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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Cover Story

Monette Marino: Master Class in Percussion

by Wayne RikerApril 2024

Monette Marino. Photo by Sheryl Aronson.

“Monette Marino is a world class percussionist. She has traveled to Africa and the world studying the art, mastering Djembe, Congas, Bongos, Dunun, and many other percussion instruments. A lethal combination of beauty, talent, personality, and character are the traits that make her the ultimate professional musician and an awesome human being.” These are the words from Kevin Cooper, Marino’s long standing bass player in her group, “Monette Marino Keita.” It’s a perfect depiction of Marino’s circuitous musical and life’s journey.

Monette’s musical journey commenced after her family moved from her childhood home in the California town of Alpine after her parents’ divorce when she was seven years old. In the aftermath, her parents chose to live close to each other in the Del Mar community. “It was always a very communal feeling in our family,” she described, “as our parents made good about the children as the main priority.”

Recording at Studio West. Photo by Steve Covault.

Her musical sojourn began at age eight when her dad, James, a professional drummer, taught her the basics on a full trap set. “My dad had a drum set in the garage and I would rock out with my headphones along to a record player. He taught me the basics, including the drum intro and beat for “Honky Tonk Woman.” I practiced regularly all through high school on that drum set in the garage,” she continued. “I was never in the high school band at Torrey Pines High, so many of my friends didn’t know I played drums…it was something I did for my own personal pleasure.”

One day when Marino was 15, she spotted conga drums that her dad had among his array of percussion instruments. “I asked him to teach me how to play them,” she described. “My dad was self taught, but he was able to teach me the basic hand-over-hand Salsa based rhythms.”

While attending San Diego State she made her debut public performance in 1987. “A band I had been jamming with, Sonic Barbeque, asked me to join them at a show they were billed as an opening act at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. I joined them for one song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’” she concluded.

The following year, in 1988, wanting more of an academic challenge, she transferred to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. “I enrolled in an independent study class in percussion; however, the teacher really didn’t know how to play percussion.” After a year in Spokane Marino decided to transfer to UCLA in Los Angeles. “My decision was heavily based on the cold weather and because Spokane was not culturally what I was interested in,” she surmised.

Marino once again enrolled in a percussion class during her two quarters stay at UCLA. “I had bought a pair of conga drums at that point and showed up at a West African drum class taught by Leon Mobley, who tours with Ben Harper.” During that class she spotted a djembe, a drum played by West Africans for generations, a rope-tuned, skin-covered drum that’s played with bare hands and produces a wide variety of sounds. Marino described her first visual encounter with that drum, which would play a significant role in her future career. “It was the first time I saw a djembe drum. It was so cool looking with all the hair hanging over the edge with ropes tied, very different from congas.”


Monette with Atomic Groove.

After her brief stay at UCLA, she transferred in 1990 to UCSD in San Diego where she wound up taking a Tongan drum class with Semisi Ma’u. “I told him I played percussion, so we had a great connection from the get-go,” Marino exuded. “I was the star student in the Tongan drum section and learned quickly when he said I should come sit in with his band at the First Street Bar in Encinitas. I was nervous when he said no rehearsals, but it went great; he loved my playing and wound up calling me often to play gigs with him. That experience was literally the beginning of my professional career. Between Semisi and my dad I got an incredible experience of learning how to listen and be in the flow.”

It was during her time at UCSD that propelled her professional career as she detailed. “A few things happened there that really expanded my musical horizons, especially exposing me to different types of music, one being Korean music. During a one-week residency I got to play the changgo drum, which has its origin in the Shaman tradition in Korea. Myself and two other students got invited to perform in South Korea,” she said. “After that my mind started to expand to the world of percussion and the depth of the cultural connection that drumming has.” 

In 1994, a year prior to her Korean experience, she met Meeshi Anjali, who became her boyfriend and introduced her to the world of real Afro-Cuban music and dance. “I started to do more of these folkloric classes, in addition to attending a two-week camp in Tijuana to study with Cuban drummers and dancers. All of a sudden I’m now dancing and singing Cuban folkloric songs while learning all these various conga patterns. All of it is connected to culture and life and spiritual expression,” she concluded.

Additionally, 1994 was when Marino met Yaya Diallo, an internationally acclaimed drummer from Mali, West Africa, who came to perform at UCSD. “That’s when I became more interested in djembe playing, specifically,” she stated. “He gave me lots of historical information and is well known for his book called The Healing Drum. I then sponsored him to come to San Diego to teach workshops, which eventually led to forming a nonprofit organization, Baraka International Arts. It was very popular,” she said. “We had membership cards and a board of directors. I then communicated with all the teachers in town that were doing African, Brazilian, and Cuban drum and dance music, which led to collective student shows that we held mostly at the Sushi Gallery. It was a very rich and beautiful time,” she continued. “Students were passionate about learning about these other cultures.”


Photo by Michael Oletta.

By 1996 the buzz about Baraka International Arts was traveling fast and caught the attention of West African djembe master Mamady Keita. “I knew this guy was the real deal,” Marino explained, “so when I got the call to host a workshop with him, I immediately said yes. He arrived here in San Diego in September of 1996 and I had an incredible experience learning from him. When he mentioned he was teaching at a camp in Guinea, I was determined to go there to partake in that experience,” she exclaimed. “It was a three-week camp between December ’96 and January ’97,” she recollected. 

At this juncture Marino was transitioning into being a full-time musician by earning income through teaching drum classes and being hired by local bands for gigs. In the meantime, she had decided that she wanted Keita to be her djembe master upon her second trip to Guinea. “He said yes,” Marino exuded, “which led to me setting up tours to different U.S. cities when he would arrive here each September.” Upon Marino’s subsequent trip to Guinea in 1999, Keita gave her a certificate from the school he started in Belgium, called Tam Tam Mandingue. “It was his way of giving me permission to open a branch of Tam Tam Mandingue to teach what I learned from him,” she explained. “And so I opened up Tam Tam Mandingue in San Diego and started teaching djembe classes.” 

As her annual trips to Guinea to study with Keita continued, it was in 2003 that Keita wanted to come and stay in San Diego after he had recently separated from his wife. “That was the beginning of the next phase of our relationship,” Marino explained. “It was risky as I had everything to lose in a personal relationship if it didn’t work out, as I would lose my master teacher and partner. It turned out to be amazing at the time as we initially held a camp outside of Los Angeles where 50 students from around the world attended. That set us off into an international journey of similar settings.”

In June of 2005 Keita suffered a severe heart attack during their tour. During his rehabilitation that year, she and Keita decided to get married as Marino mentioned. “Little by little I figured out ways to help him be able to work, which wouldn’t jeopardize his health as we continued on our path to teaching and traveling internationally.” In 2006, Marino got pregnant and gave birth to their daughter, Nasira, in May of 2007. “Ten months after she was born,” Marino described, “we packed up our house, put it into storage, and continued to travel the world and teach until Nasira reached the age of three at which time we decided I would stay in San Diego so my daughter could be more connected to one locale and start school as well while he would continue to tour abroad.”

Because of the newly created distance in the family, Marino reflected back on her eventual divorce in 2012. “Our relationship grew apart in those years of distance, so suddenly I became a full-time sole caregiver in addition to having the personal contact with thousands of djembe players we met around the world ripped apart.” At that point Marino faced the reality that many musicians fear the most…getting a day job. “I was fortunate to join my mom’s firm at Merrill Lynch. She was a longtime broker there and one of the first woman managers in that industry…she taught me everything she knew, and I love what I’m doing in the corporate world as I coexist in both worlds now equally.”


Monette with her daughter, Nasira, in concert.

Nasira, who will be 17 next month, got to have life experiences that few her age may never have in their lifetime. “She’s been around the world, over 20 countries in all, always being around drumming,” Marino reflected back. “She grew up listening to the language of djembe. She’s lucky because drumming is a language. I used to walk hand and hand with her, in step, singing rhythms to the time of our step. When she was three years old, she would come over to my drum set and grab the sticks out of my hand and have no problem doing a basic drumbeat. She started coming with me to the classes I was teaching and at five years old I had her accompany me on the dunun drum, which accompanies the djembe drum.” Flash forward to the present and the tradition continues. “We just got booked for workshops in Spain this year on Labor Day weekend where we both will be performing and teaching. Last summer we went to Ireland and England and performed duets. It’s just a beautiful thing to see,” Marino said. “She’s carrying a large legacy; she’s the daughter of probably the most famous djembe player, her dad.” Mother and daughter are now carrying on the tradition that came from Mamady Keita who passed away in 2021. “He entrusted me with that mission to carry on his culture, to talk about it and show the beauty in it,” Marino concluded.


The teacher and her class.

In addition to her continuing day job, Marino is proud of her now 30 years of teaching percussion, which has led to her Mo’Rhythm School of Percussion, with a 2015 release of her African iOS app for djembe and dunun playing, along with her own YouTube channel that people can subscribe to. (for more info: “My job in teaching the djembe drum,” Marino explained, “is to have them experience the depth of this culture and how it affects us when we all come together, playing with a purpose in unison and listening to each other, while communicating with the dancers and other drummers.”    

Marino has been a fixture in the San Diego music scene as many bands and musical artists call on her to provide percussion for their live gigs, recordings, and special events. She shares some insight into being a woman in the biz. “If I’m a role model to other women in the music business who see that I can succeed and make a living and inspire other women to play music that touches their souls, that makes me happy; that’s all I need for fulfillment.”

Marino, taking part in the Women in Jazz concert at Park & Market, October 2023.With Whitney Shay, Allison Adams Tucker, Jamie Shadowlight, Melonie Grinnell, Evona Wascinski, Lorraine Hussy, Laurel Grinnell, Monette Marino.

On that note, Marino has been part of an esteemed lineup of women for the local “Women in Jazz” series, which has included flute virtuoso Lori Bell. “I had the good fortune to play several concerts with Monette last year with our Women in Jazz group,” Bell stated. “She’s a wonderful percussionist and has a deep knowledge of African drumming. She learned all our charts by ear and played beautifully.”

Vocalist Allison Adams Tucker, also part of the “Women in Jazz” series chimed in as well. “Monette is a force of power and sunshine! Some musicians have a signature ‘stink face’ when they’re playing hard in the spotlight; Monette’s signature face is that huge smile that is contagious. It is always an inspiration to be in her midst, and she ignites the room with her rhythmic fervor and joie de vivre. In addition to being a master percussionist, I admire her as an accomplished composer, well-respected bandleader, international educator, compassionate humanitarian, kick-ass mom, and loyal friend. It has been a great honor to share the stage with her through the years, and an even greater one to call her friend.”

The popular corporate band, “Atomic Groove,” has hired Marino on a regular basis since the late 1990s, especially for the popular Friday night happy hour gigs at the Belly Up Tavern. “They are the most fun band,” Marino exclaimed, “I absolutely love what they do with this band, a fun, joyful, uplifting experience.” Atomic Groove guitarist Doug Booth has worked on and off with Marino over the past 30 years, added his praises. “Monette is amazing. She has it all as a musician and performer. Besides being a multi-award-winning percussionist who truly dazzles audiences, Monette is incredibly fun to perform with. She has a constant smile on her face and is an energetic performer, which is infectious to the audience and the other musicians on stage…if you haven’t seen Monette Marino perform, you should.”

Guitarist Patrick Yandell shared his thoughts on first hiring Marino. “I was one of the first recording artists to hire her for an important gig. It was the KIFM Jazz series. She stole the show!! She was incredible way back then, and I knew she was special! Incredibly talented, professional, and one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet!” 

Marino has worked often with guitarist Peter Sprague as well, who sings her praises. ““If ever there was such a thing as the perfect blend of solid technique and joyous vibes,” Sprague proclaimed, “Monette is certainly living that harmonious dance. She’s killing the groove and smiling all the way through it. We’ve played many gigs together and she’s one of my absolute favorites.”

Multi-instrumentalist and pop vocalist icon, Jonny Tarr, has featured Marino in his band’s lineup often. “I’m lucky enough to know Monette very well,” Tarr said. “I have been playing with her for over ten years now and she has become part of my family. When she is playing percussion in my band, she makes the music twice as good as it would be without her. She is a sheer joy to share a stage with. Her knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms is unparalleled. She really is one of the most special people I have ever met and one of the most down to earth and level-headed people, too. It is an honor to know her. She is fearless.”

Guitarist Larry Mitchell, who was a mentor to Marino—and violinist Jamie Shadowlight as the two women were starting their professional careers in the 1990s—has had Marino record on his CDs as well as being guitarist for Marino’s band, weighed in on her musical presence. “Monette is a wonderfully skilled, hard-working, and extremely musical percussionist, one of the best I have come across. Her joy for music bursts through with that smile as she plays ridiculously beautiful rhythms. It’s always a joy playing with her since we crossed paths in 1997.”

Beautiful Monette in 2015. Photo by Manuel Cruces Camberos.

Marino has fronted her own band as well, billed as the Monette Marino Keita Band, performing two to five shows a year of her original instrumental tunes, including an annual concert at the Anaheim NAMM show. The band recorded one album back in 2010, Coup d’Eclat, with Allan Phillips as co-producer and arranger of all of her songs. “I sent Allan GarageBand sketches of my songs and talked to him about my vision for the album,” Marino said. “He understood what I was trying to achieve in blending together different genres of music…now he’s my musical director as well.”

Quite the superwoman in her musical and life’s journey, Marino has accomplished an abundance of joys and satisfaction as a mother, musician, and especially as a teacher, spreading the cultural message of the djembe drum to the many students who are introduced to a whole new realm of percussion.   

“I’ve really been blessed to have worked with so many incredible musicians and wonderful students here in San Diego. It’s been a long and beautiful journey!”


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