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.
A dozen people join in unison as Michael Bennett leads them in a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
A dozen people join in unison as Michael Bennett leads them in a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Michael Bennett plays a dundun, as part of a West African drumming workshop, at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Michael Bennett plays a dundun, as part of a West African drumming workshop, at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Astrea Charlett of Southwest Harbor plays a djembe as her 18-month-old son River begs her attention during a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Astrea Charlett of Southwest Harbor plays a djembe as her 18-month-old son River begs her attention during a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Beau Lisy of Southwest Harbor plays a dundun which provides the bass notes as Michael Bennett leads a group in a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Beau Lisy of Southwest Harbor plays a dundun which provides the bass notes as Michael Bennett leads a group in a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Christine Swersey of Southwest Harbor plays a djembe alongside Michael Bennett during a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Kevin Bennett
Christine Swersey of Southwest Harbor plays a djembe alongside Michael Bennett during a West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
A set of gonkogui bells on dundun drums used in West African drumming are part of a drumming workshop put on by Michael Bennett at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Kevin Bennett
A set of gonkogui bells on dundun drums used in West African drumming are part of a drumming workshop put on by Michael Bennett at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Michael Bennett demonstrates how to tune a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Michael Bennett demonstrates how to tune a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Djembe drums sit quiet as participants in a West African drumming workshop take a break and have scones and tea at the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Djembe drums sit quiet as participants in a West African drumming workshop take a break and have scones and tea at the Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
Michael Bennett demonstrates a rhythm on a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Michael Bennett demonstrates a rhythm on a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo
People gather around Michael Bennett as he demonstrates how to tune a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014.
Kevin Bennett
People gather around Michael Bennett as he demonstrates how to tune a djembe drum as part of his West African drumming workshop at Common Good Soup Kitchen in Southwest Harbor on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014. Buy Photo

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.

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