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West African drummer opens Tampa studio to share culture, message

SOUTH TAMPA

Inside his new South Tampa drum studio, Baye Kouyate demonstrates the speaking power of the "talking drum."

With the small percussion instrument tucked under one arm and a drumstick in hand, Kouyate taps out three quick notes against the drum's goatskin top.

"Good morning," he says, the phrase's three syllables matching the pitch of his drumbeats.

For Kouyate, a drum is more than a musical instrument. It's a tool for communication.

"The beat comes from the heart," he says, explaining that a drummer can express his feelings through the sounds of his instrument.

A native of the African nation Mali, Baye Kouyate (pronounced bye koo-YE-tay), is what is known as a "griot," a caste of West African storytellers and musicians. Kouyate, 34, has told stories and spread the sounds of his homeland throughout the world, from Africa to Europe and the United States.

He opened the studio, dubbed Yum Yum Drums, this month with the help of his wife, Annette Saldaña. He hopes to pass on his knowledge of drumming and a piece of his cultural heritage to the Tampa community.

"However much you give, that's how much you can get back," he said. "I have toured everywhere and I have lived everywhere. I can learn something from each of them and give back."

• • •

The single-room studio is in a shopping plaza on S MacDill Avenue next to a Marathon gas station. Small wooden chairs line the walls of an open rectangular room, a drum atop each seat waiting to be played.

The drum types include the talking drum that Kouyate is known for playing and a "djembe" (JEM-bay), a West African drum that resembles a small barrel and is played while tilted at an angle between the drummer's knees.

Clients use the latter during one of several drum circle classes that Kouyate leads.

Passing along his heritage seemed almost inevitable for Kouyate, who says he is a direct descendant of the griots in his native land. Their history stretches for centuries. Both his father and grandfather were drummers. And as a child, Baye followed their lead.

"I started to love the drums," he said. "Anything I see, I try to play a little bit."

In his teens, he accompanied his mother to gatherings where she sang as he played the talking drum. Spectators would tell him how good he was.

"But I was not good," he says today, explaining that to say you are "good" is to say that there is no room for growth in your skill.

Despite his accomplishments, he strives continually to improve.

"I love to play the drums."

• • •

Kouyate set out some time ago to introduce his family's griot tradition to new cultures, joining a traveling musician in Europe. He lived part time in Paris, with periodic returns to Mali. He toured Europe, playing with various musicians and bands.

While on break from a tour in 2004, he went to Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit a friend from Mali. There, he saw greater musical opportunities and quit the tour to establish himself playing in New York clubs and other venues.

At a birthday party in 2006, he met Annette Saldaña, who was visiting New York on business with an advertising agency. She and Kouyate were instant friends. Before long a relationship blossomed, and a year later, Kouyate moved to Tampa to live with Saldaña and her young sons. They married last year.

"I had an instant respect for his music," Saldaña said. "It was really evident that he was super talented, and I could see there was a lot I could do to help his career."

In 2008, Saldaña produced Kouyate's first album, Danama, which means "the one you can trust." The album is a drum-based fusion of jazz and other influences. Its title track was a finalist for World Fusion Song of the Year at the Independent Music Awards.

Today, Kouyate says he has grown accustomed to Tampa as his new home. The weather here is similar to West Africa's, but more humid and less dusty, he said.

Adjusting, however, has taken some time.

"I always said, Tampa is a hard town," he said. "But there is so much to do in this town. When you don't know things, you have to learn about it."

Kouyate is still learning about his newfound home but hopes to start giving back to the community, dispensing knowledge about his culture, about storytelling and playing the drums.

And something Western culture could benefit from:

"The most important thing is to have fun."

if you go

Yum Yum Drums

The studio is at 4007 S MacDill Ave. Baye Kouyate, a griot, or storyteller and musician from the West African nation Mali, teaches private sessions as well as drum classes, including several for children. The studio also hosts a "happy hour" from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursdays. For costs and other information, call (813) 442-5362 or visit yumyumdrums.com.

West African drummer opens Tampa studio to share culture, message 02/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 3:30am]
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