Visiting African musicians create culture of music in Homer

In the culture of Guinea, a west African nation of about 11 million people and half the size of Alaska, music and dance can be found everywhere. At naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals and even when someone arrives at the airport, drummers, dancers and musicians play.

“Music, dance and drumming is very rich there,” said Ibrahimasory “Soriba” Fofana, of Conakry, Guinea, and now Sante Fe, N.M. “West Africa is very poor, but you’re never going to feel that, because we have so much happiness.”

Soriba Fofana and his wife, Shelley, visit Homer until March 9 as the Old Town Artists in Residence at Bunnell Street Arts Center funded by a grant from ArtPlace America.

In workshops this week and from 5-7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Feb. 24, 26 and 28, the Fofanas have been creating that culture of music. The drumming and dance workshops are free. Drumming is from 5 to 7 p.m. and dancing to live drumming is from 6 to 7 p.m.

During their residency the Fofanas also will do workshops during physical education classes at Homer Middle School. In the first week of March, students who have become more dedicated and want to move beyond the workshops will practice for a performance at a closing reception on March 8 at Bunnell and possibly at Marimba Madness, a Homer Council on the Arts fundraiser at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Homer Elks Lodge.

At a workshop on Monday, the Fofanas made that music happen. Sitting in a circle with drums before them, about 25 students listened and watched as Soriba Fofana showed them a basic drumming pattern and song, “Kuku.” He taught in traditional style.

“They always say, ‘Listen and play after,” Soriba Fofana said of his teachers and method.

Fofana played the djembe, an hourglass shaped drum with a skin head and an open bottom. Shelley Fofana played the sangban, a drum with skin heads on either end that can be played vertically or sideways. A bigger version of the sangban, the dundun, has a deeper, bass sound, and sets the beat of the drumming.

“It’s the core of the music. Without the dun-
dun, it’s difficult for anybody to stay in one place,” Soriba Fofana said.

After the drummers learned a basic pattern, pretty soon they were solid enough for the dancers to come in. Shelley Fofana lead them in warm-ups and then basic moves. In Guinea culture, men and women dance and drum.

The dundun was Soriba Fofana’s first instrument, learned from his uncle Alysylla starting when he was 5. Alysylla was in a professional company, Wassa Percussion. Soriba Fofana is now musical director of Wassa.

“I tell him, I want to play music. I want to be like you,” Soriba Fofana said. “He helped me pull my brain into the music.”

Over the years he learned instruments like the krin, a wooden block drum; the sangban and kinkini, the smaller dundun drums; the gongoma, a three-key mbira, and the djembe. An ensemble might include all those instruments as well as the balafon, similar to the marimba.

Soriba Fofana’s latest instrument is the n’goni, a stringed instrument that has a skin head over a gourd, similar to the American banjo. A friend nicknamed Rambo taught him the n’goni.

“‘Don’t be scared,’” Soriba Fofana said Rambo told him of learning the n’goni. He and Rambo played for three days straight.

“I started to feel I can play. I can do this,” Soriba Fofana said.

At the Sunday talk, in an interview Monday afternoon and at the start of the drumming workshop, Soriba Fofana always had his n’goni before him. He plays the n’goni the way teenagers text on their cell phones. It’s almost always in his hands, and his fingers fly over the strings.

Shelley Fofana came to African music through dance. Raised in Northampton, England, just north of London, she had always been into dance. At 18 she started traveling the world, going to Brazil and other countries. In 1998, she wound up in Santa Fe and studied Flamenco dance and yoga.

“Santa Fe was my playground for creativity,” she said.

In 2008, she went to Guinea for an African music and dance workshop. By then, Soriba Fofana had become a teacher at workshops geared toward westerners. They met and Shelley Fofana stayed for six months. 

“Guinea” means woman in the language of Soriba Fofana’s tribe, the Susu. Women have great influence and power in Guinea, he explained. If they don’t like the president, he’s in trouble. If food prices are too high, the women complain and the prices fall.

“The women need to have their respect,” Soriba Fofana said. “If the women are not happy, that’s a problem.”

After they met, the Fofanas went back to Santa Fe, eventually marrying. Shelley is a U.S. citizen and Soriba has permanent residency. He directs MORIA West African Dance & Drum Ensemble in Santa Fe. The Fofanas also periodically visit Guinea for workshops and performances.

In Guinea culture, anyone of any age can learn music, they said.

“That’s why Americans like to go. It’s accessible,” Shelley Fofana said. “They’re not going to turn you away. It’s very inclusive — as long as you’re kind.”

As a westerner, Shelley Fofana said she feels drawn to African music — a feeling many Homer people who play African music can understand.

“That rhythm, that basic heartbeat, those simple African rhythms stimulate the soul. There’s a basic connection to what we have,” she said. “We’re all from Africa. It’s in us.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Ibrahimsory “Soriba” and Shelley Fofana

ArtPlace AmericaOld Town Artists in Residence

Feb. 15-March 9

Bunnell Street Arts Center


Drumming and dance workshops

5-7 p.m. Friday

5-7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Feb. 24, 26, 28

Drumming is from 5-7 p.m.; dance to live drumming from 6-7 p.m. If dancing only, show up at 5:30 p.m. Please bring drums to share. It’s OK to drop in at any workshop.


Closing potluck and dance performance

6 p.m. March 8


Marimba Madness

Guest artists with Shamwari, Tamba Hadzi and Williwaw


A Homer Council on the Arts fundraiser 

WHEN:  7 p.m. March 1

WHERE: Homer Elks Lodge

COST: $5 youth, $10 HCOA members, $15 general admission

On sale at the Homer Bookstore, HCOA office and online at


Shelley Fofana, right, leads an African dance workshop on Monday night at Bunnell Street Arts Center.-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Shelley Fofana, right, leads an African dance workshop on Monday night at Bunnell Street Arts Center.-Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

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