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The Daily News-Tribune (March 4, 2007)

Musicians shunned by their families

by Matt Perkins

WALTHAM - Imagine being disowned by your family simply for playing an instrument. That's what many members of Amazones: The Women Master Drummers of Guinea have had to deal with in their native African homeland of Guinea.

The Amazones have made themselves known worldwide for their courage.

Their instrument of choice in their performances is the djembe, traditionally played by men in Guinea, and which is forbidden for women to touch.

Several of the women in the group have been shunned by their families, such as Mariama Baillo Diallo, a djembe player, whose mother disowned her, told her to look for another job, and even burnt her performance costume.

"The mind couldn't get it that the woman decided to do this," said the Amazones' founding director Mamoudou Conde.

Another group member, Fatoumata Kouyate, plays a xylophone-like instrument known as the balaphone, which Conde calls the "grandfather of the xylophone."

Unlike the xylophone, though, the balaphone's sound is similar to that of a steel drum, and is very melodic. And, like the djembe, the balaphone is another instrument not traditionally played by women in Guinea.

"No female was playing none of these instruments at all," Conde said. "For the first time, to officially have a woman on stage, even in Guinea, it was shocking for people to see."

While neither Diallo or Kouyate were available for comment Friday, Judy Eisenberg, who founded the MusicUnitesUS program, said Kouyate's role in the group is also known as a "griot," a person who tells stories and urges people to think ethnically and morally. Eisenberg said these were the meanings behind Kouyate's performance while she sang and played the balaphone to students Friday.

"It's her saying the message to them," Eisenberg said. "Their first motivation is to open up people's view of Africa."

Conde said he encouraged the Amazones, a group of up to 14 women, nine of whom played Friday, to push past the criticisms and to stick with the instrument.

"One of the reasons for bringing the girls on this instrument for me, is really to speak out," Conde said. "Part is a fight for African women and their rights."

Conde added that after nearly a decade of performing worldwide, the women's families of are starting to see inspiration in the group's determination, and even young girls are becoming exposed to the instrument.

"Many girls now are picking up some of these instruments," Conde said. "They see they're mother doing something they want to do. This really gives girls courage and ability to do what they want to do."

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