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Bill Scheidt & the Spirit of the Djembe

Bill Scheidt & the Spirit of the Djembe

On a frigid Tuesday in November, I parked my car in an empty Dollar General lot
to ensure clear cell reception. The task at hand required me to make a phone call
to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I possessed sparse knowledge of the person
that I was contacting other than he is a renowned djembefola (Malinke for djembe
player) who works with a non-profit organization traveling the country and
teaching inner-city youth how to play the djembe drum. I realized that he had left
an indelible impression on the founder of Good People News, Jefferson Taffet,
when they met by chance at a recent music festival.

Little was I aware that I would hang up the phone an hour later, my soul filled with
light and inspiration from my conversation with Bill Scheidt. From the moment
that he answered the call, his passion and kindness were apparent. I find it most
effective to conversationally interview people and Bill Scheidt’s naturally humble
affect and repartee immediately put me at ease.

Bill Scheidt is a Senior Certified Teacher of the djembe drum and Director of Tam
Tam Mandigue Djembe Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as well as
Director of Sewa Beats. His tutelage extends from the altruism of the nonprofit
sector to the most profitable corporations in the world. As I would soon find out,
teaching the djembe drum to others is a sacred privilege that carries with it a
great responsibility to uphold the respect and magic of the drum and its beat.

The djembe drum was birthed in West Africa during the Mali Empire. It is a
rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum that is played with bare hands. Language
in West Africa in the Mali area is heavily influenced by French. In Bambara (one of
the regional languages of Mali), the word etymology of djembe is literally “djé”
the verb for “gather” and “bé,” the word for “peace.” The djembe means to gather
in the name of peace. The music of the djembe represents harmony and unity.

The strongest energy other than gratitude that emanates from Bill Scheidt is a
reverence and respect for the djembe drum, its music, and especially his Master,
Mamady Keïta. I was immediately fascinated by the use of a term such as
“Master.” Other than Freemasonry, the term is rarely used in modern language.
Since the drum originates in the first millennium A.D., perhaps it is apropos of the
incredible history of the djembe that one who has become adept at playing it is
considered and addressed as “Master.”   

Mamady Keïta is the modern day djembe equivalent of Bob Marley or the Beatles. He is a living legend revered by all who play the djembe. He is the teacher who developed Bill Scheidt into the djembefola he is today. Tam Tam Mandigue Djembe Academy was started by Keïta and he personally chose Bill Scheidt to be a part of it. I surmise that the great respect of
drummer and Master is mutual.

Keïta’s background story is fascinating and pertinent to understanding the
beautiful harmony of the djembe drum and how it has influenced Scheidt. Keïta
was born into a small West African village with no running water, no electricity,
and no roads. His siblings still live in the community as subsistence farmers.
Through mastering the djembe, he has travelled the world, become multilingual,
and started Tam Tam Mandigue Djembe Academies all over the world. He has
quite literally lit thousands of musical flames with the rhythm and glow of his
djembe candle.

My initial question to Bill was how does a Caucasian youth from the United States
become a certified teacher of a West African drum that has been used for
centuries? That answer in itself was simple. When he was 16 years old, Bill got
his first drum set. As a college student attending Berklee College of Music in
California, he took his first trip to Africa at 21 years of age. It was there that he
first encountered the djembe. As an avid percussionist, his love of the djembe
was instant and strong.     

Bill spent a year and a half living in Africa teaching English. He became proficient in Swahili and French. He started learning the history of the drum and eventually started following Mamady Keïta. As they built a rapport and Bill expressed the desire to learn more, Keïta tested him and continually questioned his reason for wanting to become a certified teacher. Scheidt’s response was that the djembe “is such a gift and I want to pay it
forward.” This answer did not satiate Keïta. He needed to know that the proper
respect and reverence were alive in Scheidt’s pursuit.

It is safe to say that Keïta identified the recipe for a successful djembe teacher in
Bill Scheidt. He became a certified in 2005 and the Tam Tam Mandigue Djembe
Academy opened in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 2006.

The transformative magic and spirit of the djembe is life-changing to the students
who get the privilege to experience its rhythm. The Tam Tam Mandigue team take
drums into inner-city schools and teach the students to play. In the truest
essence of the words harmony and peace, the drums bring the students together.
Bill shared with me that some students who may not thrive academically show an
outstanding proclivity to thrive when playing the djembe. The rhythm seems to
touch the spirits of children considered high-risk or problematic.

Along with bringing the djembe to schools, Bill Scheidt is also Director of Sewa
Beats. Sewa Beats takes the same djembe drum that unites African villagers and
American youth and teaches the employees of corporations how to play the
djembe. Sewa Beats provides an experiential and interactive team-building
program that helps businesses facilitate communication and leadership as well
as relaxation and stress reduction. They have created programs for Coca-Cola,
Harvard Business School, Nestlé, and Procter and Gamble.

At 41 years of age, the boy who was inspired by the djembe is now the man who has
become a djembe master in his own right. Scheidt has also become a father,
husband, and mentor to those who are attracted to the spirit of the djembe.

I cannot express eloquently enough the energy that this man holds in his voice,
his drumming, and his spirit. When I asked him what the driving force behind his
life and career is, Scheidt answered quickly and succinctly. He told me that he
constantly asks himself “How have I been of service to others?” It is clear that
his service to humanity is beautiful and kind. At the end of the day, Bill Scheidt is
making this world a better place one heartbeat and djembe beat at a time.

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