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Fair Trade?: an American Djembe-builder and the Founding of Wula Drums

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Guinea, the birthplace of the djembé, produces fewer drums than any other African nation. Paradoxically, Guinean djembés embody a dry and woody timbre that is highly prized among international djembé enthusiasts. This paper is an attempt to address
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  [DR VERA FLAIG: AAA PAPER 2014]Fair Trade?: an American  Djembé -buider in Guinea and !"e #$undin% $# &ua Drum'()In !"e be%innin% ) ) ) I met Tom Kondas on my first trip to Guinea in the winter of 2006. His business partner, MichaelMarcus, runs  Magbana  est !frican drum and dance school in "#$ with Guinean drummer M%&emba &an'oura. Marcus and &an'oura host a yearly drum camp in Guinea which I was attendin' as a  participant obser(er. Kondas, )nown to most by his nic)name, *+ambo, was li(in' in $ona)ry full time to o(ersee the day-to-day operation of the ula rums wor)shop. I too) an afternoon trip with Marcus to the wor)shop and was immediately struc) by the /uality of the wor)manship. The drums were bein' made by Guinean artisans some hereditary and others not1, but they did not loo) li)e the other djembés  I had seen in $ona)ry. They had that crisp and dry sound I had come to epect of Guineanstyle djembés,  but they were each sanded and finished li)e a fine piece of furniture, complete with decorati(e upholstery tac)s and a patented rubber rin' to protect the bottom of the instrument. !lthou'h the tire-li)e rubber rin' has no formal patent, it was first concei(ed by Tom and his car(ers at the ula rum wor)shop. This is not the first time there ha(e been forei'n inno(ations to Guinean djembé desi'n and construction. The iron rin's that hold the s)in of the d3embe to its body came either from !merica or $4te d%I(oire 5 none of my sources can a'ree on this. These rin's made it possible to tune the djembé hi'her and maintain that tunin' without the aid of a fire. This was a crucial inno(ation for the drummers of  Les ballets Africains de République de Guinée  and  Ballet D’Joliba  as these companies embar)ed on their tours of urope, !merica, and !sia. 7n their !frican tours they could always build a fire near their  performance (enue to heat up and tune the drums, but this practice of tunin' was not possible on any of the other continents where they performed. The iron rin's made it possible to tune each drum by ti'htenin' the strin's that lay between each set of rin's. 8  [DR VERA FLAIG: AAA PAPER 2014] hat intri'ued me about ula rums was the de'ree and le(el of detail in chan'es not only to the loo) of the instrument, and the /uality of materials used to produce it, but also the attention 'i(en to impro(in' the acoustical properties of the drum desi'n. Kondas has been studyin' the o(erall shape of the Guinean djembé from the inside and the outside. His 'oal is to increase the compression within the  bowl of the drum in order to create a 'reater distinction between the tone, slap, and bass sounds on the instrument. To do this he has chan'ed the taper of the bowl and standardi9ed the si9e of the internal hole  between the bowl and the base of the instrument. This type of chan'e in drum desi'n starts in the bush where the rou'h shells are cut. In order to encoura'e bush car(ers, Kondas has placed one of his top car(ers from $ona)ry in the bush. This car(er only chooses rou'h djembes that will wor) well with the new desi'n. (entually the bush car(ers will come to an understandin' about which shells are sellin' and which are bein' refused. !t this point more rou'h shells will become a(ailable to mass-produce drums with the new desi'n. hile other, more tapered shells can be made to wor) by reshapin' the inside of the drum, this results in an inconsistent thic)ness in the shell. To chan'e the desi'n of the djembé many layers of tradition and custom need to be chan'ed as well. !s a result, it may ta)e more than a year to be able to consistently ma)e drums with this new desi'n. The downside is that no new desi'n can be patented of eclusi(e. 7nce bush car(ers learn the new shape others will also as) about it. :imilar to the addition of the rubber tire bottom, this desi'n will also spread (ery /uic)ly to other drum ma)ers. The ula rums wor)shop in the district of Kip;, is little )nown to most Guineans sa(e a few locals. The wor)shop employs some of $ona)ry%s most talented car(ers who produce hi'h-end drums for the !merican mar)et. Kondas and his business partner Marcus who runs their drum shop in "ew #or) $ity1 wor) (ery hard to hide their presence within Guinea. This ma)es it easier for them to 'et rawmaterials at a reasonable price and to a(oid the ridiculously hi'h taes routinely le(ied by the Guinean 2  [DR VERA FLAIG: AAA PAPER 2014] 'o(ernment on forei'n businesses. !s I will demonstrate in this paper, in order for Mar)us and Kondas to continue ma)in' *<air Trade instruments they will need to continue wor)in' within Guinea%s informal or shadow economy. Guinea*' Ec$n$m+ In order to eplain the current situation, I will 'o bac) to the formation of Guinea%s economy after independence. !fter a difficult and hostile brea)-up with <rance, Guinea not only lost <rench administrati(e and technical epertise, it also lost lar'e chun)s of infrastructure. 8i More importantly, Guinea lost her only source of financial support and her most important tradin' partner in the process of de-coloni9ation. This was, in turn eacerbated by the policies of Guinea%s first president, :;)ou Tour;. 2  Tour;%s brand of !frican socialism ima'ined a Guinea completely independent of outside ties. <or Tour; economic independence meant that Guineans would sleep on Guinean made beds, eat at Guinean made tables, and wear clothin' made of cloth produced by Guinean wea(ers. It also meant that Guinea would be the only est !frican country with its own currency iawara 2000= >?-?@1. Ander the Tour; re'ime, all *producti(e assets, includin' ban)s and tradin' companies were ta)en o(er by thestate. (en land was nationali9ed alon' with the establishment of collecti(e farms and producer cooperati(es !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 881. The pri(ate sector was essentially s/uee9ed out of the  picture. It is also important to note that in order to fund all of these 'o(ernmental enterprises, the 'o(ernment imposed hea(y taes on citi9ens which decreased any real purchasin' power amon' the 8 The brea) with <rance was traumatic. ithin C? hours all <rench epatriates were withdrawn. ith their administrati(e and technical epertise also went e/uipment, medication and e(en li'htbulbs. Much of the infrastructure that remained was either inoperable or unser(iceable !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 801. 2 !rulpra'asam and :ahn conclude that, *Guinea%s de-lin)in' from a ma3or trade partner reinforced the economic inward orientation opted for within Tour;%s (ersion of !frican socialism !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 801.D  [DR VERA FLAIG: AAA PAPER 2014]  populace. These taes *ser(ed as further disincenti(es to efficient production and echan'e in the formal sector. !rulpra'asam and :ahn note that, The s/uee9in' out of the pri(ate sector from the formal economy thus resulted in the lar'ely policy-induced de(elopment of an ille'al economy parallel to that of the formal sector . . . Many of these parallel systems were in fact maintained only with the formal collusion of officials. $orruption, embe99lement, and fraud ensured the continued supply and functionin' of the parallel mar)ets, while ille'ally raisin' the incomes of poorly paid 'o(ernment wor)ers !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 82-8D1. This *shadow economy eists throu'hout !frica, but in Guinea the dichotomy between 'o(ernment wor) and the shadow economy is more ea''erated because the formal pri(ate sector is nearly non-eistent. In rural areas, most trade occurs without the echan'e of currency. To this day, the barter system is preferred amon' subsistence farmers. In urban areas, the informal economy pro(ides 'oods both local and imported1 and ser(ices to underpaid 'o(ernment wor)ers at prices far below any formal sector enterprise. ue to the more accessible prices of this shadow mar)et, 'o(ernment employees are more li)ely to collude with these enterprises than they are to crac) down on them. The second republic under General Eansana $ont;, brou'ht economic reforms, but these did little to  boost the de(elopment of a formal pri(ate sector. (en with hi'h taes, Tour;%s 'o(ernment had not  been able to meet all of its bud'etary obli'ations. :ome of the policies that were in place were simply not sustainable. <or eample, e(ery secondary school and uni(ersity 'raduate was assured a position in the ci(il ser(ice, a promise that epanded the 'o(ernment payroll to unsustainable  proportions. It was estimated that as many as @0 percent of those in the $ona)ry wor)force were employees of the public sector. !s a result, the 'o(ernment fre/uently found itself unable to pay salaries or to meet debt obli'ations. &y the early 8B?0s the lac) of fiscal discipline was only too apparentF and official 'o(ernment bud'et did not eist !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 88-821. $ont;%s  rogramme de Redressement !conomique et "inancier introduced policies   meant to confront this bud'etary collapse. These :tructural !d3ustment policies were supported with funds from the orld&an) and International Monetary <und. Ander the first phase of +< 8B?6-8B??1, Guinea committed C  [DR VERA FLAIG: AAA PAPER 2014] to= de(alue its currency and re-ali'n its echan'e rate, restructure the ban)in' and financial sector by shuttin' down state ban)s and promotin' commercial ban)in', and pri(ati9in' state-owned businesses. urin' the second phase of +<, starin' in 8B??, $i(il :er(ice staff was downsi9ed from o(er 80C,000in 8B?@ to >8,000 by the end of 8B?B !rulpra'asam and :ahn 8BB>= 822-82D1. These +< policies did many thin's to encoura'e 'rowth in the shadow or informal economy. <or eample, wor)ers who were ta)en off the 'o(ernment payroll simply shifted themsel(es further into the informal economy where they had already been acti(ely supplementin' their mea'er 'o(ernment wa'es. In order to re-ali'n the Guinean echan'e rate as promised in +<, the Guinea <ranc was de(alued to the point of  bein' (irtually worthless in nei'hborin' countries. This has forced people to continue to produce and consume locally, often choosin' the barter system o(er currency echan'e iawara 2000= >?1. !s a result of +<, cheaply priced consumer 'oods from $hina and <rance be'an to find their way into the Guinean mar)etplace, but Guinean made products continued to be produced and consumed only within Guinea. hen 'o(ernment owned parastatals were pri(ati9ed, they often ended up in the hands of the same ;lites who had pre(iously run them in 'o(ernment.   7fficially there was a pri(ati9ation of 'o(ernment assets, but in reality much of Guinea%s wor)in' economy was left unchan'ed.Gi(en these precedents, it is no wonder that the birthplace of the djembé  produces fewer djembé  drums for the international mar)et than many other !frican nations. In the 8BB0s it was more common tofind a djembé  made in Ghana or :outh !frica than in Guinea. :tartin' in the late 8BB0s, djembés from Indonesia and Thailand appeared in !merican music stores. These are lower /uality instruments which are mass produced usin' lathes. The drums from Ghana were hand made usin' li'hter woods that were easier to car(e. These were (ery low /uality instruments and most of these djembé  builders only made 80-8@ of the price of each drum. This is why they could be ac/uired and sold so cheaply. +emo, an !merican drum ma)er also cashed in on the 8BB0s djembé cra9e. Their drums are made of compressed @
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