Senegal's 'living treasure' drummer and his family orchestra

When he was a child of 10, Doudou Ndiaye Rose "got sidetracked" on his way to school in Senegal by the beating of a tam-tam.

Now at 80, the renowned drummer is at peace knowing his children and grandchildren will uphold the tradition.

One of his sons, Moustapha Ndiaye, led an ensemble at Paris' Cite de la Musique (Music Centre) this week in a festival on "Senegal: Myths and Realities". Though Doudou's music was a featured theme, the master stayed in Dakar for health reasons.

Doudou has performed with such greats as Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones and percussionists in Japan, and been declared a "living human treasure" by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. But one of his biggest delights is remembering the sounds of his Dakar childhood.

"I was born on July 28, 1930, in the middle of the Plateau district. Every day, the tam-tams played for marriages, baptisms and circumcisions. Whenever I left the house, the sounds distracted me. It's as if they said, 'Doudou, don't go to school, you must come and play the tam-tam'."

Mamadou, usually known as Doudou, was born into the griot caste of musicians and story-tellers, guardians of the cultural heritage. But his father, an accountant, did not want his son to be a musician. When Doudou defied him, they went for seven years without shaking hands.

Doudou was working as a plumber when he met Mada Seck, who worked at the cargo port and "knew all the secrets of percussion".

"I was in his group and when he left one day, for Ivory Coast, he told me, 'Here are my instruments, here are my charms, you can replace me'."

But Doudou wanted to travel deep into his west African country to learn "seriously" about his gift.

"I never wanted to play blindly! I met the elders so that they could teach me the very precise language of drums that everybody recognised then: how to announce a bush fire, that a snake has bitten someone and what kind of snake, that a woman who has just got married has gone to the conjugal home and that the husband is happy with her."

When the elders noted that Doudou had managed to learn "more than 100 different rhythms", they bestowed on him the title of "chief drum major".

A large portrait of Senegal's first president Leopold Sedar Senghor looks down over the living room of the master drummer Senghor chose in 1960 to produce an African version of the national anthem. Beside this hangs UNESCO's "living human treasure" citation.

Despite his fame, Doudou is known in town simply as "Tonton" or "Uncle", the man with "four wives and at least 15 girls and 15 boys" who heads a family orchestra.

For 50-year-old Moustapha, who teaches percussion at Paris' Cite de la Musique, Doudou has always been "a generous father but a little strict when it comes to percussion. If you couldn't follow, you would feel a little tap of a stick on the head."

Nowadays, the master's grandchildren often come to rehearse on the rooftop terrace of Doudou's first wife before their ensemble, "Les Roseaux", heads abroad to give concerts. The smell of goatskin that covers drums wafts out from a small room stacked with dozens of the instruments, including a tiny model for one of the youngest, four-year-old Papi.

"I thank the Good Lord," says Doudou, relaxing in the traditional "boubou" or ample robe. "My children have learned the language of percussion well. I can even no longer play and just listen to them."

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