Wail of a tale 

Sitting in an African dance class in Wayne State’s Old Main building, his djembe drum resting beside him, percussionist King Sundiata Keita tells a story.

“At 17, I began to play the djembe, and I would take it everywhere I went.”

In 1979, Keita made his way to Detroit’s Masonic Temple to interview Bob Marley and the Wailers.

“The band was rehearsing in the dressing room, and I started jamming. Junior Marvin [the group’s guitarist] said to me, ‘Man, you sound pretty good. Why don’t you go ask Bob if you can sit in with us tonight?”’

Keita was hesitant. “I just couldn’t fix my mouth to say anything.”

Despite his stammering, Keita would make his way onstage that night. With encouragement and a shove by an enthusiastic Marvin, the shy 21-year-old found himself staring down the pipe of the same stage lights as his heroes.

He laughs. “All of a sudden you see this skinny kid come out from the wings. Yep, I played with Bob Marley.”

Though that magical night would be enough to inspire any musician’s career, the seed was planted when Keita was only 13.

“I was introduced to the conga,” he says. “This mission was provided to me to me by my family. They had been preservers of African folklore … and I showed a capacity.”

His dedication to his heritage grows still. It can be heard in the rhythms of his 19-year-old son and protégé, Sowande, and seen in the dancing of his 11-year-old daughter, Tiye. Both are with him this evening, celebrating their rich African identities with rhythms and dance.

“We will play those rhythms that come from the native land, Mother Africa … and combine them with the sweet sounds of reggae. [We do this] to show the entire route that the slave experience took us. Everywhere we went, everywhere we go.”

He leans back and smiles. He has just completed a Guinean rhythm called kookoo, and both he and the young dancers are spent.

“We play it like it’s the last day on earth,” he says. “Give it all you got on a Friday night.”

Which leads him to Friday’s memorial concert for the late Bob Marley. This tribute is normally held in Jamaica, but he says political problems there have forced its cancellation. Keita has organized the Detroit event out of a sense of responsibility.

Keita can proudly say he was a bona fide member of the Wailers. In 1996, some 17 years after his initial serendipitous experience with the Wailers, Keita and Marvin would meet again. Keita was playing with the Neville Brothers in New Orleans. Marvin informed him that the group’s percussionist had been injured and couldn’t play.

Keita found himself on a tour bus the next morning. He stayed with the band for four years.

“I was a Rasta liberation soldier — for Bob, we carried the message,” he says.

And even now, after diabetes complications have rendered Keita blind, he is remarkably optimistic: “I feel like I have been given a second outlook. I like to say, ‘I have lost my sight, but not my vision.’”

He maintains an immesurable focus.

“I am just grateful that I was able to keep my art,” he says.

And he can’t wait for Friday’s show.

“This is going to be a big party,” he says. “Remember Stevie Wonder’s ‘Master Blaster’? It’s going to be like that.”

And if a prediction could be made on what sort of impact the 58th birthday can bring, it might be best to let Stevie Wonder shed the light:

Marley’s hot on the box

Tonight there will be a party

On the corner at the end of the block.

Didn’t know you would be jammin’

Until the break of dawn.

—“Master Blaster (Jammin’)”


To celebrate the life and message of Bob Marley, King Sundiata Keita will perform at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) with the Sons of Fetari on Friday, Feb. 7. Call 313-833-9700 for details.

Eve Doster is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail edoster@metrotimes.com

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