiful fun, healing ‘happening’ for all of us!”

Planet Djembe provides live drumming for a West African dance class hosted by Jennifer Eldred every Thursday, 7pm, at the Movement Shala. “This is where we play for experienced dancers and beginners together,” says Sinde. “It gives the community a chance to learn authentic choreography.”

When the community experiences these rhythms and dance at TMY, it hears and feels the influence of West African percussion teachers and their ancestors, says Sinde, who also believes the rhythms are life affirming. “We as humans need rhythms for sustenance as much as food, air and water,” she says, noting that research illustrates how rhythms, played in community can lower stress hormones and blood pressure, raising endorphins and actually changing brain chemistry: “I am a facilitator of drum circles in Tucson, bringing these rhythms to places such as Rhythm Industry, Canyon Ranch, retirement homes, hospitals, private businesses, etc and people always say the same thing – ‘ I feel tremendous joy, happiness, and energized and yet very peaceful after the rhythms’.”


  • Djole, a mask dance, is played at celebrations, often at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. See the 2014 Planet Djembe performance of Djole here.
  • Learn about Planet Djembe: http://www.planetdjembe.com/

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