‘Talking drum’ master opens Year of Senegal with lively performance

KENNESAW, Ga. | Aug 22, 2023

The halls of Kennesaw State University’s Carmichael Student Center were alive with the pounding of drums, chants and claps as master drummer Massamba Diop introduced the music of Senegal to students, faculty and staff.

Diop and partner percussionist Tony Vacca led the crowd in spirited song and dance, Diop banging the West African tama, or “talking drum,” and leading a call and response as the pair darted through the rows of seated onlookers, who helped keep the beat.

Massamba Diop
Massamba Diop demonstrates the 'talking drum' accompanied by percussionist Tony Vacca.

The drum demonstration opened the Year of Senegal at KSU, the 39th year of the University-wide “Year of” program celebrating the music, food and life of cultures from around the world. 

“This is what we’re here for,” said Tara McDuffie, executive director of Global Education, who oversees the “Year of” events and was at one point pulled on stage to dance. “We’re focused on how to interact with and inspire our students and community when we introduce these new countries each year. The energy, the engagement that everyone in this room felt — that’s what we’re looking for.”

Diop, whose mastery of the tama has taken him on world tours and made him the featured soloist in the Marvel movie “Black Panther,” said his purpose is to spread the knowledge of his country’s music and culture around the globe. He said he is happy for the opportunity to include Kennesaw State in that mission.

“It’s very important. I’m happy to teach the music, the drumming, the groove and other Senegalese things in America, Australia, Taiwan, China and many other countries, because now they know about African culture,” Diop said. “It’s about bringing my culture to the world.”

There is a long body of historical knowledge that allows Diop to do what he does, Vacca said.

“There’s knowledge that goes back 600 years, to the Mali Empire,” Vacca said. “We’re embracing this music that belongs to us all but that began at a very particular place and time, and if we keep going back in time, we mostly can agree that it’s the continent of Africa where humanity began. It’s a long thread that ties us all together.”

Merv Smith and Nigel Middlebrooks, a pair of freshmen who had been walking by as Diop demonstrated how to play, were immediately mesmerized by the music and the unique way the hourglass-shaped drum can mimic voice inflections as the user holds the drum under their arm, squeezing down, tightening and loosening leather or cotton tension cords connecting its two drumheads.

Year of Senegal performance
KSU students Merv Smith and Nigel Middlebrooks join Massamba Diop on stage.

Smith and Middlebrooks watched and took videos from the front row of the audience as Diop performed and were also eventually pulled on stage to dance and try their hand at the drum.

“I turned out to be pretty decent at it. I wasn’t too bad for my first time,” Smith said with a smile. “No, but really it takes more than one motion to play that instrument. You’ve got to do three things at once to really get it right.”

“It looks simple when he’s up there playing it, but really it’s not,” Middlebrooks said.  

The pair said they’d met only days ago and were both enticed into the room to watch the performance by the rhythm of the music. 

“We’ll be at more events,” added Smith. “Especially if there’s music like that.”

Each year, Global Education’s celebration of its chosen country continues with events throughout the fall and spring semesters, and often the University’s individual colleges also host themed programs. A full schedule of Global Education events, including features of Senegalese performing arts, stone carving, Goats on the Green and more, can be found on the Year of Senegal website.

–  By Thomas Hartwell

Photos by Judith Pishnery

Video by Matthew O'Neill

# # #

Related Stories

A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.