Volume 18 • Issue 44 | March 17 - 23, 2006

Healing drumbeats at St. Mark’s for anthrax victim

By Bonnie Rosenstock

For over two hours on Sat. March 11, the rhythmic rise and fall of African drums reverberated throughout the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery. Those not playing all manner of drums large and small contributed to the driving beat with sturdy wooden sticks and other percussion instruments. Others clapped their hands, stamped their feet or danced energetically.

Mamadou Daoue, an elder of the West African community in New York, barefoot and wearing a simple loose-fitting white cotton shirt and black pants, moved into the center of the circle formed by the tight-knit group of about 80 or so shoeless participants seated in chairs. He placed several objects in the center, including unlit white candles, a gallon bottle of water symbolizing the source of life, a spoon carved out of a calabash to symbolize the guiding hand that embraces all and gives life and an African nut, which accepts prayers.

In a show of solidarity, the African dance-and-drumming community and extended Caribbean, African-American and international artistic communities came together to offer their most earnest prayers for the recovery of Vado Diomande, who continues to battle for his life after being infected with inhalation anthrax, in a healing ceremony held at St. Mark’s Church on Second Ave. and E. 10th St.

Diomande, who lives at 31 Downing St., is a beloved and well-respected teacher, drummer, drum maker, dancer and promoter of traditional African culture. He has been on a life-threatening roller coaster ride the last few weeks in a Pennsylvania hospital.

Alex Harman, whose sister Lisa has been married to Diomande for five years, is confident that he will recover. “He has had a temporary setback, but he continues to be remarkably strong,” he said after the ritual.

Krista Retto, a Soho resident who is Diomande’s best friend, spiritual assistant and American “sister,” told The Villager that photographs could not be taken during the ceremony because it would be considered disrespectful. And, in fact, one man who blatantly took unauthorized photographs was escorted out and caused a ruckus in the lobby.

During a pause in the drumming, a student of Diomande’s addressed the interfaith, intergenerational and interracial group to offer his reverent thanks to his drumming teacher, whom he has studied with for 12 years.

“There’s something special about music that brings people together. I wouldn’t have known all of you without the music,” he acknowledged.

Daoue also thanked the students and others who have embraced the African

immigrant community. “We are grateful for you being a family for those of us who are far away from our countries. With your will, your prayers and support, Vado will come back to us. This prayer is for everybody, even our enemies. We should love and pray for them, too,” he said.

However, what concerns Harman is the negative publicity surrounding his brother-in-law, whom he characterizes as a private and humble man who has been unwillingly thrust into the spotlight. He says that a few months ago, Diomande went to visit his home village in the Ivory Coast for the first time in 11 years. On that trip, he picked up four raw goatskins and brought them back to New York. The skins, which he used to make drums, contained anthrax spores. “He has been made out to be a smuggler. Anthrax is a fabulously rare disease. There’s been one case [of naturally occurring anthrax] in 30 years in America. We’re very concerned that people will be scared of drums. Drums are life,” Harman stated.

He added that the African drumming community, which is bringing this culture of music to the American people, is going through a hard time. “There’s been a perceptible drop in bookings. The government response was an excess of caution and instilled fear more than it healed fear,” he said.

Father Julio Torres, pastor of St. Mark’s Church, came by toward the latter part of the ceremony. Afterwards, he explained that he gave over the church to the group because Diomande has performed there many times and therefore is considered a friend of St. Mark’s. Danspace, the nonprofit dance organization, is also housed at the church.

Father Torres quoted St. Ambrose of Milan, “Whoever sings, prays twice,” and added his own variation, “Whoever drums, prays three times. If the Almighty doesn’t hear the drums, he’s got to be deaf. We’ve been praying for him and hoping for a miracle.”

Diomande’s extended family and friends have set up a fund, The Diomande

Trust, in order to help pay his bills. The Web site www.kotchegna.com gives updates on his health and accepts electronic donations. A personal check or money order may be made out to The Diomande Trust and mailed to P.O. Box 121, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276-0121.


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