The sound of the tama, or the talking drum, is instantly recognizable. With its remarkable capacity to mimic human speech, the drum acted as a messenger of sorts in African cultures, used to announce cornerstone events and news across villages.
On the soundtrack for Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther,” the esteemed drum supplied “the sound of the king” of the fictional land Wakanda, according to composer Ludwig Göransson. A union of an 808 and a talking drum’s imitation of the king’s name, “T’Challa,” the royal musical motif punctuated the film’s score — and, on the night of March 24, the San Francisco Symphony merged with the king’s sound.
Before the symphony mesmerized its audience with the soundtrack to “Black Panther,” Davies Symphony Hall filled with applause at conductor Anthony Parnther’s brief but witty introduction. “This is not a trip to the DMV,” Parnther declared to chuckles.
After poking fun at Marin County to uproarious laughter, the conductor introduced the night’s special guest: talking drum master Massamba Diop, whose drumming appears on both “Black Panther” soundtracks. Clad in neon orange robes, the musician appeared on stage to wild applause, rhythmically hitting the tama strewn over his left shoulder. Its sound reverberated throughout the hall, its hollow tone commanding.
The lights soon dimmed, and “Black Panther” sprung to life on screen, telling the story of superhero T’Challa (or Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) in his rise to the Wakandan throne. It wasn’t long until the Bay Area audience erupted when “Oakland: 1992” flashed across the screen. The rush of the Marvel opening theme soon garnered much excitement, its stirring sequence accentuated by speedy strings and cymbal crashes. Throughout the night, the audience’s heightened enthusiasm and participation made for a particularly bright ambience.
The event felt accessible, community-focused and, in turn, joyful. The symphony’s customary formality — which can perhaps be somewhat rigid, though still always tinged with warmth — melted with Parnther’s lighthearted introduction and Diop’s special entrance. Flurries of cheers followed each lead actor’s first appearance, especially that of the late Chadwick Boseman and Stan Lee, and some spirited crowd members wore themed attire or costumes.
It might come as a surprise for some that a classical orchestra tackled the “Black Panther” soundtrack, which is smoothly governed by hip hop and traditional African musical influences. But horns oscillated with trap hi-hats; string runs bled alongside crisp synths; woodwind whistles intertwined with hard-hitting, rhythmic snares — all punctuated by Diop’s vibrant drumming. Tradition and modernity coalesced, and though mallets hovered and bows patiently steadied at times, the SF Symphony brought its full vigor to the film’s high-octane score.
While the evening in its entirety was mirthful and gratifying, it’s no question that Diop was the highlight of the event. His prowess was hypnotic; as he faced the audience front and center beside Parnther’s rostrum, he and the symphony competed with the film for the crowd’s attention.
When Diop struck his tama, he often stood up and shouted upon impact, his body’s kinetic energy seemingly amplifying the instrument’s resonant effect. The talking drum’s distinct timbre echoed throughout Davies Symphony Hall, riddling the film with texture and ardor. Even during the movie’s quieter parts when his hand was resting, Diop’s knee bounced with rhythm.
In return for the lively musical spectacle, the audience rewarded the SF Symphony, Diop and Parnther with a well-deserved standing ovation as the credits passed by to SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s “All The Stars.” But the night wasn’t quite over — after all the performers left the stage and attendees checked for jackets and purses, Diop returned as a welcome surprise.
Following another vigorous drumming solo, Diop expertly led a lengthy clapping call and response with his enthralled audience. Under Diop’s precise and convivial control, everyone was intently focused; everyone was together. The final round of applause gave way to Diop crouching at the edge of the stage, giving fist bumps or taking photos with audience members rising from their seats.
Symphony performances tend to be clearly bookended: start, end, performer, viewer. Yet Diop’s direct engagement with the audience felt like breaking a fourth wall, a reminder to everyone of what music is about: community.