In The Talking Drum, one of my main characters, Omar Bassari, reminisces about the day in 1965 when his father, Ibrahim, sat him down in their Senegalese village and told him that The Festival of the Black Arts was coming to the capital city, Dakar. Kings, emperors, and presidents from all over the world would be coming to the festival. Ibrahim’s musical hero, composer, pianist, and orchestra leader Duke Ellington, who father and son listened to on the gramophone in their hut, would be in attendance too.
For months leading up to the big trip to Dakar, Ibrahim, Omar and the rest of the drummers in their group practiced, hoping that when they performed outside of the Amity Arena that they would get the attention of not only Ellington, but of their country’s president, Leopold Senghor. The women of the village spent months creating eye-catching outfits for the drummers.
I placed my fictional characters inside of that important moment in history.
The First World Festival of Black Arts was held in Dakar, April 1-24, 1966, initiated by former President Senghor, under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with the participation of 45 African, European, Caribbean, and North and South African countries, and featuring black literature, music, theater, visual arts, film and dance. It was the first state-sponsored festival to showcase the work of African and African diasporic artists, musicians, and writers to a global audience. Participants included historian Cheikh Anta Diop, dancers Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Wole Soyinka, Amiri Baraka, and Sarah Webster Fabio.
In The Talking Drum, Duke Ellington plays a pivotal role in Omar’s future. Online I was able to find some old footage of Ellington at the festival, dancing a little shuffle step to African music. I was intrigued by the idea of having Ellington dance to the beat of the African drumming group that Omar was part of and have Ellington make Omar an incredible offer.
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