African summer: 'Drum to Infinity' and beyond

‘Djembe’ master Rachel Bangoura and her husband, Saboula Bangoura, introduce the Jewish spiritual insights of Isaac Luria to the life-giving beat of Africa

 RACHEL BANGOURA’S ‘Drum to Infinity.’ (photo credit: SELWYN BEAR)
RACHEL BANGOURA’S ‘Drum to Infinity.’
(photo credit: SELWYN BEAR)

When Rachel Bangoura began studying West African music roughly two decades ago, she impressed other djembe players by tuning her own drums. 

With her show Drum to Infinity, she presents a unique blending of Mande heritage and Jewish spirituality. The teachings of Isaac Luria, printed in the 1573 work Etz Chaim, are sung on stage and are fused with Orisha spirit dances usually practiced by the Yoruba people, who believe the Orisha are sent by Olodumare, the creator of all. 

At a performance last week at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, the dancers delighted and awed the audience, which rewarded them with wave after wave of cheers and applause. “I took an African dance workshop once,” I heard one woman in the audience whisper, “it takes unbelievable amounts of strength.”  

Bangoura said drumming is not bound by age; “a little child might drum better than a grown man.”

“In Africa,” she added, “people are very sensitive to those who mostly talk [and don’t act]. If you work, injure your hands and bleed as you progress in drumming, people feel it. When you give all you got, that is acknowledged.”

COLORFUL UMBRELLAS with ‘dancing feet’ adorn the the Suzanne Dellal Center plaza, in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek in 2018 (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)COLORFUL UMBRELLAS with ‘dancing feet’ adorn the the Suzanne Dellal Center plaza, in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek in 2018 (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

The performance drew in several musicians who work here, but have their hearts in Africa.

Kazakiyah Ben Israel and Nir Etzbeony

“Did you know Israel is actually in northeast Africa?” Kazakiyah Ben Israel asked me.

A tap-dancer and percussionist, Ben Israel arrived from Dimona, where he is part of the African Hebrews Israelites community, to enjoy the performance.

“This land is connected to Africa,” Ben Israel explained. “Right here in Tel Aviv, we have people from Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea, Sudan. We have an African community right here.” 

In his own workshops, he guides people in diamond-formation drumming. “Coming back to the land and drumming together,” he offers, “this is the way of fellowship.”

Djembe player Nir Etzbeony, who also attended the concert, explained the importance of drumming in Mande cultures is because “each life-stage has a drum rhythm.”

“From circumcision to working the land to funerals,” he said. “There are unique beats to each element of one’s life, and musicians, or griots, are present to answer these different needs.” 

Etzbeony hopes to bring Burkina Faso-born master musician Harouna Dembélé to Jerusalem this winter.

Not show and tell

Drum to Infinity is not a show and tell. Rather than being told “this is a ngoni, from which the banjo emerged. This is a doundoun, it is often played to mark the end of fasting during Ramadan in Muslim West African communities,” the audience is shown a highly empowering, deeply spiritual adaptation of a living musical life force.

Bangoura’s husband, Saboula Bangoura, who is the performance’s musical director, also taught Ben Aylon, an award-winning Israeli musician lauded for his 2022 album Xalam.

Most of the musicians and all the dancers are women. Bangoura on stage crawls to the djembe and, to the delight of her character, discovers her hands already know how to use it. The production is rich with references to spiritual traditions. Printouts offered to patrons attempt to fill the gap by giving them some understanding of what it is they are seeing.

“The dancers are now entering Tiriba,” one page notes. It is not important, I think, to be told Tiriba is used as an initiation dance for girls or that some believe it originated from the Landuma people. What is important is to note that these are very complex and deep musical structures of which we are offered an excellent, and very personal, adaptation.

The dances depict the tale of creation as described in Jewish mysticism. The infinite light limits itself to a point to make room for those who are created. From that point to the great void, a “line” is thrown. That line becomes the basis of all material things. On stage, we watch the incredible dancers act this process out. 

The line becomes an elastic band, which allows the dancers to form the shape of a Star of David. The feminine strength of the show is revealed when Bangoura herself dances a powerful, energetic dance with much-younger performers. Offering us a stage on which there is a symbolic mother-to-daughter transference of knowledge and guidance.

Israeli society is not always comfortable with Africa. When Zionist activist Nahum Vilbush was sent to Uganda in 1904 to decide if the Jewish people could build their national home there he was shocked by what he saw.

“While walking the plain... we suddenly saw a tree,” Vilbush wrote in his diary. “On it there was a round fruit... white in the sunlight.” These proved to be “dozens of human skulls glistening in the strong sun.

“How poor are a people [Jews] who expect salvation from this black center,” Vilbush added.

Roughly a century later, Jewish-American writer Daniel Pinchbeck went to Gabon to eat the iboga bush within the framework of Bwiti spiritual practice. Writing about this in Breaking Open the Head, he noted his fellow passenger to the Bwiti temple was a Jewish-American woman he might have met in a New York shul.

It seems that, whatever reservations the fathers of Zionism might have had, the Jews are indeed returning to the black center – and together with like-minded peers, new lights are created and new dances made.  

This review is of the Wednesday, August 17, performance. More performances will be offered in the winter.