The Ballet Djoliba Years

Mamady Keïta

The Ballet Djoliba Years

In 1962, Mamady’s unusual talent was recognized by Balanka Sidiki, who was on the lookout for talented artists for the First Regional Ballet of Siguiri.

Balanka recruited Mamady to the ballet, and Mamady trained with the ballet in Siguiri (the regional capital) for the next two years of his life.

Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first president after independence in 1958, had a strong interest in the performing arts as a means to promote Guinean culture internationally. To this end, Touré instituted a system of local, regional, and national competitions to find and recruit the country’s best artists. In 1964, at the age of 14, Mamady was selected by Guinea’s Minister of Culture as a candidate to create Le Ballet National Djoliba, which was intended as a showcase for Touré’s revolution in Guinea.

As one of over 500 artists, among them fifty percussionists, Mamady was taken to the island of Kassa (part of the Ȋles de Los, a small group of islands off the coast of Conakry). There, the artists were rigorously trained and put through a grueling selection process that, nine months later, had reduced the total number to 45. Five of these artists were percussionists, with Mamady being one of three djembe players.

The 45 founding members of Ballet Djoliba trained at purpose-built performance stage in Sekou Touré’s palace under the direction of Amadou Cissoko. They started touring nationally and internationally in 1965, the same year that Mamady was promoted to lead djembe soloist of Ballet Djoliba. Mamady held this position held until 1979, when he became the ballet’s artistic director (the first drummer ever to be appointed to this role).

In 1967, at age 17, Mamady was part of the cast for Africa Dance, a film directed by Harry Belafonte. (Belafonte was a close friend of Sekou Touré in the early sixties but, in later years, increasingly distanced himself from Touré due to their different political views.)

In the same year, Mamady was award the gold medal as the best djembefola in the International Folklore Festival in Sicily, Italy where Les Ballet Djoliba also won the grand prize. In 1969, Mamady again won the gold medal as the best djembefola award at the first pan-African Festival in Algiers.

For the next twenty years, Mamady travelled the world performing with and directing Ballet Djoliba, spending only short periods in Guinea. Ballet Djoliba performed all over Africa and, among other countries, in China, Egypt, Germany, France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Australia, and the Soviet Union.

After Sekou Touré’s death in 1984, funding for the national ballets dried up and Mamady started to look abroad for independence and new professional opportunities. In 1986, he joined Souleymane Koli’s troupe Koteba in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. In 1987, the members of Koteba starred in the movie La Vie Platinee, directed by Claude Cadiou. The movie, a comedy, revolves around the trials of the troupe in their attempts to raise money for a trip to Paris in order to perform at an international competition. The ballet’s lead dancer is held hostage by her wealthy family who does not want her to participate. The film depicts the street life of Abidjan and the anticipation of the group as they try to realize their dream of a lifetime.

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