Drumming up support

Home is here: Percussionist Adama Dembele has lent his talent to many Asheville bands. He hopes to stay in the community. Photo by Cameron Yeager

The violence may have settled down in Ivory Coast, but Adama Dembele doesn’t want to go back. He has friends in Asheville, and a home here. He has a thriving career teaching people about West African drumming, of which he’s a skilled practitioner.

But he has to do something, in the not-too-distant future. His time in Asheville, in the United States, is coming to a close unless he’s able to convert his conditional green card into a permanent one.

To help him afford an immigration attorney, his Asheville friends are throwing him a “soumu,” which is a West African word for a celebration of dancing, singing, food and music. West African food such as soupe kandia and chicken and vegetable mafé will be accompanied by wines and beer from Pisgah and Wedge brewing companies. Zansa, an Ivorian Afropop band in which Dembele drums, will provide entertainment, as will Belle Afrique, an Asheville-based West African drum and dance ensemble.

Dembele, a 33rd generation player of the djembe (a cone-shaped drum common at the Friday night drum circles in Asheville’s Pritchard Park), has performed with internationally recognized acts such as Angelique Kidjo and Salif Keita. A native of a town just outside Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital, and a resident of Asheville for the past five years, he has been teaching drumming workshops in town and across the country and performing with local bands, including Afromotive and Toubab Krewe.

But for him to continue playing and performing, he has to have a permanent resident card, a so-called “green card” that allows holders to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. People become permanent residents in a variety of ways, most commonly by being sponsored by a family member or employer.

People also get them by being refugees or seeking political asylum, an avenue that may or may not work for Dembele. Ivory Coast has been a dangerous place for a decade now. Once a prosperous place that drew immigrants from all over West Africa, it has seen civil war since 2002. In November 2010 incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after losing the election to Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader. The ensuing crisis caused more than 3,000 deaths in Abidjan before Gbagbo was pushed from power with the help of French and United Nations helicopter airstrikes.

Ouattara is now president, but the effects of the strife continue. The World Bank estimated that more than 4 million young men are unemployed in a nation of about 21 million people.

“It was not a safe place to stay,” Dembele said in a soft voice during a recent interview. His family tells him things have calmed down. “But you still never know,” he said.

He’d planned to leave Ivory Coast ever since he was a child, he said. He thought he’d go to Europe, and as an adult, he toured there as a drummer. Then several years ago, he visited his brother in New York and a cousin in Arizona. He decided he wanted to live in the States, even though he didn’t speak any English. He moved in with his brother.

He visited Asheville in 2006, at the invitation of members of the Asheville-based band Toubab Krewe who had met him years ago when they traveled to Abidjan to study music at Djembeso Drum and Dance Ensemble, the music school Dembele started in his family’s home outside of the capital. 

“He’s a great teacher,” said Drew Heller, the Toubab Krewe guitarist who studied at the school in 2001 and 2002. “I still call Adama sometimes and play something over the phone and ask him what am I missing here, what am I doing wrong, how can I make this better. He has a great ear.”

“But he’s also an enthusiastic artistic collaborator,” Heller said. “He has true friends and true family in Asheville now. Like millions of Americans, he has reasons of the heart to be here and to stay here. It’s family.”

“He’s really great with young people, kind of a Pied Piper,” said Tamiko Ambrose Murray, community relations coordinator for LEAF in Schools & Streets, an outreach program of the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain.

“He’s just very warm and genuine, and kids have a way of recognizing that,” Murray said. “Because he’s so passionate and he takes it so seriously, it’s contagious. To have him crouch down next to a child and encourage him and [tell him] whatever music he creates is good and valuable — he meets them at their level.”

“It was such good news for all of us that he wanted to check out Asheville and that he fell in love with it,” Heller said.

“When I come to Asheville, I feel like I’m home,” Dembele said. “I’ve got a lot of good friends here. It’s like a family place for me. Good vibe, good connection, good spirit. My life here is very fine.”

— Paul Clark can be reached at paulgclark@charter.net.

what: “Soumu” fundraiser for Adama Dembele, featuring dancing, singing, food and music. West African dinner includes seafood soupe kandia, chicken and vegetable mafe, wine and beer from Pisgah and Wedge breweries
where: YMI Cultural Center, 39 S. Market St.
when: Saturday, Feb. 25 (6-10 p.m. $15, $10 age 12 and under)

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