In Leimert Park, binding tradition with the new

By Elizabeth Warden

A stuffed animal or toy train may seem like the perfect pastime for a child here in Los Angeles. But in the Diouf household, playtime is anything but ordinary.

Two-year-old Ousmane Diouf’s daily amusement comes from a mini, beige, traditional Senegalese drum with his name painted across it. But even if he has a personalized drum, it doesn’t stop him from standing on his tippy-toes and trying to tap his father’s drum that is the same height as him. He’s attached to the drums that surround him like many other children need their blanket or pacifier.

It’s Tuesday afternoon after school and the Diouf’s gather to play. The child uses a stick and his tiny hand to keep a rhythm going; the rhythm is strong enough to make you tap your feet to the beat. He looks to his mother for approval.

“No, you’re doing it right,” his mother, Fatou Diouf, said to him. She smiled and watched her two youngest daughters, Arame, 5, and Mame Diara, 4, dance in-sync to the music. One-year-old Youssouf picks up a baby-sized drum, tries to bite it, then puts it back down.

The Dioufs named Ousmane after his uncle, who was also a talented left-handed drummer. Children are supposed to have similar attributes to the family member they are named after. This is just one of many Senegalese traditions that are practiced in the Diouf household, which is also a drum shop.

The drum shop, called West of Africa, is located in the heart of downtown Leimert Park. It brings the country of Senegal to the urban African American neighborhood.  The family lives by enforcing Senegalese traditions: cooking Senegalese food, practicing the arts, singing, dancing and extending a warm welcome into their home.

“This is our culture for me and I don’t want to let it go,” said Pape Diouf, father, husband and master drummer.

Fatou, Pape’s wife, references their style of living to the “arts collective.” Anybody who participates in West African drumming, dancing and singing – regardless of the type – is considered a brother or a sister, which makes up an overall family. Blood or skin color doesn’t matter.

“Even when we were in a two bedroom apartment, there [was] like ten people who [lived there],” said Fatou Diouf, describing that they would always get complaints from their neighbors for being a “little too loud” and enjoying each other’s presence.

“When we’d cook after dance class there would have been like 20 people who have come through the house,” she said.

The family purposefully opened the drum shop in Leimert Park because they saw a spirit of art in the neighborhood, but also saw a disconnect between African Americans who grew up in America and their home continent. The couple sees themselves as ambassadors for people to understand who they are and where they come from.

“A lot of people who come through the door, we laugh and give them names because they look just like someone from home,” she said.

Pape Diouf and his eldest sons teach weekly classes that focus on different types of drumming: djembe, sabar, which is native to Senegal, and tama, for anyone in the area to come through his doors and learn. Even if someone doesn’t have $15 for the classes right away, he allows payments to come in whenever because he strongly believes everyone should be able to participate.

And that’s not just for drumming classes, but dance classes and classes that teach Wolof, his native language. The family sells Pape’s handmade drums that are made of parts that come directly from Senegal. The prices for the drums range from $50 to $175.

Pape Diouf comes from a Griot family, which means he is from a traditional Senegalese family that has – for decades – inherited the position of an oral storyteller. He is responsible for knowing all traditional musical rhythms, dances and family histories of people who live in Bargny, his hometown in Senegal.  In Pape Diouf’s native tribe, the Wolof, griots are known as “guewels.”

In modern day, griots can charge for services, but also go on tours throughout the US and visit universities to share their customs, just like Pape Diouf has done in the past.

His popularity and talent within the community garnered attention here in US by ethnomusicology professor Mark Sunkett at Arizona State University. Sunkett embarked on a research project about Senegalese sabar drumming; luckily, he said, Pape Diouf was one of the first master drummers he met. Sunkett described the master drummer as being very open and willing to share information about his family.

Pape, as a guewel, performs in a famous Senegalese ceremony known as the ndeup ritual that deals with antagonists in the spirit realm, according to Sunkett. Pape still travels back to Senegal annually to take part in the ceremony.

“If you have mental or psychological problems that are not within the [real] world, they are more easily dealt with in the spiritual world,” Sunkett said.

“There is a whole body of songs and music and drumming rhythms that go along with that ritual and the healing process.”

The ceremony started in the post-World War II phase because of the colonization of Africa that displaced Africans similar to the way slavery did. The ceremony then became considered the “psychiatry of Africa,” according to Fatou Diouf.

“They were able to maintain their culture, but they were shifted to a different land,” she said.

“For Africans being connected to the land is extremely important because land is where your ancestors were … so the energies from there are needed. Insanity had become a big thing.”

Pape Diouf’s legacy as a guewel has followed him to Leimert Park, where he is found explaining his history to a circle full of drummers during his lessons. He views the neighborhood of a village within itself.

In Senegal, anytime there is a ceremony of importance – for example, the naming of a child or a wedding – members of the village call the Diouf family to cook for the ceremony. Here in the drum shop, the couple does just that. Pape Diouf takes a break during his drumming lessons for story time, while Fatou Diouf cooks for the visitors occasionally. He tells his classes all about Senegalese traditions – from harvesting land, what it means to be a griot, among others. The visitors in the drum circle are drawn into his stories. They nod their heads, listen intently and ask questions. It’s not only drumming techniques they’re learning.

“If I wanted to write a small book here in the US, what you’re doing here, and put it together and what they do here in Leimert Park,” said Pape Diouf, speaking of his responsibilities of a guewel.

Pape Diouf’s warm, welcoming spirit and knowledge of his culture is easily supplemented by his wife, who grew up in the Venice and Santa Monica area of Los Angeles. Fatou Diouf’s brother and cousins urged her to know more about her Senegalese and Nigerian heritage when she was a child, but she said she never fully got in touch with her history until she attended college.

She realized the focus of the college system was geared toward assimilating into a mass culture. She then knew it was time to change her major from aerospace engineering to African studies. She completed both an undergraduate and master’s degree of African studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“Being in that environment, I had a lot of faculty and staff to rattle my cage; telling [me I] have a lot of responsibility,” she said.

Outside of college, she began to dance as another way to express her identity. She ventured out to Leimert Park after she took a field trip to the urban neighborhood with UCLA. From then on, life moved quickly in the neighborhood.

“One week, that’s how I met Fatou,” Pape Diouf said.

“One week, I’m serious,” he repeated.

Both were practicing in an African performance company in Leimert Park when they met. When Pape Diouf heard that Fatou Diouf spoke his native language, Wolof, he was amazed and “could not keep to himself.” He finally convinced one of the classmates to call Fatou Diouf for him. She agreed to see him. Soon enough followed marriage and the birth of their first child.

The couple sees all of their children following their footsteps and becoming critical to promoting West African culture in the US, except for one middle child who is interested in math and science. Fatou Diouf said he will probably still stay involved in the family business and be the bookkeeper for it. The two eldest brothers have already started touring the US to play.

Friends sometimes criticize Fatou Diouf and her lifestyle and tell her that she should be a university professor. But she just laughs and tells them that music and dance make her happy right now. Maybe later in life, she said, she’ll use the knowledge of her heritage outside of West of Africa’s doors.

But for now, the couple hopes to have an impact on Leimert Park.

“People feel like there is a bridge between Africans’ and African Americans that hasn’t been mended because of distance, language, cultures. People understand there is a connection and they don’t know how to get in,” Fatou Diouf said.

“This is a way.”

Click to watch video of the Diouf family and Pape Diouf’s weekly lessons:

Diouf children drumming

Tuesday sabar drumming lesson

Sunday djembe and tama drumming and history lesson

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