To be bestowed the honor of a “living human treasure” largely means you are invaluable to society. Mamadou N’diaye Rose commonly referred to as Doudou N’diaye Rose is the Senegalese master percussionist, national treasure and legend who shared his craft with the world and passed it on to two generations before his death in August 2015.
The 85-year-old was actively playing his drums and performing right up till his death. UNESCO bestowed on him the title of “living human treasure” in 2006 for his immense contributions to Senegal’s musical scene, culture and for sharing his art and knowledge with the younger generation.
Nicknamed the “mathematician of rhythm”, N’diaye Rose lived his life for the beats and rhythms. His life’s work was on Senegalese rhythmic languages and drums for which he traveled to the countryside to study a variety of drum languages and complex rhythms from the elders.
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The elders then appointed him the new chief drummer because he assimilated the existing rhythms while mastering thousands of them. He also composed hundreds of his own and reintegrated them into a wide range of contemporary musical genres.
N’Diaye Rose had “never wanted to play blindly!,” he told News Agency AFP in 2010. “I met the elders so that they could teach me the very precise language of the drums that everybody recognized then,” he said.
N’diaye Rose was born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1930 into a griot caste of musicians and storytellers. He started taking an interest in drums at the age of seven but it was at age of nine that he fell in love with the sabar, also known as the talking drum, which became the center of his musical career as it was the main instrument he used.
He learned the basics of his skill from Mada Seck, said to be the best tambour-major in the country at the time. He understudied Seck for many years and according to N’diaye Rose, Seck was well vexed in percussion and he passed down all the secrets of percussion, his knowledge and his charms to him.
The story of this musical legend would have been different if he had listened to his father who wanted him to be a professional person and not pursue a career in music. He even tried plumbing for a while but that did not pan out and there was a fall out between the pair for several years.
A composition of his, which featured over 100 drummers, became the soundtrack of Senegal’s independence in 1960. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, commissioned the music himself.
N’diaye Rose and Julien Jouga, founder and director of the Saint Joseph de Médina de Dakar choir, composed several songs together as well in different Senegalese languages. Through the choir, the youth of Medina, a popular neighborhood in Senegal, found their musical calling, and together, they toured five continents.
The international music scene took real notice of him after his performance with legendary singer and dancer Josephine Baker in 1959 not long before Senegal’s independence. The Senegalese musical genius has had other international collaborations with the Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, and Miles Davis.
The seasoned musician was not afraid to challenge stereotypes while imparting knowledge to the younger generation. At the time, only people who came from griot families could be drummers, but he taught the art of playing the sabar to others outside the griot sect.
He was a mentor and friend to many young artists like rapper Didier Awadi, who described N’Diaye Rose as a generous mentor and friend, who was “at ease playing with both modern acts and traditional groups.”
“He was a genius, who was able to turn the sound of many drums into a symphony,” Awadi told the BBC.
N’Diaye Rose was skilled in communicating with the talking drum whenever he played with the sticks and his hands. His music always carried a message whenever he played the drums, Africa’s “first cellphone” for communication, according to Awadi.
He formed large and small-scale drum ensembles, and the two that stood out were the Doudou N’diaye Rose Orchestra and his Drummers of West Africa which comprised of not only his children and grandchildren but those he was “forbidden to teach drumming as well.”
To challenge outdated conventions, he reportedly formed Africa’s first all-female drum ensemble, ‘Les Rosettes,’ by training his daughters, granddaughters, and other women to play the sabar.
His style could be infused into any genre of music and it will work, and he was a great supporter of young talents, motivating them to always aim for the ultimate in all they do.
Grammy award-winning singer Youssou N’Dour told Reuters the death of N’Diaye Rose “is one of the greatest losses to our country in terms of music and rhythms.” N’Dour said, “he always encouraged me and gave me a chance.”
During N’diaye Rose’s eight-decade career, he trained and employed hundreds of drummers and raised two generations of percussionists in his family who will also pass on his legacy to their young ones.