Dembrebrah: Keep the Beat on History and Culture
By Dianne Anderson
Drums, the ancient African sound that doubles as a language, continues to serve as an entertaining wake up call to the keepers of tradition.
In historic times, John Beatty said the African drums heralded festive occasions and reasons that the ancestors held certain rhythms for certain seasons.
There were special sounds for wedding ceremonies. Drums alerted the community that there was going to be war, or the naming of a child.
“The drummers were actually the timers, they told the community that something was about to happen,’ said Beatty, a drummer and one of the founding members of Dembrebrah.
Each beat of the drum and the dances were all also functional. Some were used for healing. Modern medicine didn’t exist back then, and if anyone had a bad headache, the drummers would break out the Lamdan rhythm.
Beatty said Black History Month kept the drummers busy with back to back events. But throughout the year, Dembrebrah West African Drum and Dance Ensemble also brings awareness to local schools and the community.
He emphasizes the experience transcends entertainment value. There is history in the lesson and healing moves are in the mix.
“If look at the dance, there is a way the neck goes up and down. It’s patterned after the giraffe. The dance is praise, but it also is soothing on the neck. It allows the headache to go away, it’s a healing thing,” he said.
Back in the ancient days, whatever the occupation, from the ironworkers to the griot, also known as Jeli oral historians, and for every professional in between, there was a coinciding rhythm. It was the pre-written language that everyone understood.
“The Jeli kept the memory of the people, there were certain rhythms for them. They knew the parents and great grandparents. They memorized the community,” he said.
With every beat of the drum, there was also a corresponding organizational aspect for the village. At each ceremony, the rhythms spoke a message. It was the communication of the day.
“This is how we translated everything,” Beatty said. “When that terrible holocaust of slavery came, they didn’t care who they captured. They captured anybody they could, bringing over the people and threw it all together.”
Much stripped from history and the culture, but also the language and the dreams contained within the message. In the American slave system, drummers were not allowed to drum, and suffered and died if they tried.
“In America, if they found you drumming, they would cut your hands off. It was forbidden,” he said.
That pain flowed over time into old Negro spirituals, songs created from Africans turned into slaves through horrific dehumanization.
The loss of history and social identity through the process of separation resulted in distancing Africans in America from what belonged to them. He said it has had a multi-generational impact.
Dembrebra, now together for over 25 years, is on a mission is to practice preserve promote and protect those healing aspects of our culture. He said the song, the dance and the drum is all synonymous with life in Africa.
Today, village life in Africa is much different than city life. Everyone wants the city, and more and more culture erodes from the old landmarks.
His focus now is how to get it back.
They share the joy that is conveyed through the beat. It’s fun, he says, but it’s so much more. Dembrebrah, meaning “unity of the drum,” which originates with Bambara people within the Mali Empire of West Africa.
“We try to provide that healing in a small way, we talk about how these drums are unifying. Everybody who hears it, they react in the same frequency,” he said.
In the coming year, Dembrebrah will continue working with young people to introduce them to preserve the culture for future generations.
“We are working with a lot of young people, high schools, one who is now one of the best drummers in the L.A. region, and we would like to take them to Africa, to take them to the root of it and let them experience and continue to pass it on,” he said.
Lately, he said they drummed for Curtis Middle School in Carson, and hope to bring the experience broader. He sees a bright future.
He’s stirring up conversations to promote healing for families, and all those who can relate to the beat.
“We’re discovering that we should call ourselves African Americans now, even though many of us know very little about Africa. We don’t even know how African we are,” he said.