Promotion of a culture is best driven by its natives. However, for Gambia’s Mandinka drum, its promoter is a foreigner coming from a place one wouldn’t imagine would be ever keen in anything relating to Gambian lifestyle.
He first arrived into the country in 2004 upon being told of its rich culture by a compatriot of his who’d been visiting the Senegambian region since 1998.
A high school student then with particular interest in exploring beyond his comfort zone in Japan, Naoto Kanteh felt the need to travel out and his first touch was Bansang, a town considered the West African nation’s second capital with an over 8,000 population.
There, he was amazed by the life of locals but what swept him off his feet most was the Mandinka drum played in virtually all of the town’s functions. His affection for the wooden object dressed with strings fasten over dried animal skin grew drastically into something of a “marriage sealed in blood,” as he puts it.
His interest to practice how it is played became profound when he attended a late night wedding in which the drum was the main instrument of entertainment as women danced rhythmically to its melodies.
“The sound felt so great. That time I swore to the heart that day that one day I’ll be praying drums here,” he tells Gambia News.
“It was so exciting and amazing. A woman was dancing as the drummer beat the tantan (mandinka parlance for the drum).
” I want this music coming up to international level. This is telling the history & wonderful culture (of Gambian People). The drum beat is a wonderful traditional culture that deserves to be admired in the world. The sound from three drums are very wonderful and profoundly brilliant,” he says.
Naoto quickly attached himself to a group of drummers to learn the craft. Taking two hours lessons every morning afternoon and attending night programmes in Fulladu village, the Tokyo-born mastered drumming after three months with help from his Gambian friends before he relocated to the Kombos.
“I started a similar practice in many places. And weekends we go to the programmes. Now there are times when three people of our group go to the local programmes. Whether I was black or white did not matter to the group. They told me you’re “also a member of this group (drumming group). They also said if I can play with them they would be very proud. And they gave me the chance at any time.
What started out as friendship turned into a solid group of drummers. Naoto -who now calls himself Naoto Kante – made arrangements to fly the group to Japan to have the mandinka drum displayed to his compatriots in Tokyo at various functions.
“We don’t have Gambia festival here in Japan. So I forced for us to go to the African Festival there to advertise Gambia and Mandinka culture to help me and my group build more contacts.
“I want this mandinka drums going worldwide and I want to travel all over the world performing with my Gambian group. That is my dream. I will definitely want the Gambian government help us in this regard,” Nato, who considers himself and his group ambassadors of the mandinka drum in eastern Japan, tells Gambia News.