Hancock County man learns West African music ‘about the whole, not the sum of the parts’

Posted Feb. 18, 2014, at 9:53 a.m.

With a suitcase packed with drumsticks, guitar strings and all the things needed to survive the West African heat, Michael Bennett of Lamoine Beach boarded a plane headed for Gambia in December 2013. That was his 12th journey to the land he has come to love, where you sleep under mosquito netting, the electricity works some of the time and white rice is always on the menu.

Living with a local Mandinka family, at times for up to four months, in the village of New Jeshwang, Bennett endured the hardships of the harsh environment in order to learn the culture, history and language, but most of all Bennett wanted to absorb the rhythms of the West African tribes.

“One of the things I love about West African music is it’s very cooperative and it’s so deep in the culture. Djembe music is all about working together as a group. Yes, there is a lead drummer who does most of, if not all the soloing, but it’s all about the whole, not the sum of the parts.” Bennett said.

Upon his return, Bennett told a group gathered to learn West African drumming at the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor that the drummers are not the stars of the show in West Africa. Instead, it’s the dancers.

West African djembe music is played for the dancers and for the message in the song.

They sing about morality, history and even everyday events. Each tribe has cultural music, which is played at naming ceremonies and weddings.

Wolof sabar drumming and Balanta balafon, or African xylophone, are Bennett’s specialties. “These styles of music are very different from ours and have some extremely complicated rhythms. I just love not knowing a style of drumming and unlocking the mystery.” said Bennett.

While in Gambia, Bennett is often a student, but at other times turns into a teacher. Remember that suitcase packed with sticks and string? On several trips he has taken guitars and a complete drum kit to give to his students, who wish to learn jazz and rock drumming from him.

It seems Gambia has adopted this man raised on the Maine coast and shared its rhythms, roots and ways with him. In return, Bennett shares the West African way with those who want to learn.

Recently, Bennett’s humanitarian efforts in Gambia have included funding children’s education and taking used cellphones to the people of this impoverished nation.

For more about Michael Bennett and djembe, sabar and Balanta balafon vist Bennett’s You Tube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/omarmane.