Africa has been swapping music with the Americas for generations. The slave trade brought African music across the Atlantic hundreds of years ago, leading to the development of genres like rumba, calypso and samba, not to mention jazz and R&B. Eventually, it all ended up back where it started, in the form of styles like Afrobeat and soukous, an African rumba popular in the Congo.
So consider percussionist Monette Marino-Keita’s solo debut, last April’s Coup d’Eclat, the latest effort in a long tradition of mixing and matching.
In “Toumani,” an instrumental piece that pairs a West African melody with a Cuban rhythm, the 42year-old San Diego native plays balafon (a traditional African instrument similar to a xylophone) over congas. The saxophone melody in “Can’t Borrow Beauty,” a jazz-fusion jam written for a full band, comes straight from a folk song that schoolgirls sing in the West African nation of Guinea.
“They’re all so good that I can’t just say, ‘I like this one and I only like this one and I only like this one,’” Marino-Keita says in an interview at Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge in North Park, referring to the range of rhythms she’s studied: West African, Cuban, Brazilian, Korean. “I like to hear them all, so I try to make them merge.”
Marino-Keita was introduced to the drums by her father, a self-taught drummer who’s played in a number of local bands. She started out rocking the drum set over records by Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, but when she was 15, she picked up the congas and was soon enchanted by the “tactile experience” of thumping out rhythms with her hands.
“It’s almost like an extension of your body,” she says. “You really feel like that drum skin becomes part of your spirit. Whatever you’re hearing and thinking is coming out onto the skin.”
Drums have long played a key role in possession ceremonies and other spiritual rituals. But the drums also have a secular purpose, as Marino-Keita learned when she began traveling to Guinea in the ’90s to study the djembe and dununs, drums that the Mandingue people use in anything from baptisms to weddings.
“Everything that they do has a rhythm to celebrate that event,” she says. “For example, you gotta go weed the field, prepare the field for the planting of the seeds. You have drummers that accompany while you’re doing the work. Because it’s hot. It’s not a lot of fun. But when there’s music and people singing, everything goes by faster.”
Today, Marino-Keita runs a drumming school, Tam Tam Mandingue, with her husband Mamady Keita, a world-renowned master drummer from Guinea. They’ve traveled the world teaching drumming and they host an annual drum camp at Keita’s house in Matoto, a coastal suburb of Conakry, Guinea’s capital.
In December 2008, more than two-dozen students from across the world were taking lessons in Keita’s courtyard when Lansana Conté, the country’s ailing dictator of 24 years, died of an unspecified illness. The military immediately took power, closing the country’s borders, installing a transitional government and announcing a weeklong period of mourning in keeping with Muslim tradition. (Guinea is predominantly Muslim.)
“Guinea luckily stayed very calm during this whole period of time, so there was no threat of violence on us,” Marino-Keita says. “But we couldn’t drum.”
With nothing else to do, she wrote the songs that would later become Coup d’Eclat (a play on the French term coup d’état that roughly translated means “burst of joy”). Using the music software GarageBand, she tapped out bass lines and conga rhythms on her laptop’s keyboard. Back in San Diego, she worked with producer Allan Phillips to arrange the sketches for a live band.
Last year, the first democratic elections in Guinea’s history went off smoothly. But just to be safe, Marino- Keita canceled this January’s drum camp. Instead, her husband will join her nine-piece band onstage at Anthology this week.
“That’s going to be a treat,” she says. “[We’ll] bring him up for at least two songs, probably more. Because once he’s into the groove, he won’t want to leave the stage.”
Monette Marino-Keita, Mamady Keita and The Tribal Energy Dance Troupe will perform at Anthology on Thursday, Jan. 6. monettemarino.com.