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'Everyone has a beating heart. That's the drum music and that's the rhythm'

THEY say every African drum contains three spirits: that of the tree from which it was carved, the animal that gave its hide for the drumskin and the drum maker who gave his heart and skill.

So play it with reverence and joy.

That's what the group Jammala does, right here in Shanghai, often in parks and events on weekends, sometimes at parties and regularly in its studio-classroom in a basement on Huashan Road.

Jammala, meaning "peace" in Senegalese, is believed to be the city's first West African drumming and percussion band.

It was formed in 2006 by two Japanese drum lovers (one an expert in West African drums), and now includes five Chinese and a French expat, all between 20 and 30 years old.

Jammala also holds classes and drumming sessions twice a week.

"The common aim in our music is peace of the world, environmental protection and happiness," says member Xiao Yuan, a local Shanghainese.

The founder is a young Japanese woman, Yuuko Fukuzawa, known as Yuuko, also the vocalist. She introduced West African drumming rhythms and percussion and got Jammala started.

She wears a cap, jeans and jaunty coat - no heavy make-up. She speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese after studying in Shanghai for only three years since she arrived from Japan.

Before she came to Shanghai, Yuuko learned West African drumming in Japan from a Senegalese teacher for more than six years. In 2005, she traveled to Senegal in West Africa with her teacher.

"When I first came to Shanghai, there was nobody who played West African drums. I was lonely," she says.

Soon she met another Japanese lover of drums, Munesato Kurita, known as Kuli, who had been in Shanghai for six years. He studied Chinese at Shanghai International Studies University.

The two formed Jammala in 2006.

Before meeting Yuuko, Kuli had never played West African drums. "I had only played the Japanese flute and taiko drum. It's Yuuko who brought me to the world of West African music," he says.

Now Kuli is the leader of Jammala.

Two years ago in May 2007, the group got larger after a chance meeting in Fuxing Park with Chinese drummers Xiao Yuan, Bei Bei and Lao Gu.

The occasion was a gathering of drummers of all kinds.

"That was the first time I heard them (Kuli and Yuuko) playing West African drums. I had only heard of them before then," recalls Xiao Yuan. He used to play a drum kit for more than 10 years.

"When I first saw Kuli in the park, he was playing a big West African drum and looked just like an orangutan," recalls Xiao Yuan, laughing.

Bei Bei, another drum kit drummer, is a friend of Xiao Yuan.

The two guys decided to join Jammala and throw themselves into playing West African drums and singing.

Lao Gu, another friend from the park, joined. He owns a shop selling ethnic accessories and decorations on Xianyang Road. He loves folk music and ethnic culture.

"I fell in love with West African percussion music when I first heard it - it was the most natural and original sound," says Gu, "and includes singing and dancing."

The group mostly plays traditional West African music from Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Guinea. They especially like the rhythms of the djembe, sabar and kpanlogo drums. They also play guitar and flute. Their collection totals 30 drums so far, some 50-80 years old, all made of natural materials and animal hides. The dehumidifier is always turned on.

Yuuko is the vocalist, singing traditional African songs.

"Music goes beyond the boundaries of language," says Yuuko. "You don't have to learn the language, just feel the music and the emotion."

The distinctive, upbeat West African music - let-yourself-go music - is attracting many young Chinese who want a different sound and feeling.

Since late last year, Jammala has offered classes in their studio on Huahsan Road, in a basement in Huashan Huayuan (Huashan Garden).

Every Wednesday and Thursday night, around 10 students join in, learning the drums, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the music, moving and singing.

So far around 30 young people have joined.

Ying Yili, 33, an employee trainer in a commercial company, has been taking classes for half a year, drawn at first by the Jammala live shows.

"I first saw this kind of drum in 2001 during a trip to Lhasa (Tibet Autonomous Region). I really liked it but didn't have a way to learn it," he says.

A lover of percussion, Ying even bought his own drum. Through the class he has found a new kind of happiness and fulfillment.

"Besides learning the drums, I'm drawn by the feel of African music and the natural rhythm of the body," he says.

Jammala plans to add another class session, every other Tuesday.

Anyone can learn to play West African drums, they say.

"It couldn't be more natural, since music is a release of emotion," says Xiao Yuan.

"Everybody has a beating heart. That's the rhythm and that's the music. It's like walking and any actions in daily life," says Yuuko. "Drumming is the most natural way to find one's rhythm and everyone has their own."

Jammala regards Africa as a primal place of human roots. They dream to go to Africa one day with all their students.

"The group members, the students, and all lovers of African music are a group finding out about life," says Yuuko, her eyes sparkling.

Jammala is quite well known, playing at music festivals around China and parties in the last few years.

In 2008 they performed almost every week, at the Shanghai Rock Festival, Amino Soul Countdown Party, Shanghai by Bus Reggae Party, Back to Roots Reggae Party and the Global Hot Pot World Music Party.

The global financial crisis has meant fewer gigs than last year, but the group is still active, often performing outdoors in parks. Almost every Sunday, Jammala plays at Zhongshan Park or Tianshan Park, talking about African music and letting people have a go at the drums.

"We prefer to play outdoors where they sound can expand, like playing in the wide spaces of Africa," says Yuuko.

Playing drums in a city with tall buildings is quite different.

"We can feel the sound reverberating against the buildings. The sound is interesting," she says.

Jammala Drumming Base

Address: Basement No. J, Huashan Huayuan, 1635 Huashan Rd

Tel: 6280-5744

Classes on every Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30-9:30pm

Cost: 150 yuan per class (one-and-a-half hours), 945 yuan for a set of seven classes


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