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The Ocean Spirit Mami Wata Takes Many Faces

Also: Traveling to Africa with the musician Bela Fleck to learn about the roots of the banjo. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. This week we travel to Africa with the banjo player Bela Fleck. We hear music from his latest album, "Throw Down Your Heart," and discuss a movie about his trip to Africa.

But first, we go to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., to see an exhibit about an ocean goddess.



She is part woman and part fish. She carries snakes with her and brings good luck in the form of money. She is sensual, beautiful, and protective, yet sometimes dangerous. Her name is Mami Wata. Faith Lapidus tells us about her.


Mami Wata is pidgin English for "Mother Water." Since the fifteenth century, the water spirit Mami Wata has taken many forms and names. She appears in different cultures throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. She is a very popular subject for artists.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., currently has a show that honors Mami Wata's many faces. The exhibit shows how cultural influences and spirituality change and grow throughout history.

One of the first works in this exhibit was made in the nineteen fifties by the Ovimbundu people of Angola. This expressive wooden sculpture is of a woman with a lower body like a fish. The woman raises her left hand as though she wants to tell you something.

Nearby, a sculpture from the same period by an artist in Nigeria shows a woman holding a snake in her hands. Another snake wraps around her body. This sculpture was probably the center of a religious offering table.

There is also a wooden headpiece worn in water spirit ceremonies by people in Guinea-Bissau. It is shaped like a huge shark fin. It is cut with forms of colorful sea creatures swimming with humans.

African slaves who settled in the Caribbean and South America brought with them beliefs linked to Mami Wata. These beliefs grew into other traditions. In Haiti, she is known as . Her influence can be seen in a shiny flag by the Haitian artist Roudy Azor. It shows three women sharing one fish tail body.

In the Bahia area of Brazil, this water spirit takes the form of Yemanja. In February, people honor Yemanja, the Queen of the Ocean, with offerings they place in small boats in the water. When the small boats sink, it is believed she has received their presents. Brazilians pray to her for love, support and protection.

And, in the Dominican Republic, Mami Wata takes the form of Santa Marta la Dominadora or "The Dominator." She is known for her special powers in helping people with relationships. Visitors to the exhibit can see a special religious area set up to honor this saint.

The last part of the exhibit shows Mami Wata's influence in modern art. The African-American artist Alison Saar gives her a new look in a flat metal sculpture hanging on the wall. In this version, Mami Wata is a woman with a snake wrapped around her. She is wearing nothing but red shoes with high heels.



Bela Fleck is widely considered one of the most important banjo players in the world. He is famous for his many bluegrass and jazz influenced recordings. His most recent album is called "Throw Down Your Heart." It is his third recording in a series called "Tales from the Acoustic Planet." Barbara Klein has more.


Bela Fleck's goal with this album was to explore the African roots of the banjo. He says many Americans mistakenly think the banjo came from rural areas of the southern United States. So, in two thousand five, Fleck went to Africa to learn from musicians there. His trip resulted in an album and movie, also called "Throw Down Your Heart." In the movie, you can see Bela Fleck playing with musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali.

WALUSIMBI: "What he wanted was to bring the banjo back to Africa. It would be possible for the banjo to come back and play with its old folks."

The movie shows how important music is within communities in Africa. Music is not only for special events. It is part of everyday life for men, women and children. Bela Fleck could not talk with many of the musicians you see in the movie because they did not know each other's language. But they were able to communicate very clearly with music.

Here is playing with a group of women from a small village in Uganda.

(MUSIC: "Tulinesangala")

In Tanzania, Fleck plays with musicians including Anania Ngoliga. He is a master of the thumb piano, which you can hear in this recording.

(MUSIC: "Kabibi")

While in Tanzania, Fleck visits a beach where centuries ago enslaved Africans were led to ships that would carry them to other countries.

JOHN KITIME: "This town's called Bagamoyo, Bagamoyo means 'throw down your heart.' Bwaga means throw. Heart, moyo is heart. Because this is where slaves from the mainland would come for transportation."

The musician John Kitime explains that the slaves knew that they were not going to see their homes again. So it was time to "throw down their hearts" before leaving. The Africans on these ships brought the instruments to America that would later evolve into the banjo.

While traveling, Bela Fleck discovered many of the banjo's ancestors.

BELA FLECK: "West Africa is where you really see things like banjos; East Africa, not so much. But in West Africa, you have the halum, the ngoni, the akonting ... "

In the Gambia, Fleck met with the Jatta family of musicians. They play an instrument called the akonting. The akonting has three strings, while the banjo Bela Fleck plays here with the Jattas has five.

(MUSIC: "Ajula/Mbamba")

Bela Fleck plays with popular musicians in small villages. He also plays with some of the biggest names in African music. Here he performs "Miriam" with the Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.


We leave you with Bela Fleck performing with the famous Malian singer Oumou Sangare. This beautiful song tells about a songbird crying out into the forest. Mizz Sangare asks people to remember those who are poor, powerless and without hope.

(MUSIC: "Djorolen")


I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today.

It was written and produced by Dana Demange. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to

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