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Djembe: Bringing a new beat to the streets of Beirut
Sahar Khatib, left, and Alex Khoury play during an event in LAU in Beirut, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
Sahar Khatib, left, and Alex Khoury play during an event in LAU in Beirut, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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BEIRUT: Two years ago Sahar Khatib was on a camping trip on the beach in Amchit when a group of drummers caught her attention.

“Our tent was right next to the drum circle’s tent. I was introduced to a few drummers, and I have been on my journey with the djembe [Guinean drum] ever since,” Khatib says. “I had never seen this instrument before, and I was completely mesmerized by it. I had found my passion, and I knew that I had to do anything to learn it.”

The haphazard encounter would launch her on a journey to discover African drumming and culture, eventually landing her in Guinea, the home of Jebebara, the unity drum, named by the Bamana people of Mali.

After a few lessons, it didn’t take long for the trained graphic designer to find a new niche. Eager to share her knowledge with others, in February she launched her own group, Jebebara, consisting of seven Lebanese drummers, who practice together several times a week in Sanayeh gardens. They play concerts and give African drumming lessons and workshops.

Last year, Khatib went to the Guinean capital of Conakry to study with Alpha Omar, who had learned directly from the grand master Mamedy Keita. For one month, she experienced the hospitality of the Guinean people and absorbed their culture.

There, she learned about the traditions of unity in the small West African country. She was inspired by the way her new friends resolved their disputes. If two people in the village are feuding, the local leaders will bring them together in a circle to vent their frustrations to one another until the air is cleared.

“In Mali they have a saying: ‘Anke dje anke be,’ which means ‘Everyone gather together in peace.’ Jebebara is a way to bring unity and understanding,” Khatib says, adding: “There’s a lot of division in Lebanon.”

She also liked the inclusive philosophy of the djembe.

“The djembe doesn’t belong to anyone – of any color or ethnicity. Everyone can be a part of it,” she says.

She hopes to bring some of this same spirit of unity and tolerance, which she believes is all too often lacking in the society here back to Lebanon.

For her, one of the most important moments in her drumming experience was in May, when she hosted an exhibition named “Sights and Sounds of Africa.”

After people saw African crafts, singing and dancing, and got a taste of some of their cuisine, Khatib says they were able to see a different side to the continent – something she believes is essential in building bridges.

Aside from raising awareness of African culture in Lebanon, Khatib also wants to help mend scars from centuries of bad practices in Africa on the part of Lebanon.

During her research, she learned that it was Lebanese who activated the slave trade in Guinea. During her monthlong stay in the coastal capital, she says she never once visited the Lebanese district, instead preferring to learn as much as she could from the local djembe experts.

Legend has it that the djembe drum came about by accident around 800 years ago when a woman was beating together food and spices with a large mortar and pestle.

After the repeated hitting broke the container, she covered it with goat skin and continued beating, creating a unique percussion sound echoed today by the djembe. The Numu blacksmiths are believed to be the first to have carved the wooden instrument.

In the 1950s, djembe drumming became an integral part of the Guinean national ballet, although performed in a choreographed rather than a spontaneous way.

Today, djembe-drumming circles can be seen in major international cities. The instrument is sometimes used as a tool for therapy and team building, although few of these drummers make it to the small West African country.

In her quest to bring authentic djembe drumming to Lebanon, Khatib’s next step is to bring a group of musicians from Guinea to Beirut for three months, and she already has the support of the Guinean Embassy and local NGOs. She also plans on starting an NGO for Jebebara to educate Lebanese about West African culture through dance, music, food and handicrafts.

“If I don’t do this, it’s like I’m stealing a culture that’s not mine, and I’m running a business,” she says.

Meanwhile, she continues her drumming in different venues throughout Lebanon, and as word spreads, sometimes strangers approach her with the same curiosity that she felt the day she discovered the djembe two years ago on the shore of Amchit.

“I have found my path, and now I will spread this powerful knowledge across Lebanon, from north to south,” she says. “The sounds of the drums will make the clouds roar.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2012, on page 16.
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