The dununba is an event that belongs to a family of about thirty rhythms and dances, aptly referred to as “the dance of the strong men.” These are day-long feats of endurance by the strongest men of the village.

These rhythms originated in the region of Guinea traditionally known as Hamana. This region is located in the Kouroussa prefecture of central Guinea, roughly where the Niandan and Niger Rivers meet.

According to Famoudou Konaté, in Hamana these rhythms are called dunun fö or simply dunun, but the usage of the word dununba to refer to both the family of rhythms and the dance that accompanies it has become quite ubiquitous in recent years. (see Mamady Keïta, A Life for the Djembé, p. 60). For the sake of clarity, I’ve chosen to use the more familiar term dununba throughout this article.

The Music

Dunun rhythms are felt in 12/8 time, and are recognizable by their characteristic off-beat kenkeni phrase and the short “basa-tin bada-ba” signal:

For full transcriptions, see my book Djoliba Crossing

Demonstration

Below is a short demonstration of the rhythm Bando Djeli. Listen for signal at the start, and how the kenkeni comes in:

Demonstration performed by Dave Kobrenski

About the Dununba

“In former times, I was told, the dununba dances were carried out as a means of settling power conflicts between age groups; often a younger age group, dissatisfied with what were perceived as lesser rights and freedom in comparison to an older age group, would challenge the power of the other, hoping to supersede them in the village. The event would result in a day-long and sometimes bloody contest, witnessed by the whole village, and would end only when one age group finally submitted to the other. In this way, the winning group was determined—and the conflict was brought to a public and permanent close, ensuring that the village would not be plagued by incessant quarreling. Today, the ongoing tradition of the dance continues to signify these social hierarchies between age groups, but is now carried out in a playful but showy display of the strength of the men, without real fighting. The event still lasts the entire day, with only short pauses, and requires great stamina and fitness from the participants.”

(excerpt from my book, Djoliba Crossing, page 64)

“From the opposite side of the courtyard, a second line of dancers approaches, and the two groups circle the bara in opposing directions until they meet in front of the drummers. Suddenly the rhythm grows fast and intense; the échauffment of the rhythm marks the “heating up” of the dance, and the men respond in a show of strength and athleticism that will continue to rise and fall throughout the rest of the day and into the evening. This impressive public display will test the endurance and strength of the dancers, but the dununba is more than a mere spectacle for showing off; the event is representative of the vitality of the village itself. If the men dance well, the people will be encouraged that the village itself is strong and in good health. The well-being of one is the well-being of the whole community. It can be no other way.”

(excerpt from my book, Drawing on Culture, page 16)

Learning by Doing

In the above two images, we see young children emulating “the grown-ups” by performing the dance typically done by the men. Kids are very rarely taught with direct instruction. Rather, they observe and imitate.

“In Manden culture, it is believed that children learn best through direct experience with both the community and the natural world, and when they are left largely to their own devices. Granting a child the opportunity to observe and participate in all village events, and the freedom to engage in unlimited creative play with other children, are both favored over direct instruction.”

(excerpt from my book, Drawing on Culture, page 74)

More Info

To learn more about Mande music and culture, check out my two books, Drawing on Culture and Djoliba Crossing: