“Choosing this name (NIMBAYA!) was intended to be a tribute to women’s beauty, strength, fertility and integrity.”
NIMBAYA!, an all-female Guinean percussion troupe, shares a new interpretation of traditional African drumming and dance with its worldwide audience. The lively music of the group impressed several critics during its tours. NIMBAYA! also breaks taboos, does community outreach, and tries to promote peace and understanding through the arts.
In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Guinea became the centre for African drum and dance, and several troupes were formed. Le Ballets Africains, founded in 1958, was the first Guinean international dance company. This troupe provided inspiration to others to found their own companies. Several celebrities, including Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, visited Guinea, because they wanted to be a part of the thriving musical scene.
However, a strong taboo existed in Guinea against women learning the art of djembe drumming. This taboo had existed for thousands of years. Called ‘the magic drum’, the djembe drum was regarded as extremely powerful, and it was used in village ceremonies. Perhaps this was one reason why women who played the djembe drum ran the risk of being disowned by their families. This traditional taboo still exists today.
In 1998, the courageous founder of NIMBAYA!, Mamoudou Condé, decided to break this taboo, even though he is a man. Supported by Guinea’s Department of Culture, he brought fifteen women from four cultural regions of Guinea to form the group. He still directs the all-female troupe. The women who belonged to the group were from impoverished backgrounds, and several of them struggled to support their children. Many of the women also ran the risk of being disowned by their families. This was because they were learning a musical instrument traditionally preserved for males.
The troupe was originally called Amazone, Women Master Drummers. The women decided to change it to the highly symbolic ‘Nimbaya’, because they found this name more inspirational. The name originated from the Nimba mask. This mask is very significant in West-African culture, and it represents a woman at the height of her power and beauty. The mask also symbolises strength, life and productivity at agricultural ceremonies.
NIMBAYA! has had two world tours already. The group undertook these tours in 2004 and 2006. In 2004, NIMBAYA! travelled to North America, and they received excellent reviews for their music. The audiences responded to the group’s dance and percussion with great joy.
In 2007, the troupe embarked on a world tour with a new programme. This tour included performances at Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique. One of these performances was in front of over 7,000 people, closing the 20th Anniversary edition of the Festival. The audiences loved the group’s celebration of modern and traditional African storytelling and music.
The group’s third tour introduces a new programme of dance, storytelling and drumming. This is intended to relate tales about the situation of African women. The talented and creative women play songs which they wrote themselves on these tours. Their tours celebrate the power of the djembe drum. According to a promotional video on the website of NIMBAYA!, this is ‘a powerful sound as old as civilisation itself’.
According to a review at WhatsupArlington.com, VA, NIMBAYA! of a 2012 performance, NIMBAYA! received several standing ovations. ‘The energy, passion and skill exhibited from the stage was incredible, and the audience responded with enthusiasm’.
When asked about the places which he enjoyed visiting the most, Condé said that he loved them all, including Louisiana. However, he especially loved Brazil. This was because: ‘…We found our family there. It is like living home, and we thought we were going to Brazil, but we found our own people there. The people there supported us, and they did everything they could to help us throughout our tour; I found my lost brothers and sisters’.
Condé, the group’s founder, was also asked about its inspiration and vision. He replied that the Creator inspires NIMBAYA!, ‘and he gives us those talents to express our feelings’. His vision is social and political. He wants the members of NIMBAYA! to act as role models for girls and women all over the world, not only in Guinea, ‘My main concern is to stop female genital \[mutilation] because many women have suffered from it and if this is a cause we can fight together, the entire planet can join and fight to stop this practice. It will change a lot in a woman’s life’.
One way in which NIMBAYA! helps people is through community outreach. They work with college and university students, and share traditional African music and storytelling with them. They introduce them to the richness of African culture through its music and dance. The group has programmes that include performances, lectures, residencies, master classes and panel discussions.
Music has changed the members of the group’s lives completely, so Condé thinks that it is also possible for other women to find their callings, and to transform their own lives. He advises women to: ‘Know yourself, be confident in yourself, nobody will stop you. Rejuvenate, revive yourself and keep pushing on’.