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The Tama


The Tama

The tamani has a very fascinating history; it comes from Mali, from the home city of my paternal grandfather Djatourou, the village of Bulonkono. The original instrument was the Tanka: it is made of a small calebasse (pumpkin) covered with balloon fish skin. A small hole is made in the calebasse and some water is poured into it in order to obtain a lively sound. People used to say that this instrument can talk because multiple sounds are obtained thanks to the movement of the wind in the water, if the hole in the calebasse is properly oriented. 

The present shape of the tamani is completely different. One of my ancestors, i.e. my grandfather Djatourou ’s grandfather  had the idea. 

One day Djki  Sissoko (my ancestor) went to the blacksmith of the village of Bulonkono; his name was Numu Balà, because he was the only one who could work not only with iron, but also with wood. He asked him to help him in creating an instrument which could have the same magic sound of the Tanka, without making any holes or adding any water. Numu Balà decided to create a wooden box and showed it to my ancestor who said that it could not be used as a musical instrument but as a kitchen utensil and called it Mure (this wooden box is still used to measure millet). Then Numu Balà carved another wooden shape, a wedge-like object, upon which my ancestor placed some goat skin. He used to play this instrument with his hands during important ceremonies: summoning people when the king wanted to talk to everybody, announcing weddings or somebody’s death. This instrument is no longer used by griots, but by tanners called Garankè.

My ancestor was still looking for his instrument, an instrument which could meet his needs. Therefore he asked the blacksmith to carve another wooden shape…. He created the Mokodounou , similar to the djembè, but once again it was not what Djki was looking for.

One day his brother, Djimbi Sissoko, was coming back from the fields; he was very thirsty and saw many birds flying over an area of the savannah. When this happens, the birds are usually attracted by the carcass of an animal or some water. He headed in that direction, hoping to find some water. While walking along the path, he found a particular tree branch, which was completely hollow, and took it. Immediately after he saw a Kana (similar to an iguana), killed it with the branch that he had just collected, skinned it and ate its meat. He went home with the Kana skin and the following day went to see Numu Balà to show him the piece of wood that he had collected in the savannah and ask him to carve it a little bit more; he finished the piece and they placed the skin of the Kana  on both sides of the wood. 

Djimi took this new instrument to his brother Djki; when he tried to play it, people from the village arrived, because they had been attracted by this new sound. Djki told his brother :"Fakolì modè, djamundjan kolì folì baramà e ani folì barantà" which means "I knew that all Fakolì’s descendants always discover something new".

If someone is always at home (in Bamabara Tama means "to walk"), he will never find what the road hides… there is always something to be discovered on the road. 

This is how the instrument was created and this is the origin of its name, Tama.

That is why we, the Sissokos, the descendants of Fakolì, do not eat the meat of the Kana, because thanks to this animal we could create our instrument! 

This is the story that my paternal grandfather told me to explain the origin of his favourite instrument, which became my favourite instrument, too.

The Tama is the first instrument that we learn to play in my family, because it is linked to our origins. 

Nowadays the Tama is a widespread instrument. I myself carried out extensive research on the Tama to obtain all the eight notes. Thanks to its versatility as a percussion, people say that it is a bewitched instrument. Even when a full orchestra is playing, the sound of the Tama will always strike your attention among all other sounds. 

There is a ceremony in my family, which I cannot describe, which takes place in the forest; the sound of the Tama is crucial and the ceremony does not take place if this sound is missing. Thanks to all these teachings and to the secrets revealed to me, I have found the necessary enthusiasm and strength to continue my research and develop the potentials of this small but extraordinary instrument. 

To go back to my story, I would like to say that I started to play the tamani when I was five; at the age of ten people called me to play during the ceremonies in the area. Every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday I played for the girls in the district and they soon started to call me in advance to have me play at their parties, because I was always very busy. 

This is how I became known also to important people, who asked me to play during the official ceremonies, like baptisms and weddings, until my reputation of tamani player expanded even abroad. 

I travelled with my tamani everywhere in Africa: I played in Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Gambia,  Niger, in Mauritania, etc..

When I was 22, I joined Mali Instrumental Group to replace my father, who was a retired Tamani and Ngoni player. I stayed in the Mali Instrumental Group from 1985 to 1991. During that period of time, I met Habib Koite in1987. Habib and I have worked together for 12 years. As a percussion player I have accompanied many artists like Ami Kiota,  Kandja Kouyate, Nagnini Diabate, Babani Kone, Dialou Damba, Toumani Diabate, Hadja Soumano.

I have been the first griot who included the Tama sound in the modern music in Mali. I have also been the first person who played the Tama while standing; people used to play it while sitting, also in the instrumental group. 

I was the first person who playid the tamani while standing in Mali during a Nagnini Diabate’s concert.

Since that moment, everybody considers me like the "Master of Tamani" in Mali. In fact I am famous  especially as a tamani player. 

I have travelled all around the world with my instrument, accompanying "modern griots and griottes " and also Habib Koite.

My value has increased even more with Habib; I have had the opportunity to play the Ngoni, the Balafon, the Calebasse and the Caragna. I have acquired a remarkable experience with Habib Koite, but have also received important advices on music by Youssou N’dour, Toumani Diabate, Salif Keità, Oumou Sangare: Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore Kare Kare.

I have also had the opportunity to play with and receive advices from Souleymane Koli of Koteba in Abidjan, and have been lucky enough to meet international stars like Yuossou N’Dour, Santana, Sting, Angelique Kidjo, Fela Asson Kuti etc.

I have been very lucky in my life; I have received a traditional, complete and profound education and met important African and non-African artists who contributed to my training as a musician. Thanks to this wealth of (traditional and modern) knowledge, I create my music, which fully reflects the variety of my life. 

Themes like friendship, trust, respect for tradition  and love for children play a crucial role in my pieces. I define my musical style "Amadran", "tales", because I am an "Orognan", i.e. a man of his word, who respects and does not forget his traditions. 

I hope that my children becomes a musicians and that the inspiration they give me every day give me the strength to continue my musical research until, once day, they will replace me.

Good luck Djana, Giulia and Roberto! May God guide your steps along your father’s path.