Bang the drum

He says it was like a flickering light, except that as he slowly lost his eyesight, eventually the light stopped flickering back on. About three years after he noticed the darkness creeping into his periphery from type-2 diabetes, his sight was gone completely; and the world only existed in shadows.

“Things started coming down on me a lot heavier. I was fortunate to see 2000, but near the end of the year things started coming down on me and I had to have several surgeries to correct my vision, but it was too late. I gradually had to accept the fact that I was going blind. You never know though. The doctor told me that miracles can happen.”

But King Sundiata Keita’s very existence is proof that miracles can happen. The simple fact that he is still alive is considered a miracle to some. He’s sitting in a small apartment on Detroit’s Southwest side, a man of 46 years. To superstitious readers of African legend, it is miraculous that he wasn’t dead 44 years ago.

“Sundiata Keita was the great emperor of Mali West Africa back in 1250 A.D., back when the streets were paved with gold,” Keita explains of his historical namesake. The man is a natural storyteller, and he relishes in explaining the significance of his name — a famously taboo moniker in West Africa.

See, the original Sundiata Keita was of a royal bloodline, born as the heir to the throne of Mali. But a sorcerer king, Sumanguru, sought to kill the boy, and Sundiata was raised in exile on a remote island. When he returned to his native home as a man, he defeated Sumanguru and ascended the throne, creating a prosperous Malian empire.

Keita peppers the story of his name with intricate details, becoming the most animated when he describes the battle scene.

“In that war, they were fighting with djembes,” he explains of the goblet-shaped African hand drums. Keita is an internationally renowned master djembe player, builder and tuner. You can tell this is his favorite part of the story. “Sundiata’s drummers would be up in the trees and they would play beats to signal the warriors on the ground. And when Sumaguru was defeated, Mali entered a new era of prosperity.”

Sound familiar? Nix the bit about the tree-climbing drummers and Disney aficionados might recognize the folktale as the basis for The Lion King. In fact, “Sundiata Keita” literally translates to “lion prince.” But because of the king’s hardships as a boy, Malians have a superstitious aversion to the name. According to Keita, every child to bear the name of the former emperor has died before the age of 2. When he visited Mali recently, he was made an honorary king and named a national treasure.

“When I visited [Mali] people said, ‘No one with that name has ever lived past two years,’” Keita says. “They made me an Emperor de Mali — it is a name of praise. They are always quick to sing praise to me, all the way from over there. But when I was born my parents said, ‘You will be the king. You will live through past 2.’ I’m 46 now. Praise to the father I have not died yet.”

Flashback to 1977. A disenchanted, third-generation African-American kid growing up in the gutted landscape of Detroit starts getting into his family’s traditions of African drumming, dancing and storytelling. Really into it. They’re ritualistic hobbies that have been passed along from one generation of Keita to another, since the family came to the United States from West Africa in 1919. Soon he is carrying around a djembe all the time, everywhere he goes.

Two years later, that kid, Sundiata Keita, now 21 years old, sneaks backstage at the Masonic Temple, smokes a little green (“every Rasta has to have the ganja”), jams a little with the touring band and joins them onstage as a percussionist. Oh, yeah, that band is Bob Marley and the Wailers. The professional career of Sundiata Keita is born.

“The chemistry of that one moment changed my life and I have a powerful connection to Bob because of that.” Keita says. “After Bob passed I kept contact with the Wailers, who were still touring. Sixteen years later, Junior Marvin asked me to go on tour with them. … I didn’t come home for two years.”

When not on the road with the Wailers, Keita kept his home base in Detroit and started a resume of impressive pick-up gigs — with jazz luminaries (vocalist Cab Calloway, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach) and rock titans (Carlos Santana and The Grateful Dead). But, for the better part of the next decade, he trotted the globe with the Wailers.

He offers Marley’s secret for smuggling bricks of marijuana across international borders — a technique involving a hollowed-out doorstop and some metallic duct tape. He rattles off a list of places he’s played — from Berlin to Brazil and everywhere in between.

“In Europe they called us the Rasta Liberation Army ’cause we was so rugged,” Keita says. “It was like nothing could stop us. We went everywhere.”

But, after a decade on the road, Keita’s diabetes started to worsen. He had gained international fame as an African drumming master, and started to travel less and teach more. Just as the world music boom was taking off — fueled by massively popular documents like Paul Simon’s duo of records, 1986’s Graceland and 1990’s Rhythm of the Saints, and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Heart’s pop-ethnomusicology book, Planet Drum. Pale-skinned folks around the United States, it seems, couldn’t get enough world music.

And that’s when we met. It was 1992. He was leading a class on traditional African music and dance in the back of a store in the Cherryland Mall in Traverse City, Mich. The class was filled with back-to-nature feminists, fashion hippies, after-work bankers, Phish fans. And me. When I remind him of the class he laughs ruefully.

“That was sort of [the] emergence of what’s now called the worldbeat,” he explains. “The tradition of the drum was bringing different people together — like the music of Bob Marley brought together Hawaiian and European and African and Japanese Rastas. The drum brought [together] all different people with its big heartbeat. Americans had never been exposed to it before. Due to my efforts and other master drummers, that message got around the world.”

But that message didn’t translate perfectly. During the early ’90s Keita was making traditional instruments and transporting some drums from West Africa to the willing hands of American consumers. But soon, the major drum manufacturers — names like Remo, Toca, LP (Latin Percussion) — got wind of the burgeoning drum circle society and started flooding big-box instrument stores with mass-produced, garishly-colored McDjembes, basically shitting on untold centuries of rich, artistic, sacred cultural tradition.

“I saw these things as a blessing originally,” he says. “It has turned out as a real nightmare, a curse. We had traditions — the way the drums were carved, the role of women dancers. Now it is out of control and there is no order. Children just bang on the drums, and the ceremony has been sold. When the African ballets come here and they see what’s happening they just cry.

“But like Marley’s music, the boom in popularity was all whites, very few blacks,” he continues. “That was a problem. A lot of black folks got upset. They were like, ‘Why are you imitating my background? We are owners of that legacy and to who that drum was born.’ But at the time we were driving to get the culture across to people and be universal in our approach. But eventually people at home in Africa felt very offended. At least at the beginning they could get some money for drums they were making. At the end there was nothing.”

That’s when his voice sounds sad — not talking about the loss of his sight, not talking about the death of his famous friends and band mates. He sounds the saddest when he talks about the blindness of culture.

But immediately he starts in on another story, about a gig last summer at Pine Knob (“What do they call that place now?”). His old friend Carlos Santana is in town and every time he visits, Keita is invited on stage. He is helped to a specially made drum, one that is so big and so loud that Keita likens the sound to an M-16. The band stops so that Keita can play alone — in front of thousands of people — a long solo that seems to go on forever. It’s a story that is as hyperbolic as the one about the original Sundiata Keita, the Malian king, the streets of gold. It’s the story of a king.

“I think I cried through the whole thing. … I know that I’m carrying a new legacy — I do what I can do. I think my spirit keeps me going. Until I have no more breath in my body I’m going to perform.”


King Sundiata Keita and The Sons of Fetari Reggae Band will celebrate the 58th birthday of Bob Marley Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Call 313-833-9700.

Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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