Lessons from Mali Drum and Dance

The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings

By Yaya Diallo, Mitchell Hall

In Part Two of The Healing Drum, the authors reveal insights on the pervasive effects of West African music and dance on every aspect and minute of Minianka culture and life, near the capital of Mali. It becomes apparent how to clearly apply these indigenous principles of unified music and dance in the West for fitness, wellness and health programs for the general public.

Music Harmony

Harmony is the overriding goal in the music. It represents harmony on all levels, the self, the body, each other, the Creator, ancestors, spirits and nature. “The path of the Creator is the path of harmony.”

“The Minianka understand music as a bridge between the visible and invisible realms. The human voice and musical sounds … arise from intentions in the invisible human interior and penetrate to the invisible interior of listeners as well as the surrounding invisible realm of spirits and ancestors. Music can thus be a potent force for maintaining or restoring human harmony with the cosmos. ” (p 80)

Music as the Dance of Life

West Africans pride themselves on their abilities to cross polyrhythms, usually with Djembes over each other and search for harmony in the complicated beats, symbolizing challenges we all face in harmonizing changes that life throws at us. The bottom beats of larger drums provide a foundation and timing for the polyrhythms symbolizing holding fast to core values like hugging a tree in a storm. These metaphors are useful in engaging drummers in the symbology of their activities. Maintaining harmony and core rhythms becomes the theme.

West African dancers also move polyrhythmically in time to musicians.  After work in the village square, everyone creates a large music circle of players and dancers. When dancers step inside the circle the players synchronize their beats and begin a music and rhythmic dialogue with the dancers. This would seem an engaging technique in drum circles as is seen with belly dancers. Rather than having a drum circle stay seated, a more health promoting effect would be to allow players standing options with dancers moving in and out to allow full body engagement in the music.

Music as Community

“Thus, the villagers can express their individuality at the same time they celebrate their community. Music is a force for social cohesion. Villagers are not separated into performers and audience–all are participants to whatever degree they choose.” (p 81)


Facilitator’s Creed

“The Minianka regard their musicians as having the necessary skills of intelligence, memory, observation and social interaction required to bring a person back into tune with self and others. In their playing, musicians need a sense of harmony, proportion, balance, and social tact so that their interactions with fellow musicians and dancers contributes to the harmony of the whole.” (p 82).

What a wonderful statement as a mission or theme for drum circle facilitators! We should incorporate these goals when designing every event.

“Musicians need sensitivity and the ability to respond appropriately to the demands of the moment. Regular accompaniment to dancers attunes musicians to the manifestations of individuality through movement”. (and players too 🙂

Musician Healer

“…the musicians were healers, the healers musicians. The word musician itself implies the role of healer…it is inconceivable that the responsibilities for making music and restoring health should be separate, as they are in the West. ” (p 79)

When wellness is included as a goal, “normal rhythms are synonymous with health.” Players should stay relaxed in order to communicate better healing muscle tones to participants, with shorter intervals of high energy music.  (p 83) It is better to encourage patients in particular to control the release of emotion with the music rather than through a huge fire rush, much like cells regulate the release of carbohydrate energy in steps so as not to burn up cellular processes when using the energy.

Music for Fitness 

West African music and dance provides a unified model for adapting drum and dance circles for wellness and fitness environments. It can be a whole brain and body experience for both players and dancers. With a small or large “engine room”, the term used for the small West African drum section in a steel band, a set of frame drums for participants that allow them to play sitting or dancing and following the rhythms of West Africa, a fun, entertaining and energetic program can be designed for any fitness oriented activity. A dance or fitness professional would design and monitor the appropriate activity level for the needs of the participants.


“The nightly dancing in the village square provides all villagers with tonifying physical psychological, social and spiritual renewal. The physical benefits include the release of tensions, lubrication of joints and muscles, and enhancement of neuromuscular coordination. On this level, Minianka village dancing plays the role that sports and fitness training do in the West. Psychologically, the villagers enjoy the freedom of playfully expressing themselves, the pleasure of rhythmical movement, the release of emotional pressures, and the temporary departure from the worries and hardships of survival. Socially, they are united with one another and their ancestors in response to the music of the drum and balafon. As its vibrations reverberate into the invisible realm, the music quickens awareness of the spiritual mystery of life, and the dancing expresses the vitality of life. That is why dance is a great preventive remedy for Minianka.” (p 83)


African Wisdom Teachings

The author makes a convincing case for integrating African wisdom into the drum and dance applications, where possible to appreciate the holistic effects of the experience. Depending on event venues, selected sayings from their wisdom could be “seasoned” into the event experience.

“When the dance and music of the Minianka or other African tribes are taught in the West, their original social and historical context deserves to be taught along with them…they may bear a message communal solidarity, about caring, healing , and sharing in the joys and sorrows of life together, about getting back into harmony with ourselves, one another and our world…African music and dance, in addition to being fun, may stir in us some nascent awareness of a humane, down-to-earth solidarity that has been lost in our mechanized culture and the we need to rediscover.”
“Dancing symbolizes the rhythmic, patterned movements of life itself. Music and dance amplify and make manifest to our senses the underlying tones and unseen waves that weave together the matter of existence. Even when we are sitting most still or resting in deepest sleep, the atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs and systems of our bodies dance in astounding harmony and exchange ambient energies from air, water, food and invisible electromagnetic radiation. The beat, the rhythm, the timing, the orchestration, the flow, the balance between action and rest must all be within well-defined, organic limits for us to be vital. The Minianka practice a healing art that helps restore…people to harmonious human functioning through appropriately pulsating music.” (p 84)


Find books on West African Drum and Dance in the BOOKS menu section.

At the end of the below video: A book, CD, & DVD curriculum showing authentic rhythms, techniques, and dances from Guinea, West Africa – Written by Ryan M. Camara and Kalani. Published by Alfred Publishing. More info and Training Courses at Drum2Dance.com



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