Senegal's 'human treasure' drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose dies aged 85

Dakar (AFP) - Senegal's master drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose, who collaborated with Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones and was considered a "living human treasure" for keeping his country's traditional rhythms alive, died Wednesday aged 85, his nephew told AFP.

"Today we lost our father, our friend, a great man," said Doudou Ndiaye Mbengue.

The Association for the Cultural Press said the artist, whose real name was Mamadou Ndiaye, died in a Dakar hospital after being taken ill on Wednesday morning.

Often dubbed the "mathematician of rhythm", Ndiaye was able to conduct an orchestra made up of many of his own children and grandchildren in a complex medley of traditional beats that made him one of the continent's most renowned musicians.

He was born into the griot caste of musicians and story-tellers, guardians of Senegal's cultural heritage.

But, he told AFP in a 2010 interview, his father, an accountant, did not want him to be a musician. When Ndiaye defied him, they went for seven years without shaking hands.

Born on July 28, 1930, he recalled the sounds of his childhood in downtown Dakar that would distract him and forge his destiny as a master percussionist.

"Every day, the tam-tams played for marriages, baptisms and circumcisions. Whenever I left the house, the sounds distracted me. It's as if they said, 'Doudou, don't go to school, you must come and play the tam-tam'."

Ndiaye was working as a plumber when he met Senegal's then drum-major Mada Seck, who worked at the cargo port and "knew all the secrets of percussion".

"I was in his group and when he left one day, for Ivory Coast, he told me, 'Here are my instruments, here are my charms, you can replace me'."

- The language of drums -

But Ndiaye wanted to travel deep into his west African country to "seriously" develop his gift.

"I never wanted to play blindly! I met the elders so that they could teach me the very precise language of drums that everybody recognised then: how to announce a bush fire, that a snake has bitten someone and what kind of snake, that a woman who has just got married has gone to the conjugal home and that the husband is happy with her."

When the elders noted that Ndiaye had managed to learn "more than 100 different rhythms", they bestowed on him the title of "chief drum major".

In 1959, US-born singer and dancer Josephine Baker invited him to play with her on stage and he has since collaborated with music greats such as Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel and percussionists in Japan.

In 2006 he was declared a "living human treasure" by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a title bestowed on those highly skilled in traditional dance or music and who transmit their knowledge to younger generations.

Ndiaye continued to play up until his death, and told AFP he was at peace after having transferred his skills to his children and grandchildren who will uphold the tradition.

His son Moustapha, who teaches percussion at Paris' Cite de la Musique, described his father in 2010 as generous but "a little strict when it comes to percussion. If you couldn't follow, you would feel a little tap of a stick on the head."

"I thank the Good Lord," Ndiaye said at the time. "My children have learned the language of percussion well. I can even no longer play and just listen to them."