Papa Ladji Camara

As the third child of Fanyuma Mamadi and Baleia Camara, Papa Ladji Camara was

destined to become a great djembe drummer. Papa Ladji Camara was born

June 15, 1923, in Norassoba, Guinea, West Africa. Papa’s fate was

revealed to his parents by his maternal grandfather before he ever

entered this world. His grandfather said that through the great

sacrifices his family will have to endure, this third child would become

one of the greatest drummers this world would ever know. His gift will

take him from his native Guinea to Mali, Senegal, Europe, and America

and in fact, throughout the world.

In 1939 at the tender age of 16, under the direction of Keita Fodeba,

Ladji Camara performed with Les Ballets Africans in Paris (Keita Fodeba

started this multicultural company, consisting of members from France,

Haiti and Martinique). After touring with this Company for 7 years and recording an album,

Papa returned to Senegal.

In 1953, Les Ballets Africans de Keita Fodeba arrived to tour in Dakar

and Papa Ladji was recommended to join them. With this company, Ladji

had the opportunity to once again come to the United States. At a

gathering one evening after a successful performance, Ladji discovered

the lack of knowledge of African culture amongst the many guests. At

that moment, Papa Ladji Camara’s destiny for the United States became

clear.

In 1958, Papa appeared in a film with Les Ballets Africans in Rome,

Italy. Papa Ladji toured with the National Ballet de Republic of Guinea

(formally Lest Ballets African de Keita Fodeba (the name changed after

the Independence of Guinea in 1958) in May of 1960, which gain took him

to the United States, Canada and Europe.

Upon his return to Senegal in 1962, Papa took a spouse. Papa appeared

in a film called “Libertie.” Ladji performed with the Ballet Negro Dance

Company in Senegal.

In January 1959, Ladji met the legendary drummer Chief Bey. Chief Bey

was his first African-American brother. After performing, Papa Ladji

would meet Chief Bey at the “African Room” at 44th Street and 7th Avenue

in Manhattan, New York City. Papa would perform with Chief Bey until at

least 4 or 5 in the morning. Papa told Chief Bey that one day his

daughter Denise (Chief Bey’s daughter) will dance in his company. When

Papa Ladji stated his dance company in the Bronx, Denise Bey was one of

his first students. Denise Bey was also helpful with the introduction of

African hairdress with Papa’s wife.

In 1959, Papa Ladji met Charles Moore. Before the Independence of

Guinea, Charles went to the Embassy of Guinea to request a visa to visit

the country to study the African dance. He was denied. Upon meeting

Ladji again in 1962, Charles Moore and Ladji performed in schools,

libraries and museums in New York and New Jersey.

Upon returning to the United States, Ladji was invited to perform with the

Bamboise Dance Company in Hollywood, California with Katherine Dunham.

This multi-racial company (consisting of members from the U.S., Morocco

and Africa) was part of Ladji’s dream of the unification of cultures.

From 1963 to 1971, Papa performed with the legendary Baba Olatunji. In

addition, Ladji worked with Pearl Primus and the Constance Santi Dance

Company (Haitian Company).

Between 1965 and 1966 Papa performed with the legendary Jazz master

Yusef Lateef.

In 1966 Papa performed and taught Master class dance and drumming at Nan

Dinzulu. He continued to work with Dinzulu until 1990.

In 1969, Papa performed with the Nilo Tandra Dance Company at the Hotel

Liboria on 47th Street in New York. Mongo Santamaria was amongst the

many musicians that performed with Ladji.

In 1971, Papa opened his African drumming and dance studio, the Ladji

Camara African Dance Studio, located in the Bronx,

NY. His spouse, the late Aminata Camara, introduced African hair

braiding and hair design, food and attire to the community. This studio

was created as an opportunity for everyone to experience the African

culture. The Ladji Camara Dance Company performed at the Kennedy Center in

Boston in March 1971.

Papa also performed with Nina Simone in 1972, Art Blakey and the Jazz

Messengers in 1973 and Alvin Ailey in 1974.

The dream of Ladji’s grandfather was coming full circle. As the third

child of Fanyuma Mamadi and Baleia Camara, Papa Ladji Camara is a

Messenger for the African People. He always believed “We are all

family and he is Papa.” “All races can become unified through African

Culture.” His life is a testimony to one of his favorite credos:

“African People for Americans, and American People for Africans.”

Many thanks to

Andy Wasserman

for this article.

Papa Ladji Camara can be contacted through

[email protected]

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