It is with this in mind that Moussa Bolokada Conde, a master drummer who now calls Greenville home, tells the story of his first drum: his mother’s shoulders. Slung to her back with a swath of fabric, he would beat his hands against her body as she walked and worked the land in their native village in Morowaya, in the Sankaran region of Guinea.
It wasn’t until his mother, also an artist and a musician, gave him a pot, or something else drum-like that he could beat on, that he asked to be set free from her tether. “My mother, she gave me something that look like a djembe, and I said, ‘Put me down! Put me down!’” he recounts, eyes sparkling, smiling broadly.
More than 50 years later, Bolokada has traveled the world to share the rhythms and stories of his native land. He is widely considered one of the world’s most renowned Master Djembefolas, or master drummers.
Today, he travels between the Upstate and Guinea, where his wife and eight children live and are treated like royalty, cared for by the village that saw fit to share his gifts with the world, supporting his career as a traveling artist.
It was there in Morowaya that he cultivated his expertise of West African Malinke rhythms. In the village, as with many others, it is not uncommon for groups of people to walk from morning until night, traveling from one place to another for work or wares.
“Nowhere to sit. No food to eat. If you play djembe, nobody complain,” Conde says. “Djembe make everybody happy. No fight. No complain. No angry. That’s why the djembevery important.”
He’s played so long and so hard, his palms are as smooth and contoured as the white goatskin that stretches across his rope-tethered, goblet-shaped instrument.
As a teenager, Bolokada became known as a young musical prodigy in the Sankaran region of Guinea, West Africa. His talent quickly led him to become the premier djembe player in all of the region’s major village celebrations for many years. Today, he speaks more than half a dozen languages—French, Malinke, Susu, Lele, English, and Creole among them. And he knows exponentially more rhythms—more than 500 with names like Yah and Safinamalo, each one with up to six parts. Every rhythm is considered a language unto itself, telling a unique story in a unique dialect—each with its own intricacies and inflections. With the blessing of his village, Bolokada left Guinea in 1996 to join Les Percussions de Guinée, replacing the legendary Noumoudy Keita as their lead drummer. He then traveled and performed in major performance venues all over the world, even being featured in the IMAX movie PULSE: A Stomp Odyssey.
Since 2004, he has been performing and teaching in the United States. He’s conducted percussion workshops all over the U.S. and Europe. And he’s traveled the world, including to France, Italy, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and more. All along the way, he’s started drumming and dance troupes that carry on the traditions of his land, including in Oakland, California, Champaign, Illinois, Nashville, Boston, and most recently Asheville and Greenville.
Bolokada was awarded immigrant status as an alien with extraordinary ability in the arts in 2007. The only thing that belies 53-year-old’s age is the journey he’s taken. His youthful complexion and trim physique appear decades younger.
Since arriving in the Upstate, he has worked with Anderson University and North Greenville University students, and performed on both campuses. He has conducted numerous workshops and lends his expertise to drum and African dance enthusiasts from around the region. Additionally, he has set up a drum-making workshop at his residence using imported and local supplies.
His return to Greenville next month is widely anticipated, following a two-month trip to his home in Guinea. There will be a party, of course.And there will be drumming. Lots of drumming.