With much passion and joy, a group of musicians and dancers are spreading West African music and culture in Istanbul.
By Yao Hsiao
Photos by Merve Göral Güngördü
Whoever walks down Asmalımescit Caddesi on weekend nights will notice a unique, identical, contagious music coming out from the African bar Bara La Afrika. Most of the people will stop and listen to it out of curiosity, for this pleasant sound is rarely heard elsewhere in the city. This is the live performance of Doundoooun, a West African rhythm and dance group in Istanbul.
The vibrant energy brought by Doundoooun is not contained by the cozy venue of Bara La Afrika. While the musicians are playing West African instruments such as the balafon (similar to a xylophone), djembe (a goblet-shaped drum), doundoun (a rope-tuned cylindrical drum), and kora (a 21-string lute), as well as the saxophone, it is not uncommon to see a casual acquaintance join the music from time to time—singing, clapping, and dancing. Instead of performance, it’s more like a group activity where everyone has chemistry with each other. You can strongly feel that for them, music is a big part of life.
Beyond the sounds
Music itself is the essence of West African culture. Because for centuries there was no indigenous writing system, knowledge and history were passed down through memory and music by the griot (or djeli), who are West African historians, storytellers, musicians, praise singers, and advisors. Traditionally, the griot is a social caste that played a significant role in society. After years of training, a griot hosted and recorded ceremonies and celebrations with his songs in villages or palaces.
Today, this tradition still exists in some parts of Africa and the offspring of griots can be found all around the world. Kandioura Diabate, the balafon player of Doundoooun, is from a griot family in Guinea and used to teach in schools in Senegal. He said that the music Doundoooun play is traditional songs that were originally used in parties, weddings, and to celebrate child births. “We all know the songs and there’s a connection here,” Diabate noted while pointing to his heart, “when one of us starts a rhythm, the others will know how to join.”
From Africa to Istanbul
“I’ve been living in Istanbul for many years and I also do other jobs. But music is my profession” said Diabate, a sentiment echoed by most of the others. Speaking of the founding of Doundoooun, Muhammed Ali Diallo, the kora player from Mali, told us that most of them are from different African countries and met each other many years ago when performing in a music festival in Istanbul. “Then we all became friends because we’re the same,” Diallo smiled and said. Later, the only non-African member of the group, Engin Bülbül, who used to play the Turkish drum darbuka, met with these people and started to learn djembe from them. In 2015, all of them decided to form a group where they can play the music they love together and introduce it to other people.
Bülbül, who is responsible for the group’s external communications, said that since founding, Doundoooun has participated in various festivals, organized classes, and presented in schools such as Saint Joseph High School, Saint Pulcherie High School, and Koç University. Since this summer, they started to collaborate with Bara La Afrika and gather weekly to play and share music. No matter if you’re familiar with West African culture or not, a night spent with these jolly, energetic people and their music will be a wonderful experience.
Having various rhythm patterns created by the percussion instruments, West African music has a free, dynamic, and powerful characteristic style. Its aesthetic and cultural values have influenced many music genres such as jazz, blues, R&B, and more.