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Africa’s Yeli Ensemble Lands In Nashville For “Country” Music

The Yeli Ensemble, clockwise from left: Agathe Mouembe, Sory Diabate, Mohammed 'Dho' Cisse, and Ibrahima Dioubate.

A house near Belmont University was audibly pulsing from the street as I approached its front door this week. Once inside, I heard four drummers shake the floorboards with heart-throbbing, slip-sliding polyrhythm. Two played mid sized natural skin drums. Two played hollowed-out log drums called krin with hefty wooden sticks. After a time they traded the log drums for sonorous djembe - the big ringing hand drums - and made a layered groove vortex that I got to experience at close quarters for 30 minutes.

I was hearing four master artists in rehearsal, two from Guinea in West Africa - Ibrahima Dioubate and Dho Cisse - along with two more traditional African percussionists from France, Sory Diabate and Agathe Moubembe. They perform as the Yeli Ensemble, and they’ve recently arrived in Nashville, where they’re embarking on a three month artistic residency that will include drum and dance classes, workshops, recording sessions, collaborations and public performances. The first of those takes place Sunday night at 3rd & Lindsley at a show billed as Country Music From Other Countries amid a local/global lineup featuring Raul Malo singing Cuban songs, Wu Fei playing the Chinese guzheng and sax innovator Jeff Coffin playing jazz.

“We're here to spread West African culture through drum and percussion and to teach and also to share with some musicians here,” says Moubembe. She noted that even when they were still jet lagged, they spent a day in a recording studio with Coffin and other Nashville instrumentalists, improvising and making tracks. “It got us out of our comfort zone in a way with all the jazz musicians and stuff like that. So it was really, really interesting for us and a bit different. And we like that.” 

Behind this, the person who raised the funds and secured the visas and sought out countless partners and presenters for Yeli Ensemble, is Nashville dancer and choreographer Windship Boyd. It’s her house where Yeli rehearsed and where they’re staying for now. She grew up here but spent most of her adult life between France and West Africa teaching, producing, dancing and going ever deeper into the diaspora of African drum and dance tradition. “Now all I do is Afro,” she laughs. “It's a dance you can do at any age. So ballet is obviously for very young bodies. (In) African dance, young bodies can leap and go high. They go really really fast. But older bodies can also dance beautifully. That's why I hope I can do it until I die, and hope I die old.”

Boyd’s main Nashville collaborator in the organization called Africa Nashville is Jeff Coffin. Over decades, he’s been channeling his passion for African music into his wide-ranging career, from the Dave Matthews Band to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones to his own jazz ensembles. “I've been listening to African music since I was in college,” he told me. “And it really changed the trajectory of everything for me, as a musician, as a writer, as a player, as a listener, as sort of a global musician.” The Yeli Ensemble is a thrill because while he spends most of  his career bending African ideas into his music, now he gets to adapt to theirs in real time. “What they bring is so traditional, you know? It's right from the source,” he says.

Various iterations of the Yeli Ensemble have been here before, starting with visits in 2016. But this is the largest contingent of musicians to be invited here at one time, and more musicians vastly expands the possibilities for the layered counterpoint that propels a West African drum ensemble. “Since African music is polyrhythmic, you know, you can't get that effect when you only bring two musicians,” Boyd says. “We've got four masters of their trade playing together. So it's a different sound.”

See more, including Africa Nashville’s schedule of events here.

Correction: The original version of the story reversed the home countries of Sory Diabate and Ibrahima Dioubate.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org