Following the beat of the drum

Mirror photo by Cherie Hicks Yamoussa Camara plays a djemba drum in Heritage Plaza while his wife, Valerie Metzler, watches. Behind him is a gongoma.

Yamoussa Camara rapidly tapped the hacksaw blades with the fingers of his right hand and, with his left hand, rhythmically rapped the back of the instrument fashioned from huge gourds.

It almost resembles a guitar or a mandolin, but it is much bigger and played very differently. Called a gongoma, it is one of several instruments Camara made over the years from materials mostly from his native Guinea in West Africa. He has been importing that music to the United States for the 22 years since he arrived here, and now he is bringing it to his new home of Altoona.

Since Memorial Day weekend, Camara has led the West African Drum Circle at Heritage Plaza downtown every Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., and he hopes to continue it for as long as possible, appointing friends to lead it when he cannot be there.

“These people really need me,” Camara said he came to realize after driving from Pittsburgh to work area festivals for several years.

It became his permanent home earlier this year when he married Blair County native Valerie Metzler. He returns to Pittsburgh frequently to teach various West African music classes at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park University, along with summer camps in the Steel City.

“This has to keep going … to get everybody together,” Camara said of the weekly drum circles.

He and Metzler are “fantastic people who want to bring Altoona together through African drum and dance,” said Kaleen Wolfe, the newly installed executive director of ArtsAltoona.

Camara’s music isn’t so much a performance by him, but rather is designed to encourage unity by leading the drum circles and encouraging all to participate. He said “wontanara” is the most common greeting in his native Susu language and it means united or coming together.

Camara credits national politics in his native Guinea for encouraging the arts, particularly Ahmed Sékou Touré, the long-term president who led Guinea to independence from France in 1958.

The late president valorized West African culture by, among other things, funding the national ballet company called Les Ballets Africains. While the name conjures up the notion of European “ballet,” the company promotes traditional African culture, and Camara was a member of it, as well as Guinea’s other national ballet company, Djoliba.

Born in the village of Boke in 1966 with the revolution fresh on the minds of Guineans, Camara said his father encouraged his music, giving him, at an early age, a “little tiny drum.”

“You have to learn your own music. You have to do your own music,” Camara said.

He became the youngest principal at Les Ballets at the age of 16, but he apprenticed before that.

“I went to school, but I didn’t like school,” he said. “I loved to play music.”

Camara traveled to study his music, staying with different relatives along the way. For a time, he taught Americans living in Guinea — including the children of diplomats – and finally in 1995 before his 30th birthday, he moved to the United States with the help of one of those diplomats.

Camara said he taught for a time at Yale University and he traveled the world performing with various groups. He settled down in Pittsburgh, where he still teaches recreational dance at Carnegie Mellon; West African dance at Point Park’s nationally renowned theater program; and drum classes at Pitt, where he also directs the African Drum Ensemble.

In 2012, he was part of a dance group from the Pittsburgh that performed at the now-defunct Blair County African-American Heritage Festival. Afterward, Metzler approached him with questions about purchasing his music on compact disc.

“When I talked to him, I thought I saw a sparkle in his eye,” she said. “I wanted his CDs and he gave me his card.

Metzler emailed Camara to let him know “I was interested without being too forward,” she said. Their relationship grew as he returned to Altoona several times to teach classes.

“It’s a great love story,” Metzler said, that was punctuated by a trip earlier this year to Guinea where they got married on April 27.

“She didn’t get the CD, but she got me,” Camara laughed.

Her second trip to Guinea is scheduled for December and is part of a tour group of students that Camara escorts so they can study West African music up close, as well as view amazing scenery. The couple also gets to visit his family, including his father and siblings, collect materials for his instruments and make music contacts.

“The mountains, waterfalls and Atlantic coast are beautiful,” said Metzler. She grew up near Martinsburg on Pleasant View Farms, which remains in her family, and graduated from Central High School in 1973.

Her work schedule as a private archivist and genealogist gives her flexibility to join her husband’s vocation, which is about to get busier as he starts up regular dance classes later this month at the Allegheny Ballet Co. in downtown Altoona.

The drum circle will continue today and will be led by a friend, as Camara has several commitments in Pittsburgh. All ages are invited, he said.

“Yamoussa has brought something immensely unique and special to Altoona,” said ArtsAltoona’s Wolfe. “Through West African drum and dance, he’s offering all of us the opportunity to not only share in something really fun, but to also be a part of a meaningful cultural experience. We at ArtsAltoona are thrilled to welcome Yamoussa and all of his mastery, passion and ambition to our city.”

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Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.