The Fearless Mamady Keïta

By Kelvin Kew

Not The Right Time

It has been 6 months since he left us, there hasn’t been a day that went by without thinking about him.

1996 was the first time someone suggested to me that I should learn djembe from the great Mamady Keïta.

Once, I even travelled from Singapore to his residence in Belgium, hoping to meet this legendary person. But, as the saying goes, ‘the time was not riped yet”.

Like many others, I wanted to learn from Mamady only because of his reputation. Later on I saw something in him that made me decided that he will be the one and only mentor I’ll ever need, because I saw that he is the answer to what I’ve always been looking for.

The consolation prize for my first trip to Belgium: a picture of his mailbox taken from my then digital camera. Phone camera wasn’t even a thing yet.

Free Play

Before meeting Mamady, I had read a book call ‘Free Play’.

It is a book about improvisation in art and life written by Russian violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch.

‘Free Play’ pretty much set the direction of my life and how I want to approach life and music. It talks about the innate potential in all of us to improvise and create betterment for all things around us, and that our struggles with anxieties and the inability to let go are preventing us from accessing our true potential.

Each of us may be an artiste, a chef, a mechanic, a financial strategist, a lawyer, a businessman, or even a cleaner. Nonetheless, we all possess innately in us this creative potential. But most of the time we are too caught up with results and judgement that we find ourselves stuck in the vicious cycle of desire and fear, thereby preventing us from displaying the child-like purity of our creative capacity.

Embodiment of lîla

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

When I started my first drumming studio in 2004, I came up with the statement: “putting rhythm back into lives”.

My first drumming studio. Can you see my pigtail?

As I witnessed my students displaying joy through drumming, I knew instantly that that is the purpose I was put on earth for.

The Mamady Keïta that I saw wasn’t just a djembe master, a cultural icon or a legendary musician. What I saw deeper, was a fearless spirit.

When he played the djembe, people would smile, some would even teared with joy.
When he improvised his solo phrases, many would be touched by the raw emotions delivered through his performance.
One can even experience the many stories he conveyed through all his musical creations.

“随心而出,随意而发” is a mandarin proverb that depicts a state of flow where one can apply at will and express however the heart wants. Such, is what Mamady is in all of his living moments.

This optimum state of mental flow is what Stephen Nachmanovitch described as ‘lîla’ in ‘Free Play’. Lîla is an old Sanskrit word which means play. In the words of the author, it means divine play, the play of creation, destruction and re-creation.

Photo with Mamady in Dec 2006 at his home in Conakry, Guinea.

When a student is ready, the teacher will appear. I suppose its destiny’s intention that I have to first understand lîla, before I get the opportunity to meet a human version of a true lîla spirit that is Mamady Keïta.

We All Have Anxieties

Like us, Mamady is no god or any special being. He too had his anxieties and fear which I’ve witnessed myself. But how was he able to connect with his lîla as and when he wanted?

Mamady once advised me:
“The people around you… your spouse, your child, your friends, your associates… no matter how close you are to them, may one day betray you. The only one thing that you can fully trust, is the relationship you have with your music. In fact, the people who will help you or even save you, will appear to you through your music.”

I only got to understand the wisdom from this advice many years later.

An intimate time with Mamady in March 2018 at his home in Monterrey, Mexico.

All our anxieties and fears stem from our relationship with others. The trauma and rejection we experienced from childhood evolved into fear that we projected unto the people we encounter in adult life. Even if we had a childhood that received more love than others, in our adult years we may become reliant on others for the love that we can’t do without.

To whole heartedly trust my music (my djembe), I would require huge courage to release all the negative attachments I harbour within me. When we can be truly ourselves on our instrument, our lîla will appear. The people who witness this side of us will experience our brilliance and thus reflect positivities back to us.

Lîla is in all of us

No matter who you are or what social status you are in, we all have our own lîla in us. In fact, I believe your lîla had surfaced one way or another before.

This could be that time when you were cooking, when you were on your mobile game, when you were dancing, when you were driving or when you were falling in love. But these moments became temporary once the feeling of attachment to results took over you. In that instance, your lîla disappeared, and gone with it are your creativity as well.

Lîla refers to the divine play of our inner child

So, what are the exact steps or methods we can adopt, so as to enable ourselves to become like the ever fearless Mamady Keïta?

I hope my sharing has helped to provide useful insights for you.

I invite you to join me in the journey of accessing our true brilliance :)