Senegalese Talking Drum Master Massamba Diop Performs with MSO

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2022.23 Season, Film with orchestra, Guest Artist

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther may be set in an imaginary futuristic African state, but some of the sounds of its music stretch back for centuries.

Massamba Diop, a master of the Senegalese talking drum, is featured prominently on the soundtrack of the 2018 Marvel film, and he will also participate in the Milwaukee Symphony’s live film with orchestra performance June 23-25.

Diop comes from a 200-year family line of drum makers and performers. His collection of six talking drums includes some that he made himself from wood and animal skin and one that he inherited from his grandparents.

He has been performing and touring for decades, but the movie has given him a new level of fame. “I’ve worked with big stars all my life,” he said. “I love Black Panther, but my band is so good. I did a Black Panther concert in London, and then I did a show with my African band, and I love all of them.”

Hollywood executives considered a wide range of African drum styles before bringing Diop to Los Angeles to play along while he watched Black Panther footage in the studio.

And now that the live soundtrack performances are making the rounds of American orchestras, Diop has learned to exactly match his improvisations. While he plays, the movie is streaming on a computer in front of him, similar to the arrangement that conductor Yaniv Dinur will use to keep the MSO in sync with the visual images.

“Not less, not more, just right,” Diop said. “It’s a lot of work for me. Everyone says, ‘That’s amazing, how do you do it?’ Well, it’s a lot of work. At the beginning, I said, ‘I can’t do that,’ but everything passes.”

His chance to be spontaneous comes at the very beginning and the very end of movie performances. “I do a wakeup call for the audience at the beginning,” entering from the back of the orchestra. “Then at the end, I give them a bye-bye.” One person, he said, came to a second performance of the movie just to hear his opening and closing.

The talking drum, or tama, gets its name from its ability to imitate the rising and falling tones of West African languages. In pre-modern times, it was used to send news from village to village. It is held under the left arm and squeezed to change the pitch, while the performer plays with a stick in the right hand and the fingers of the left hand.

“Senegal has a unique drum tradition,” said Jason Buchea, Diop’s manager and son-in-law. “Disney wanted something fresh and unique more than culturally specific.” The fictitious state of Wakanda seems to be set in the plains of eastern Africa, but the language is from South Africa, and costumes have influences from Namibia and Ghana, so “they tried to include as many people as possible in this fictitious nation.”