Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the percussion maestro
The artist has died in Dakar at the age of 85
The legendary Senegalese percussion maestro Doudou Ndiaye Rose was every bit as much a poet as a musician. An unrivalled virtuoso when it came to drumming techniques, Rose possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of music and appeared to be able to transcribe just about everything he saw, heard and felt into rhythm. Rose, once dubbed “the Jimi Hendrix of the drumskin”, will be remembered as one of the greatest African musicians of the 20th century. This revered and respected percussionist certainly earned his official title of "Chief Drum Major of Senegal."
Doudou Ndiaye Rose goes down in history as the man who co-wrote his country’s national anthem (the lyrics to Senegal’s rousing anthem having been penned by President Léopold Sédar Senghor). Besides his rhythmic prowess, Rose also possessed an innate sense of showmanship and it was his live on-stage charisma that helped make him the leading ambassador of that most symbolic of African instruments, the “tam tam.”
One of the highlights of the master drummer’s international career was when he and his troupe marched down the Champs-Élysées as part of Jean-Paul Goude’s multi-cultural parade celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989. Apart from this memorable occasion, Rose consistently entranced audiences worldwide, taking to the stage with 30, 50 or sometimes even 100 percussionists pounding away in carefully choreographed movements. Rose’s breathtaking performances not only earned him international acclaim, but also led to him working with major stars from the jazz, rock and French music world.
Despite the international standing he enjoyed throughout his career, Doudou Ndiaye Rose made only a handful of albums in half a century. The majority of these featured unexpected collaborations between traditional African percussion instruments and more standard line-ups such as classical symphony orchestras or Breton ‘bagads.’ The master drummer received a host of awards for his work.
In 2003, the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade made Doudou Ndiaye Rose a ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Lion.’ Two years later, the seventy-year-old musician was honoured in his homeland again at an official “Gala de la Reconnaissance” at which Senegal’s leading singers and musicians paid their respects to the percussion maestro who had devoted himself to building musical bridges between the past and the present.
The language of percussion
Rose, who was born in Dakar in 1930, felt an irresistible urge to start playing percussion when he was nine years old. His family were reticent about the idea of Rose taking up a music career, but he overcame his parents’ doubts and began working with his chosen teacher, El Hadj Mada Seck. Working under this distinguished percussion maestro’s guidance, the young prodigy mastered hundreds of different rhythms and acquired the art of playing a host of different percussion instruments including the sabar, the gorong and the lamb.
The talent he displayed from an early age led to the young drumming virtuoso performing at all sorts of ceremonies and eventually replacing his instructor when the latter was unable to keep an engagement. When El Hadj Mada Seck realised that his 25-year-old pupil had actually overtaken him, he encouraged Rose to form his own group and travel round Senegal to perfect his musical education. Taking his teacher’s advice, Rose visited each and every region of his homeland, "serving a serious apprenticeship during which I learnt the language of percussion," he later said.
Doudou Ndiaye Rose’s talent impressed the renowned American singer Josephine Baker when she visited Senegal in 1959. The following year, the young drumming virtuoso was invited to perform at the country’s official independence celebrations, where President Senghor had the brass band replaced by a troupe of drummers and a parade of African majorettes. Doudou Ndiaye Rose went on to work with the Ballets du Sénégal and teach at the National Institute for the Artsin Dakar. Becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of transmitting the knowledge he had acquired over the years, Rose teamed up with Julien Jouga and Bakary Diatta and recorded the LP Chœurs et rythmes du Sénégal in 1976. He also began training his own children - of whom there are thought to be around forty - so they could accompany him on drums. Rose also dared to break with tradition and think the unthinkable. Following the ‘Quinzaine nationale de la femme’ women’s festival held in Senegal in 1980, he formed Les Rosettes, an all-female drumming troupe made up of his daughters and other women from his local neighbourhood. Up until this point, traditional percussion instruments had been an exclusively male domain.
An international career
Doudou Ndiaye Rose’s appearance at the Nancy Jazz Festival, in France, in 1986 marked the start of his international career. But it was the album Djabote, released in 1992, that really put his name on the world music map. The album, made on the Isle of Gorée with 50 drummers and an 80-strong choir, took just one week to record. Djabote, released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, was produced by the French film music composer and bass-player Eric Serra who had attended one of Rose’s concerts in Africa eight years earlier. The experience marked Serra for life. Indeed, the Frenchman later claimed that, "I felt as if, in the space of just a few minutes, I’d received several years’ worth of teaching."
Rose is purported to have developed some 500 new rhythms in his lifetime and he became an increasingly sought-after figure on the international scene. He and his troupe brought the house down at countless music festivals, supported the likes of Miles Davis and The Rolling Stones in concert and even performed at the opening ceremony at a football match at the Parc des Princes. Rose and his drummers also featured on a number of albums made by other artists including Jacques Higelin (Illicite), Jane Birkin (Version Jane) and David Murray (Karmen).
On the highly innovative Bagad Men Ha Tan & Doudou Ndiaye Rose project, Rose brought traditional musicians from Africa and Brittany together for a symphony where Breton bagpipes, bombardes and biniou met Senegal’s lamb, nder and mbeung mbeung. The group not only made an album together, but performed extensively over a two-year period. In 2003, Rose masterminded another unusual collaboration on Mix, a project where twelve sabar drummers instigated a three-way dialogue with the Orchestre de Basse-Normandie and Les Percussions & Claviers de Lyon.
Besides breaking down borders between genres abroad, Doudou Ndiaye Rose devoted his career to promoting the ancestral traditions of his homeland. He will not only be remembered as an extraordinary musician, but as one of Africa’s most creative artists who managed to pass on his cultural heritage by opening himself up to other musical styles.