"Meetings with Europeans have made drumming my profession"

Africa's view on Europe
Baye Cheikh Matala Mbaye (45) came to Germany 14 years ago. Both in Senegal and here, he teaches Europeans how to drum. Thanks to music, he has been given the opportunities in Europe that many Africans hope for. 

How did you get into drumming? 

Baye Cheikh Matala Mbaye is Senegalese and taught himself to drum as a child. The 45-year-old gives drumming courses in Oberursel near Frankfurt. 
I was born in Thies in Senegal and come from a family of griots. They are the memory of Africa, they have always told the stories that are passed on from generation to generation. To this end, these families sing, dance and drum. My grandfather was a drummer, but my father didn't drum himself, he studied and then was a teacher. There were no instruments in our home. Nevertheless, I started drumming as a child at the age of six or seven - on cans, on tables, on anything. My parents didn't want that and started beating me. They said: you will study and learn something real. I understood that too, because where we lived the griots didn't have a good reputation. Nevertheless, when I was eight years old, I went every day to a drum master who taught me properly. I just loved drumming. When I grew up, my aunt once witnessed my parents scolding and beating me because of it. She said, "You know, his grandfather used to drum. It's in his blood. Let him drum." Then it got a little better. And then when the first Europeans learned to drum with me, my parents also realized that you can make money with it. 

When did you give the first classes? 
I didn't do anything for it, it just happened. When I was fourteen or fifteen, Europeans came to me through cultural exchange, and I taught them to drum. Later I led two dance and drum groups. Since 2004, a Finn and a group of French people have come to me every year. These meetings with Europeans made drumming my profession, from which I could make a living. Because the Europeans bought my drums for 150 euros, although they cost 50 euros at the dealers around the corner. I just said: I earn my money with it - and they wanted to support that.

How did you end up in Germany? 
I met my future wife at one of these workshops. She convinced me and said, here in Germany you can become more than in Africa. Drumming here in Europe is a dream come true for me. And every boy in Africa dreams of going to Europe. I had the chance and I took it. When I was here, I personally went to the director of the adult education center in Oberursel and said that I wanted to teach drumming. He supported me right away. Although then only three people (including my wife) came to the first class, he kept it going because he believed in me. Today I give several classes a week, all of which are well attended. 

You also lead and perform with a drum group ...
Yes, I sort of inherited the drum group "Impuls" when its founder died. It was a hobby drumming group of the VHS, which I now lead as the only professional drummer together with another member. We do concert evenings, have set up an Africa festival here in Oberursel together with the Kunstgriff association, and have organized many events. For example, before Corona we also played regularly at the Alfred Delp House, a residential home for the disabled. There we had a drum group together with some residents. 

Is the music you make here different from that in Senegal? 
No, in principle, the music I teach the Europeans is also played like that in Senegal. Of course, there is a certain adaptation of me in it, because I live here, that also flows into my own compositions. Nevertheless, I can show my culture and my homeland with this music. I also sing in the West African languages Susu, Mandingka, Wollof and sometimes in Peul. The Impuls group has learned 63 traditional rhythms that have been played in Senegal for centuries.

What is the importance of drumming in Senegal? 
In Africa, we drum to show that we are healthy, that we have strength, are intelligent, and have tact. The drum has a power over people, it brings good mood, makes people dream. The speed, the rhythm is somehow a part of us humans. In addition, in Senegal, in the past as well as today, drumming is used to deliver certain messages. Even today, groups of drummers go from village to village - and the villagers can tell from the rhythm they play whether there has been a funeral, a wedding or a baptism, for example. 

Do you have the impression that West African rhythms fit German culture? 
Many are enthusiastic about it. African music is perceived here, but it depends on the context. We once played at an Oktoberfest, where the music somehow didn't go down at all. But when I played the drums at another Oktoberfest, it fit and people joined in the celebrations. 

Have your German friends ever been to Senegal? 
Before Corona, I was always in Senegal twice a year, giving drumming and dance workshops. In 2017, I was in my home country with the group Impuls. We even had an appearance on breakfast television there. They played in front of Senegalese people who couldn't drum themselves. I was really proud of them and their great performance. 

And how is the response from other Africans here in Germany? Do they also come to your workshops? 
Yes, at the moment I am also teaching two young Africans in my drumming classes. I also invite African friends to concerts and events. For them it is a piece of home when they hear us drumming. 

How does your family in Senegal feel about drumming and your life here? 
My mother has already visited me several times in Germany, as have my children. Of course my family is happy that I earn money with it, but they also miss me, just as I miss them. But from my drum job here in Germany, I was able to finance my sister's seven-year management studies. I also support my mother financially; she works as a middleman for coal and wood. And my children go to a good private school in Senegal. My family in Senegal has everything: cell phones, electricity, even the Sky pay channel. They always tell me how some soccer matches turned out because I don't have Sky myself (laughs). 

How do your acquaintances in Senegal perceive Germany and Europe? 
There, you only see the luxury on TV, only the beautiful sides. The truth, the reality, is not shown on TV. I think there is a false perception there of life here. Many people in Africa think that I can get everything here in Germany at the push of a button. They don't know how much I had to learn and how I deal with people. That takes a lot of energy. I didn't get anything as a gift. My children and my mother know exactly that if I don't work so hard here, they won't have any money left. I always tell my children to study and graduate from high school and then they can go wherever they want - even to Europe. I think some Africans are disappointed because it's not like they thought it would be here. But I feel very comfortable here. 

What music do you listen to when you are not drumming? 
Of course I like to listen to African music, for example Yousson D'our. But mostly I listen to German radio, because I want to know what's being played here, what's hot here. 

The interview was conducted by Melanie Kräuter. 

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