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The beat goes on

Son of a legendary African drummer pays tribute at his father’s favorite festival

Photo by: Doug Coombe
Prince Sewande Keita: Somewhere, Sun Ra is smiling!
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Published 8/15/2007

King Sundiata Keita, the beloved forerunner of Detroit's African drum and dance community, must have decided to leave some of his spirit behind when he passed away two years ago. The reasoning behind this theory is that his son, Prince Sewande Keita, has emerged as a wicked percussionist on his own at a very young age. And the son wants us to know where he got his mojo and to give credit where credit is due.

Gathered at an east side rehearsal space with Omowale, the African drum family his father started decades ago, Sewande tells us he's planning a 100 Drum Salute to King Sundiata (August 18, the final night of the 25th Annual African World Festival at Hart Plaza, downtown Detroit). The first instrument kicking off the tribute will thunder repeatedly one hundred times through the night sky, a testament to the culture his father pushed into the hearts of thousands of Detroiters.

Sewande got the concept of the salute from his mother, Kahemba Keita. The tribute is born of a practice held in many African countries which celebrates the legacies of community pillars through drum and dance. These ceremonies sometimes go on for months in indigenous African communities so this, of course, will be a condensed version.

Sewande, now 23, talks about his father, who was an accomplished master drummer, with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old. His tales are kinetic; his thoughts quick and fluid. He says that King Sundiata Keita participated in every African World Festival — 21 in all — until he succumbed to complications of diabetes at the untimely age of 48.

"He knew right off the bat that he wanted to be an African drummer," says Sewande, "even though he had several other endeavors. He was a culinary artist. He had a restaurant on 7 Mile called the Fetchu Menu that served African cuisine. He also had a boutique called Harambe. When it came to culture, he was the man of the hour, in my opinion."

Sewande, who resembles a darker-hued version of his father, is short in stature but chiseled from years of drumming. At age 18, he became his dad's caretaker during the last three years of the master drummer's life, when the diabetes had caused blindness and loss of body mass. Instead of hanging out in clubs, like other kids his age, the prince was seizing an opportunity.

"That's when I really got a chance to pick his brain," he says.

He won't share his father's American name. In fact, King Sundiata himself didn't mention it. His father had gotten involved with the African community in Detroit as a young adult, through the Pan African Congress and the Republic of New Afrika movement. They helped him to cultivate "a sense of self," Sewande says his father explained. The patriarch discovered percussion, adopting the name Sundayata, which means "the famous drummer," during this time. Later, after tracing some of his own roots to the African country of Mali, he discovered, however, that Malians have an aversion to the name Sundayata because it was believed that a child given that moniker would pass away before the age of two. Studying the culture, he learned of Sundiata, the land's first known king, before adopting that moniker as his own.

Sundiata met the Wailers through band member Junior Marvin at age 17 and connected with the legendary reggae band. But it was more than 10 years later, when the Wailers returned to Detroit for a concert, that he was hired on the spot to tour the world as the group's percussionist.

"From '96 to '98, my father called me from different cities, different countries," Sewande says, recalling the time that his dad's career took off. King Sundiata would share with his son whatever advice he could during those years, almost as if he knew that his son might one day stand in his shoes. Sewande recalls some of those pearls: Diet and discipline are everything on the road. Don't drink too many beers.

Sundiata's travels kept him in the company of legends. Along with the Wailers, he toured with Carlos Santana. He played gigs with Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Jerry Garcia and Wynton Marsalis. He developed his niche as a drummer under the tutelage of masters like Babatunde Olatunje, Chief Hawthorne Bey and MorThiam, (the latter who's the father of pop superstar Akon). These artists, in fact, were instrumental in bringing some of Sundiata's favorite instruments — the djembe drum, the shekere, the djun dunn — to the United States.

"I never heard the stories about how playing with these artists happened, how it worked itself out," Sewande says. "But it was at this time that I figured out that I wanted to be a musician."

Sundiata connected most to the djembe, a wooden drum with West African origins that's made from hallowed tree stock and dried goat skin pulled tight over the edges in a diamond-weave format. It's the cornerstone of African percussive instruments. Primarily using this instrument, King Sundiata remained a fixture in the Detroit community, whenever he was home long enough to play. He supplemented his income playing weddings, various other community events, and teaching. He's even credited with starting the Black History Month tour in the Detroit Public Schools system 30 years ago.

Sundiata remained so busy that his diabetic condition developed without his being aware of it. He had it for almost 10 years before learning of the disease. Unfortunately, by then, his sight had started to fade, and his overall health declined soon afterward. His funeral, an event fit for a king, was held at Fellowship Chapel's then-new church on Detroit's west side. Drummers, city officials and local clergy were among the dignitaries in attendance. And the 'hood turned out in force. By the time he passed, according to Sewande, his father had received two Spirit of Detroit awards and a testimonial resolution from the Detroit City Council, commemorating his impact as a homegrown musician.

Sewande is ready to become a second coming of King Sundiata. He says the things his father did within an African context — drumming, spiritual teachings, community organization — have him set to "run with the djembe." He now teaches privately, in addition to his performances, and he has a strong desire to become an extension of the passion his father represented. King Sundiata once remarked that his own dream had become a nightmare because the culture of drumming had been "sold," with the cultural roots and key roles lost in its popularization.

"That's why this tribute is so important," Sewande concludes. "When he was alive, he was really pushing culture. If you drum, we want you to come through and play [along]."

 

The 25th Annual African World Festival at Hart Plaza (Jefferson at the foot of Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday, Aug. 17, 6 p.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 18-19, noon to midnight. Call 313-494-5800 or go to maah-detroit.org for info.

Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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