Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Video #16 - Jola Redux, Group Fogni at Just 4 You, Dakar

Second day of this fever which has kind of rendered me a bit useless during the day. Unfortunate, as my time here is short. Back to New York tomorrow night... wow wow! Despite feeling under the weather, I could not pass up the opportunity to go and hear Group Fogni last night at Just 4 You. You guessed it; group name not highlighted because I can't find any web info about them. Bummer. I'll fill in what I can.

Group Fogni seems to have a revolving cast of members as I've seen there videos on Senegalese and Gambian tv and only recognized a few of the folks playing last night from the videos. But no matter; this was the real deal. My last day in Gambia 02-03 I bought a pile of cassetes because I wanted to hear some of the high-life (westernized music). I'd been in so deep with the traditional drumming that I hadn't checked out any high-life in two months. Not so this time, as I've led something of a double life. Traditional drums by day, m'balax by night, etc. One of the cassettes I happened to pick up was by Group Fogni and they blew me away.

They are Jolas (see previous posts for info about Jola culture), so their sources for creating high-life are different than Wolof m'balax or Mandinka/Bambara afro-manding. The drummer was killing; the patterns he played are totally different than anything else I've heard here. Its fitting that I caught these guys towards the end of my time here; they played a few weeks ago while I was in Gambia, so I'd been waiting for this day for awhile now. They did not disappoint. One critique, though, that extends beyond Group Fogni to all the high-life music I've heard these five weeks. Take it easy on the synthesizers, people! At what point did horns become unfashionable and extraneous in this part of the world? If you listen to high-life before the 80s, horns are all over these groups, usually wonderfully out-of-tune. But every band that I've heard in a month (around fifteen groups) has at least one synth, in Group fogni's case two! I can deal with synths if deployed carefully, but to a fault every example here seems to be of the reverb-drenched, island-(un)cool variety. Why folks? Perhaps because its easier to have a synth player cover three horn parts? Perhaps because people here genuinely think it sounds hipper than horns? I'm at a loss.... oh well, nonethless, enjoy Group Fogni's burning rhythms and killer vocalist/dancers!

Monday, March 26, 2007


Taking it easy tonight and did much of today as I have a little bit of a flu. Eating meals out of one big bowl certainly contributes, and Willow and Souley's 1-and-a-bit-year-old son Lamin's too cute to not hang with, so when he has a little flu, he passes it on. So it goes. All in all, my health has been pretty ok these five weeks in Africa. Couple days of things running freely as it were, but overall not too bad.

Just finished a nice book by Andre Dubus III called Bluesman from 1993. Dubus III is best known for 1999's heartbraking The House of Sand and Fog. Bluesman prefigures some of the desperation and inevitability that one gets reading ...Fog. As the main character Leo begins to play blues harmonica alongside his father and uncle who he's watched and listened to for years, the more difficult and complicated his life becomes. Not an earthshaking read, but enjoyable nonetheless. ...Fog is more fully realized than Bluesman; its a beautiful, deeply tragic book, and its interesting to see the author at an earlier stage in his career working out themes he'll explore more fully six years later.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Video # 15 - Jola Bougarabou, at last

Now that was a full day. Started around 11am with a trip to the Cite des Arts, a bunch of artists' workshops and galleries. There seemed to be one main gallery open and everything else looked like people's work spaces. Maybe it was so mellow because it was a Sunday. The majority of work shown in the gallery was by an artist named Moussa Mbaye. Scroll down this link to see an example of his work and get a little info. Very beautiful collage paintings.

After the Cite des Arts, I took a cab to the Village Artisanel, not far from my sabar tacher's Medina neighborhood. Even though my friend/Willow's brother-in-law Mohammed confirmed for me before I went that it was mostly kitschy touristy stuff, I figured I may as well have a look. It was pretty kitschy, and pretty sleepy (again, the Sunday afternoon thing, I think). I didn't last too long there and decided to walk through Medina looking for a traditional music program that would be happening informally somewhere in that neighborhood.

This was around 2pm, so I was a little early. Programs don't really get going (at least when there are drummers involved) until it cools off in the late afternoon. Eventually I found my way to Rue 22, Angle 23, the cross-streets where the Sing Sing Rhythm compound is. Was glad to find it, because it was some indication that I could find my way around ok after a month. And good timing, as I found my teacher Malick there and picked up my m'bung m'bung, which sounds fantastic. I look forward to getting to it in New York when I get back. Interesting, as great as its been with Malick, he showed his youth this weekend. I asked him about getting together for a couple more lessons before I split, and he said that he's busy rehearsing for a big program with the Sing Sing Seniors (or maybe another other group; wasn't clear) and therefore wasn't going to have time to teach any more lessons. But then I find him at home chilling, playing soccer with his younger brothers. I can understand when you work alot you need a break as well - and he's definitely busy with playing programs - but at the same time he could use the bread, and its not such demanding work to spend an hour or two with me. Oh well. I've been able to get a dozen lessons in, and its been very informative and a nice hang, so however the next few days go is fine with me. If I have more lesons with him before I split Thursday, cool, if not, cool.

Anyways, I got back to the house and had a late lunch with Khady Gueye and some ladies who work for the Sao family. One of them, Bintu, is a Jola, and mentioned there was a big Jola cultural celebration going in a park not too far away. She walked me over there (thanks Bintu!), and there it was, the first time I'd seen any traditional Jola music live. There was one Bougarabou drummer, a guy playing a huge krin, and somwhere between 600-900 people. The woman and girls circled the entire park with iron clappers in their hands, and the men and boys danced in the middle. It was a giant end-of-manhood training celebration. Bintu said that it happens every week, and its the last Sunday I'll be in Dakar. Bummer! All I can say is I feel very lucky to have seen this before I split. I only saw and studied Mandinka traditional drumming in 02-03 in Gambia, even though there are many Jolas there. And this whole 5 weeks I've seen and studied Wolof and Mandinka drumming; again no Jola. I'm a big fan of the bougarabou drums, and its intriguing that for Jolas only one person plays either a single bougarabou or a set of 4. Seeing a krin player today accompanying the bougarabou drummer was interesting, and unusual I think. Or at least no more usual than one man playing by himself.

African drum traditions almost always seem to be about an ensemble of drummers and percussionists playing together. Wolof and Mandinka drummers are from the artisan caste. There are no such class denominations in Jola society. Also, throughout the performance, a few people would take turns playing the bougarabou and krin, as its physically demanding and also (see the link Jola link above) because the implication is that no one person is so great that others can't share the burden. Fascinating to read abut Jola culture. I've met some Jolas, but not been to the areas of Gambia or Senegal (the Casamace region) where they live predominantly. There are many Jola in Dakar, too. I just didn't know. Another mystery begins to unravel. Wow wow (oh yeah), as the Wolof would say.

Video # 14 - Orchestra Baobab, Just 4 You, Dakar, 3.24.07

Last night I went to Just 4 You around midnight and Orchestra Baobab did, in fact, play, unlike last Saturday. They were fantastic. I heard them a little over a year ago while we both were playing at Adelaide Festival of Arts. Baobab has been around since the 1960s with varying lineups, and their audience seems to be mostly local adults and tourists of all ages. The Senegalese youngsters seem to prefer hiphop, the newest m'balax, etc. Oh well, their loss... thats stuff's cool, but these guys kill! All vibe.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Video # 13, Maison Des Esclaves, Goree

And now for a non-related music post:

Wow (means "yes" in Wolof by the way), Goree. That was a whirlwind afternoon. It took about twenty minutes on the boat over from the embarcadere. A much more functional system than the trip between Barra and Banjul in Gambia. No surprise, as Goree is a major tourist destination, a World Heritage site, while Barra-Banjul is a trip Gambians, Senegalese and other locals make every day, but not too many tourists. A classic example of non-existent infrastucture because it doesn't directly impact Western countries. Deep.

What a mix of emotions I felt on Goree today. On the one hand, deep sadness at how terrible a place this must have been for literally millions of people. On the other, indifference to and impatience with the tourist trade that exists there. Not that I should presume to say what should be happening on Goree and what shouldn't, but it felt strange, I must admit, to have a (somewhat) tasty pizza lunch in a bougainvillea-surrounded garden patio, browse poorly-made djembes, dunduns, and sabars, "generic" african batiks, cds and cassettes of m'balax stars, postcards, etc etc, in a place known as the "island of no return" because of its notorious part in the African slave trade.

I spent about 4 hours there in all. Its a very small island with no cars, a small community of 1500 who cater to the tourists, and thats about it. I will say that the old, pastel color buildings are incredibly beautiful. And the doors to these buildings, mostly compounds for the island residents but also various offices, museums, etc, are spectacular! Strangely, they reminded me of Amsterdam. I found myself taking pictures of the doors to these compounds on Goree the same way I do in Amsterdam. If I could just figure out how to post photos... when I do, I'll put up a door series. They're gorgeous!

La Maison des Esclaves is a rose-colored building with a ground floor of holding cells and a second floor museum with artifacts from the 16th-19th centuries. As a measure of my sink-or-swim French-speaking experience here, I was pleased that I caught more of the French tour guide's very insightful comments than I thought I would. Just goes to show ya, the only real way to (re)learn a language is to be forced to speak it consistently. Just a month and I fumble much less than when I got here. Amazing.

I include a video here of me walking through the ground floor of holding rooms briefly. I do so with mixed emotions because this place and this topic is more serious, more sensitive than any musical endeavors could ever be. I don't mind up-loading short video clips of inspiring musical moments. Its a pleasure to do, actually, because it gives exposure to rich musical worlds here. But I don't believe a 2-minute short video can begin to convey the weight that one feels here, the tragedy that happened on Goree, the injustices that were perpetrated over centuries. Comments and perspectives encouraged.

BTW, disturbingly but not surprisingly, when Bush visited Goree in 2003 the island residents were taken from their home and cordoned off on a football field for the six hours Bush was there speaking about . That didn't get much coverage in U.S. media, of course.

Video #12 - Yoro at Just 4 You, Dakar

Yet another totally killin' Senegalese mbalax group. Yoro and his group blended mbalax with r n b, reggae, ska, salsa, et al.
The guitarist was superhappening; for some reason I was reminded of Tim Young, guitarist from Wayne Horvitz's goups and tons of other Seattle and LA projects. Same kind of right-part-at-the-right-time tasteful playing. Shame I can't link to Yoro's website, but I can't find any info of him on the web! An endemic problem for African artists, thats for sure.

For a complete change of pace, I'm off to Goree as soon as this video uploads. It'll probably be the only touristy thing I do while in West Africa (no giraffe-sightings for this guy). But hey, its a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a place that I need to lay some eyes on. More to follow.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Video #11 - Sing Sing Juniors Progam, Dakar, Senegal 3.22.07

Here's some burning footage of my teacher (standing, playing the lead sabar drum, called n'der) and his brothers. These boys can play! This took place about 5 minutes walk from their compound where I've been taking my lessons. A baptism here takes place when the baby is a week old. A marabout (Muslim priest, or imam) whispers koranic verse in each ear of the baby first thing in the morning, then a whole lot of feasting and music-making goes on all day long. When we arrived to play at 4pm, they weren't quite ready for us, as there was a DJ blasting m'balax on some huge speakers. So we played along, the way many m'balax groups here have 5 sabar drummers as well as guitar, bass, drumset, etc, in the band.

People were perplexed and pleasantly suprised as I played along with the Sing Sing Juniors. I'm not ready to play programs with them, but playing along to records, no problem. If I was here for another few weeks of lessons, I'd be ready, but alas, I've got to get back. Its cool, though, because I'll be accompanying Babacar Mbaye's dance classes in Chelsea every Saturday that I'm in town. So i'll get to continue on with sabar in New York, which I'm looking forward to. This was the problem last time I came back from Africa. I was in LA, and didn't know any Mandinka drummers there, so I played as much as I could, taught what I knew to some students, but didn't have the chance to really build on what I'd learned. I'm a drumset player ultimately, so it all contributes to my concept, and I'm fine with that. The idea of spending a year in Brikama playing Mandinka drums has crossed my mind, and staying in Dakar for an exended period is attractive too, but ultimately my home base for now is New York and I'm enjoying working wth folks there too much to drop off the map as it were. Anyways, enjoy the Sing Sing Juniors!

Video #10 - Jalamang Camara playing his licks, Gambia

So here are my Mandinka drum teacher's hands that I've been raving about so much, up close and personal. I'm telling you, Roy Haynes meets Alan Dawson. He's playing some of his signature licks that he would play on the lead drum (sabaro) during the course of a program. As with so many traditional percussion traditions, the lead drummer is free to improvise on top of the support drums, and can decide when its time for a specific call to signal a change to a new rhythm. The drummers, the dancers, and, in truth, everyone at a program recognizes these calls. Because, as i keep emphasizing, they are literally language. So enjoy Mr. Jalamang Camara's elegant playing. And dig those one-hand, one-stick single stroke rolls!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Video #9 - Informal music making at Foday Musa Suso's compound, Gambia

Meant to post this one a ways back as well. A few weeks ago at my friend Suso's in Gambia one night some informal music-making went down with his son, daughter, wife, nephew, and family member tba. No particular reason except they felt like it. No audience, not a practice session, just a griot family playing Mandinka repertoire together for fun. Check my Tuesday March 13 post (scroll down to the Wednesday March 7 portion of that post) for more info.

Video # 8 -Daby, King of Fuladu and the Afro Manding Sound

This footage is from the Dakar nightclub Just 4 You a couple evenings ago. The band is called Daby, King of Fuladu, and they play whats called Afro Manding, which originated in Gambia actually. For a brief history of Afro Manding music and its most well-known champion Ifang Bondi, check here.

I recognized Daby's drummer, David Ndiaye, as Cheikh Lo's drummer from the other night. I went up and spoke with him afterwards and we had a nice rapport. He invited me over to his compound to exchange ideas so I spent yesterday at his place in the Banlieues section of Dakar on the outskirts of town. The traffic was terrible both ways but the hang was great. I brought the small kit I have here (snare, kick, hihat, crash), and he showed me m'balax and Afro Manding grooves, I showed him some swing, funk, and blues stuff. What a fruitful way to spend a day. The drumset concept here is completely different than in the West. It was so helpful to have someone break down what I've been hearing live for the last month. Its hard to pick out the drumset parts with all the sabar drums and tama wailing on top. Thanks David for a great exchange!

Video #7 - Mandinka Drumming program with P.A. I sent

Meant to post this earlier. The woman singing is called a kanyile (songleader). She's belting it out on the P.A. I sent my teachers almost a year ago. Instead of having to strain her voice and fight to be heard on top of a chous of sometimes hundreds of women, she can soar on top of them all with a mic. I meant to walk as far away as I could from the program to see how far you could actually hear this P.A. in the distance, but I was enjoying watching the proceedings too much to go anywhere. I was so happy to be able to send this to them. Took me awhile to get the extra bread together, but I finally managed it three years after my first visit. Its a killin' Fender Passport that no other group in Gambia has. Most of the high life band's have P.A.'s, or there are P.A's at the clubs they play at, but as with most of the electronics in West Africa, more often then not tweeters are blown, or it only works in mono, or it barely works at all, or etc etc. So for my teachers Jalamang and Mamady, a fully operational P.A. now makes them that much more in demand in Brikama than they already were. Glad to help get them more work. They deserve it! The irony is they play programs at so many compounds that don't have electricity that sometimes they cart the thing over (literally; their roadie pushes the P.A. and drums through town to the gig on a wheelbarrow!) and can't even use it.

In this clip Jalamang and Mamady are playing "Fere," the throwdown 4/4 funk in the repertoire. There's a couple other 4/4 rhythms, but this is the standard for every women's recreational program and maybe the least complicated rhythm in the repertoire (I better be careful what I write). As always, the kanyile sings songs associated with whichever piece the drummers are playing, and the chorus of women responds. When Jalamang senses that the energy level is rising, he amps up the drummers and ultimately the whole crowd with his whistle and off they go.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Video #6 - Sabar Kids

This is at my teacher's family compound. Check out the kid on the right!!!!!! That's my teacher's voice reciting sabar rhythms. The kid on the right is barely 3. When the family goes and plays concerts, the lead drum sits on a chair. The 3 yr old sits with it on the chair so it doesn't slide off. Talk about getting ideas drummed into your head! The kid on the left is older but doesn't have it as internalized because he was born in Gambia and has only been in Dakar hearing this stuff for a year or so. Incredible!

Video # 5 - Mbaye Dieye Faye and sundries

Here's a video of Mbaye Dieye Faye, one of the biggest mbalax stars in Senegal now. He's the lead drummer and backup singer in Youssou Ndour's band, but has his own project that's also very popular. The footage is from Sahel, a Dakar nightclub, about three weeks ago; I blogged about it March 1. Mbaye Dieye Faye is part of the Faye family, the same family that my teacher belongs to. As noted, the Faye's are one of the two major sabar families in Dakar (among many); Doudou Ndiaye Rose's family is the other. Check out the call and response between Mbaye and his drummers. Sabar rhythms are based on Wolof language, so it makes sense that he sings something (nonsense words in this case, actually), and the drummers play it back. Someone's beeen checking out James Brown.

Off to my ninth sabar lesson momentarily. My teacher hooked up an mbung mbung for me to buy. He got me the friend price rather than the tubab price by all acounts, which I appreciate. I've been helping him, he's been helping me, etc...

And speaking of a good price, bought some beautiful fabric in one of the markets this morning. Got a good price on it after some patience and visits to plenty of different market stalls. Mansour, the tailor at the Sao family's compound, made me two killer pairs of cotton/canvas pants with ever so slight an African flair. I learned my lesson this time around. Last time I was in Africa I bought a bunch of different shiny gorgeous fabrics that people wear here and had boubous (called chaftans in Gambia; two piece long smock and pants) made for family and friends. When I got back to North America one friend commented, "thanks so much but when I wear this thing I look like Bozo the Clown." Unfortunately, he was right. So this time, I'm going for more subtle colors for myself (again, with slight African flair here and there) and hunks of untailored, gorgeous fabric that people can use as table runners, table cloths, or whatever. Safer way to go, I think.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Video #4 - Mandinka Drumming pt. 2, "Especially Lenjen"

Monday morning here, breezy again. Last night I had a nice dinner of Lach (not as in loch ness, as in the hebrew/arabic "ch" sound), a hot porridge that the Sao family eats every Sunday night. They eat it with a cows milk yoghurt that is a bit sour to Western tastes, so I just went for a small amount of it. Thats the trick. Each time someone serves the yoghurt I have too much of it and can't hang. But last night I had just a small amount, and it worked out fine. Lesson learned.

Below please check out this video of my Mandinka drum teachers from Gambia playing their most "standard" tune, Lenjen. There are multiple parts to Lenjen, this is the part they called "especially lenjen." Its the shout chorus as it were, the rhythms that the women do their solo dance movements to. Jalamang Camara, my teacher, would normally be playing sabaro, the lead drum, but is playing kutirindingo ( the smallest of the three-drum ensemble) on the right of the screen. Mamady Danfa is on the left of the screen and is playing kutiriba, the deputy drum he always plays. Lenjen is a deeply elusive set of rhythms that I didn't master in my first two months attempting it in 2002-03. I actually finally started to get in the too-brief time spent with my teachers last week in Gambia (as I wrote earlier, seems like a dream!).

Chek out Jalamang's incredibly elegant playing. His small hands, as I've mentioned, are perfectly suited to these drums, and he plays with a mastery that is both relaxed and intense. Again, the Roy Haynes of Brikama! I've had the good fortune to play with Roy's son, cornetist/composer Graham Haynes a few times. I should give Graham some footage of Jalamang to give to his dad!

Video # 3 Cheikh Lo + sundries

An eventful Saturday has passed and I'm here on a breezy Sunday afternoon in Dakar. Waiting for Youtube to upload a video of Cheikh Lo from Pen'Art last night. Check it here:

My intention actually was to go hear Orchestra Baobab at Just 4 You. I went over there around midnight and talked my way inside without paying the cover since I've met the manager of Just 4 You a few times. It was packed with tons of tubabs as well as Senegalese people out on a saturday night. Orchestra Baobab is a Senegalese institution so their shows bring in tons of folks. I got there right as it was about to begin. The stage was set up, mics turned on, everything was ready to go. But no band. After about ten minutes someone got up and said into the microphone: "Mesdames et Messieurs, je suis desolee, mais Orchestra Baobab ne sont pas ici ce soir. La prochaine Samedi n'sha'allah." Translation: "Ladies and gentleman, I'm very sorry, but tonight Orchestra Baobab is not here. Next Saturday, god willing." Just like that, no Orchestra Baobab. Who really knows what happened, but whatever it was, it was beyond anyone's control. I decided to go around the corner and see who was playing at Pen'Art. Not a bad consolation to see Cheikh Lo. The only problem was lots of other people from Just 4 You had the same idea so it quickly became very packed in that small club. I lasted about 1 1/2 hours before the crowd got the best of me and I went home to crash. But not before getting a couple videos, glad to report. Cheikh Lo plays a mix of m'balax, salsa, reggae, r n'b, and pop. I wasn't into his timbale playing/bandleading too much (Tito Puente he is not), but he's got a great voice and a tight band. Particularly killin' tama (talking drum) player.

I was rinsed as well from going to hear my teachers group Sing Sing Juniors play a saturday program for young women in the late afternoon. As we were walking through the streets to his program, we went past a house where a baptism celebration was taking place. Sing Sing Seniors were the hired Sabar group. These are the older members of the Faye family, the serious badasses. Again, my teacher Malick and his young siblings are bad to be sure, but the older members of the family are that much more so. My only regret is that after two hours of a Sing Sing Juniors concert, my ears were oversaturatedso I only caught a little of the Sing Sing Seniors program. They were raging, but I was maxed out. I'll catch them with fresh ears another day, n'sha'allah.

Now, time for lunch then off to my 7th sabar lesson.

Video #2 - Wolof Sabar Drumming from Senegal

Here's a video from a program my teacher and his family group Sing Sing Juniors played in the Medina nieghborhood of Dakar a few weeks ago.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Video #1 - Mandinka drumming from Gambia

Here's a video of my teachers Jalamang Camara (sabaro, left on screen) and Mamady Danfa (kutiriba, back right on screen) playing at a women's recreational celebration in Brikama, Gambia last weekend. They're playing a sequence of introductory rhythms to the celebration, so the women know to convene in a large circle to start the singing, dancing, an drumming. Excuse the fairly substantial delay, but hey, at least it works.

Friday, March 16, 2007

What an Opportunity

Friday night here. About to go to Pen'Art, the "jazz" club that I've heard singer-songwriter Souleymane Faye one night and a salsa band the other at so far. That is to say, I haven't heard any ding ding-a-ding drums, walking bass, comping piano, rhythm changes kind of jazz there. Nonethless, its called a jazz club. Yet another reminder that jazz is global, and means a lot of different things depending on who you're talking to and where you are. Habib Faye asked me to come down and sit in with him and Carlou, a local r 'n b singer who plays Friday nights at Pen"Art. So I'll go down there and see what happens.

Had my sixth sabar lesson today with the young mofo Malick Faye. Had planned to go hear the Sing Sing Juniors sabar program tonight in Medina, but was at a meeting with Habib and his manager Aziz Fall until late, so there's no time to catch the sabar program and go over and play at Pen'art. Tonight, modern music takes precedence over traditional music. But it was great to have that sixth sabar lesson today. Things are coming together slow-slow. I had mentioned in these pages that I thought it was easier to handle the sabar stick ("galan") then the smaller Mandinka stick. I'll have to re-tract that statement. Both are hard! I'll go for lesson #7 tomorrow and then catch their Saturday program tomorrow after our lesson.

The meeting with Habib and Aziz was for our Meet the Composer Project. We're at a bit of a crossroads, because the Meet the Composer grant just covered our plane tickets and living expenses here. There isn't money for artist fees, unfortunately, so we're trying to figure out how to work with some musicians with some serious budgetary restrictions. And what an opportuntity! Habib and Aziz have offered to hire the first-call musicians in Dakar for us and organize rehearsal space, studio time, etc. The thing is, we don't have a label budget behind us to make the most of this amazing opportunity. So I think the solution is just to lay the groundwork and come back another time with label support. Easier said than done, to be sure, but that's really what it's looking like. We shall see...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Just Go Up to the Door and Knock

Its Thursday morning here and I've just had a cup of coffee and some french bread for breakfast. Interesting as always to note the different colonial legacies. Gambia was a British colony, and so they have a short crusty loaf of bread and tea in the morning more commonly than the coffee and french bread I've ben enjoying here in Dakar. I'm cool with bread and tea, but it is nice to get back to coffee, even if its nescafe instant coffee, by far the most common way people drink coffee in West africa. There are billboards for Nescafe everywhere; there seem to be almost no other alternatives.

Yesterday I woke up rested after a much-needed long sleep and had a few hours on my hands before our Meet the Composer meeting with our filmmaker collaborators. I decided to hop in a cab and go to Studio Xippy, Youssou N'dour's recording facility. Its in the Almady neighborhood of Dakar, which seemed to me the Malibu part of town. Away from the crowded city, on a road that stretched alongside the ocean, it was a picturesque ride and the first time I'd seen coastal Dakar. Posh compounds, luxury hotels; this is not the Dakar I've seen so far. There have been some more upscale neighborhoods and some banlieues (favellas, slums, etc) - a whole range of neighborhoods - but this was the first along the water I'd seen.

Before I left the US I'd been talking with my friend Adam Rudolph and mentioned I wanted to go to check out Youssou's studio while in Dakar. His old friend Hamid Drake has recorded there so I asked Adam for Hamid's number to get the studio info. He said, "just go up to the door and knock." So i did. Youssou wasn't there but one of his sisters was. We spoke for a bit, I told her what I was doing in Dakar, and she got someone to show me around the studio. A beautiful, state-of-the-art live room and board with plenty of isolation booths, I felt like I was in a top studio in L.A. Youssou is finishing some recording for his next record this week so hopefully I'll get a chance to go back and hang while they're recording. We shall see....

Last night I finally met the person whose room I've been staying in, Willow's brother-in-law Mohammed Sao. Mohammed got to Dakar while I was in Gambia. He lives in San Francisco and comes back periodically to visit his folks. I'd been staying in his room and when I got back he moved into his other place - an apartment in a house around the corner - and generously let me stay in this spacious, internet-connected room for the next two weeks. When he found out that I was interested in meeting Dakar musicians in addition to the project Willow and I are doing and in addition my sabar lessons, he grabbed me and took me over to Pen'arte, the "jazz" club that I went to the first second night I was hear a few weeks ago.
Habib Faye , NDour's bassist, is an old friend of Mohammed, and Mohammed knew he was having dinner at Pen'Arte, so we went over and he introduced me. Thank you, Mohammed. Had a nice hang with Habib, his manager, and some European friends of theirs. We're going to get together again this week before he goes to Angola with Youssou for concerts. Lets see what comes of it.

Meanwhile, back to sabar lessons today at 2pm then meeting again with filmmakers at 3:30. Things are in motion.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

This One's A Week Long, so, slow-slow...

Tuesday May 6 2007-

Its Tuesday morning here in Brikama, Gambia. I’m at my friend Foday Musa Suso’s compound hanging out with three little girls, Bobodinding (5), Baby Isa (4), and Tida (3). Its amazing, when I was here four years ago Bobodinding (translates as little Bobo: she is named after my host Foday Musa Suso’s wife) was an infant and Baby Isa was still in my neighbor Sadjoe’s stomach. Now they’re little girls… running around with tons of energy. It is such a trip to see these kids four years older. Suso and his wife Bobo are always raising kids in addition to the four they had themselves. Their kids are 20, 19, 13, and 11.

It was a bit of a harrowing journey getting here yesterday. I left Dakar at 9am and got here 10 1/2 hours later! Dakar to Brikama should be like going from New York to Boston more or less, or maybe Los Angeles to San Francisco at the most. The distance is not so great; the problem is the options for getting there. To be fair, I could have flown. After the experience of getting here, frankly, I think I’m going to fly to Dakar when I go back there resume our project. I wanted to see what I was like between Dakar and Brikama, and I saw all right.

With my friend Babacar’s help we found a ride yesterday morning in Dakar. For $14, I sat shotgun in a station wagon that by specs probably should fit 8 people. There were 12 of us. Luckily, I was the only one in the front passenger seat. Still, the lack of air-conditioning and sweltering midday heat made for a long 5 hours. We went by village after village and town after town through the Senegalese sahel, and I guess now I have some perspective on what things look like between Dakar (a really big West African city) and Brikama (a really big West African town). There were the usual half-finished buildings, cement structures with or without tin roofs, and there were also straight up mud-hut-with-thatched-roof villages. Was very interesting to see of course, as the thatched roofs are a thing of the past at least in the cities and towns. But they are still all over the countryside.

That car trip really de-romanticized “the provinces,” which is only for the good. Since I’ve spent time in West African cities and towns, I figured that the villages were where the most authentic, old way of African life takes place. That may be the case, but perhaps predictably, it isn’t so pretty. The endemic garbage and waste problem that cities and towns have here exists on a probably equal per-capita scale in these villages.

When we finally got to the Senegal/Gambia border, I thought the bulk of the journey was over. I was wrong. I spent about an hour getting my passport stamped first in the Senegal customs office then in the Gambian passport control. Then I changed some Senegalese francs into Gambian dalasi. Probably lost my shirt but what was I going to do? Then I got on a bus that took another hour to get to Barra. I bought a ticket there for the boat to cross the Gambia River to the capital Banjul to catch a cab to Brikama, my final destination. After buying my ticket I proceeded into a kind of waiting area with a few hundred others. How many people were going to get on this boat? We waited an hour until all of a sudden there was a rush towards the gates. The boat was here, they were loading cars and trucks, and presumably on-foot passengers were going to be next. We must have waited 1/2 hour in a packed huddle around the gate until they finally opened. There was a stampede of people trying to get on the boat and though we all made it on eventually, I must say it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. It made me think of the thousands of West Africans - Senegalese and others, who have been risking their lives in perilous attempts to get to the Canary Islands or Spain by boat. The crush of people just to get on a boat from Barra to Banjul was completely chaotic, claustrophobic, and had a kind of desperation to it that I’ve rarely experienced.

After yet another hour on the boat, we finally landed in Banjul and I basically let everybody off before me. I went into hard-core bargaining mode, and found a cab driver who would give just me a lift - not me plus 3 or 4 others going all over the Gambia - to Brikama, where I’m staying with my friend Foday Musa Suso and his family.

Wednesday March 7 2007

This is end of my second day/third night in Brikama. I’m sitting on a mat in the Suso compound listening to the family play traditional Mandinka music. It’s not a concert, just something folks felt like doing this evening. I came back from emailing and here everyone was. Bobo, Suso’s wife, is singing, his oldest daughter Nene is singing, an aunt or friend of the family (unclear) is singing, Basaikou, Suso’s oldest son, is playing kora, his youngest son Balamin is playing balafon. Their former neighbor from Suso’s old compound, Lamin Kouyateh, was playing balafon when I got here but he seems to have left, so Suso’s 11 year old son jumped in. Lamin is one of Suso’s neighbors from his old compound, where I stayed last time I was in Brikama. His older brother, Sountou, can play the f*&k out of the balafon. Hope I get to see him this trip.

What a treat to hear this informal music making. Again, this is not a concert. Nor is it western kids practicing scales on the piano or violin. Suso is one of the five Mandinka griot last names. Susos are hereditary musicians. Though the specific castes aren’t observed as rigorously as they were in the past, they still very much exist and so if someone in a musician family has any aptitude, they are encouraged to learn the traditional songbook as it were. There are a series of 500 or so years old songs that every Mandinka knows, whether they are musicians or not. And if they’re musicians, then they know how to play all of them. There are endless variations on the themes for each of these standards, and everyone worth their salt develops their own interpretive style. Such a beautiful way of passing down history: orally and aurally.

So great to be back in Brikama, visiting with old friends here. Such a trip to see how much all the children have grown (its been 4 1/2 years), how some things change, some things stay the same.

Thursday March 8 2007, morning

I stopped writing last night because it made more sense just to listen and enjoy than to be pecking away while the music was going on. Its Wednesday morning now, and I’m going to have the first of a few lessons with my Mandinka drum teachers Jalamang Camara and Mamady Danfa. Since I was here in 2002-03, the third-in-command teacher, Dimba Diba, has passed. He was probably close to 80, so he lived a long life. I would have liked to have seen him again, but such is life. A young guy who was apprenticing with them before, Ansumana, is now the third in command. It’s been 4 1/2 years since I’ve last heard him, so I bet he sounds great now. Practice, practice and all of that.

Such a wonderful opportunity to see my teachers again. They speak no English and I don’t speak any Mandinka, so as it was 4+ years ago, we can’t really talk about a whole lot. But there’s lots of love between us. We spent almost every day of two months together then, and they could tell I had lots of respect for their traditions and their abilities. Jalamang and Mamady are the best drummers in this region, and I have the good fortune of studying with them because of my host, Foday Musa Suso. He hooked me up with them.

Curious to see how much of what I learned I’ve retained. I’ve played a lot of kutiros in the US since I was here in 02-03, but not, as Suso would say, “alot alot.” I brought a set of drums back with me and taught the rhythms I learned to people there. But it’s on a whole other level here of course. So we shall see…

So lesson today, then they have programs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then a lesson, Monday, and Tuesday I’m going back to Dakar. Too short but hey, I’ve got to get back and start our Meet the Composer project. Suso talked to my teachers about how much I should pay them for the few lessons. And days of hanging with them They basically said that because I’d kept my promise to them, that I’d sent them a P.A. and speakers when I could, that I’d come back when time and money allowed, that I was part of their group and didn’t need to pay them for spending the week with them. I will give them some money because they need it, but I appreciate the gesture very much. It’s been my experience that even when you give people money, clothes, medicine, etc, they keep asking for more things. This is understandable. People here often have very little material wealth, so when someone gives them something they assume that person is able to give them more. With my teachers, they know that our relationship is such that I will do whatever I can for them. They have given me so much, and so I try repay them as best I can.

Got an email from Willow with an itinerary she and Modibo our project coordinator laid out. Looks very ambitious! We’d been going back and forth on whether to do a music project with a visual element or not. Looks like we’re going to get visual big-time! Four groups of a few people each will each spend one day shooting video with Modibo and one day scoring the video with us. 24-hour videos! Amazing. Then we’ll spend one day with each group on the final edit, and the last day we’ll screen the films. Excited to see how it unfolds!

Thursday March 8 2007, afternoon

Just had a refresher course with my teachers. I’ve played kutiros in the states a little over the last 4 1/2 years, but not too much. The third in command, Ansumana, likened it to a baby learning how to talk. If the baby learns a lot in two months but then doesn’t practice regularly for the next 4 years, when the baby tries again its not going to know how to speak that well. The biggest trip for me is that the rhythms I thought I’d learned are pretty much intact, except for a couple that are slightly different than I thought. So interesting because I transcribed the rhythms from my minidiscs over the two months of intensive lessons last time. Further confirmation that it takes someone who’s not from here a long time to really understand these rhythms: much more time than I’m able to spend.

Its like broken telephone; somehow by the time I got back to the States and taught them to a few people, they were slightly different and doubtless if any of those people tried to teach them to others there’d be yet another version, each time less authentic but hey one tries one’s best.

As far as the one-hand, one-stick thing goes, it’s the right hand stick skills that erode the quickest. There’s a mute, an open stroke, an open stroke with left hand mute, a roll, and subtleties within each of these strokes The right hand stick strokes require somehow more finesse, more dedicated practice, more years than the left hand open stroke and mute. Hard to find an analogy, but I will say this; the galan, the stick used in Wolof drumming, is much bigger than the Mandinka stick and much closer in size to a western drumstick. Therefore its much easier for me to pick up with a western stick drumming background, It took me a few weeks within those first couple months in 02-03 to get a feel for the smaller stick technique.

I keep coming back to the same feeling of déjà vu. We just had our lesson in the same compound that I had my lessons in 4 1/2 years ago. A different set of kids than 02-03 heard the drumming in the distance and came to see what it was. They were shocked just like the kids were last time that a tubab was playing their drums. Then before long they’d start to dance and that was that. And what a beautiful thing to watch Jalamang and Mamady play again; they’ve been playing these drums for decades. Jalamang has small hands, perfect for kutiro drums. Mamady has small palms but long fingers, well suited to the kutiriba, the bigger of the two support drums. The lead drum, sabaro, has a small diameter but is long and now, after a little experience with Wolof sabar drums, I see that it is very similar to an n’dere, the lead Wolof sabar drum, but a bit shorter. So fascinating to speculate on the ways in which the Mande peoples spread west from Mail and Guinea, encountered Wolof sabar drums by the time they got near the coasts of what are now Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau, and combined their rhythms with their own style of drums, related but different. Similar but so different, that’s the long and short of it.

Ok, I’m going outside for a little lunch…

Friday March 9, 2007, afternoon

Its 1pm here and I’m waiting for Ansumana to pick me up to take me over to Jalamang’s compound for lunch and then I’ll join them as they go play a program starting in the late afternoon when it cools down. I thought Ansu was coming to get me this morning, but something was lost in the translation I guess. No problem, as I spent the morning finishing James Clavell’s “King Rat.” A somewhat guilty pleasure, Clavell’s novels have served me well on the road. I think it was my first or second month-long tour of Europe when I realized that page-turners served me better than philosophy or other non-fiction while traveling. Someone gave me a copy of Clavell’s “Taipan” and I devoured it. Sometime later I got my hands on a copy of the “Noble House,” a sequel of sorts to “Tai Pan.” Ate that one up as well. Then “Shogun.” Had been putting off “King Rat” because I’ve never been huge fan of WWI/WWII literature. So with Clavell it had always been last on my list. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as his others, but nonetheless, it was an engrossing and captivating read, full of reflections on the ambiguities between good and evil, and the nature of morality in the face of desperation and hopelessness. Easy reading while relaxing in the shade on hot West African days while one waits to be picked up.

Friday March 9, 2007, night

Its about midnight here and I’m going to sleep in a minute. Have to get up very early tomorrow, as I’m allegedly being picked up at 7am by Ansumana for a big all day program. I think it may actually happen, because the reason he didn’t come today until lunchtime was because it was Friday. Friday is mosque day, and not much happens in the morning leading up to early afternoon prayers. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he said last night that he’d come in the morning and in fact he didn’t come until 1pm. Par for the course.

What a nostalgic experience this afternoon with Jalamang et al at their program. It was in Kabafita, a neighborhood in Brikama, and as with almost all of their programs, some womens’ associations got the money together to hire Jalamang, Mamady and Ansumana to play recreational (read: non-ceremonial) womens’ rhythms for a few hours around dusk. Got some great short video footage on my digital camera and a great recording on my trusty minidisc. I haven’t use the thing this religiously since the last time I was in West Africa. I use it to document my bands when they play in the US, but its such a funny technology, minidiscs. They’re basically obsolete in the US pretty much just good as portable, excellent sounds documents. The problem is the medium itself; these awkward square disc-cassettes. To dump them into the computer, one has to do it in real time, plus editing time. So, for example, the 70+hrs of killer recordings I have from my last trip here I still haven’t transferred.

Anyways, Jalamang et al burned up Fere, Musubajulo, and Lenjeno, the old favorites that are part of every womens’ recreational throwdown here. They’ve been playing a “new track” for the last couple years called Yeyeng that’s totally happening. And every single woman danced great, of course. Whether the acrobatic feature dance movement for lenjeno or the group dance party movements of the other pieces, every woman here can get down, from young to old. They got me up to join them about two thirds of the way through, and everyone seemed to enjoy my attempts at their dance movements. I can hang…particularly in the west with a bunch of tubabs, but here its mostly just comic relief, which I’m glad to provide, as its in good spirit and comes with appreciation that a tubab tries to do their traditional dance and ends up somewhat resembling the real thing.

Saturday March 10, 2007, night

10pm here after a long Saturday with my teachers. They played two programs in the Nema section of Brikama today. The first was a short program for an end-of-manhood training celebration for half a dozen boys. They sure get younger and younger from the sounds of things. Back in the day, back in the provinces (read: up until 10 years ago in any village that wasn’t Banjul, Serekunda, or Brikama, the three cities in Gambia) end-of-manhood training took place when boys were as old as 18 apparently. Ouch! The look on these boys’ faces as they were passed from elder to elder was what you’d expect from a child of in some cases 2 or 3 years old. They had no idea what was going on, all they knew was there was a celebration taking place and they seemed to the guests of honor. I have to say, from a Westerners perspective, I’m glad manhood training is happening younger and younger for Mandinka boys. Also, I’m glad that the circumcisions are taking place in hospitals more and more. So interesting to weigh the differences between traditional village life and modern urban life. I’ll take sanitary practices any day over authentic blunt stone old-school techniques, though, that’s for sure.

The afternoon program was a end-of-womanhood training program and that’s a can of worms I’m not even going to get into here. I know how I feel about the practice, but I also know how it feels to be in another extremely foreign culture as those people’s guests. I’ll focus instead on the music. This is the first time that I’ve seen my teachers use the Fender Passport P.A. sound system that I sent them. What a treat! Depending on where they are playing, some compounds have power and some don’t. And not only that; some compounds have reliable power sources and some do not. Yesterday’s compound had no power at all so using the P.A. was a non-issue. Today, there was power that went in and out throughout the program; more in than out I’m happy to report.

A female song leader, called a kanyele, always has to sing at the top of her lungs to barely be heard compared to a huge of chorus of women who respond to her verses. With this P.A., the kanyele gets on the mic and soars above a hundred women, which must be an incredible sound off in the distance, because it was overpowering to be right beside the P.A. and drummers and watch it go down. I owe a big thanks to my friends Willow and Souley for this one. They ship containers of computers between the US and Dakar, and after three years, I finally was able to buy my teachers the P.A. they’d asked me to get them and put it in one of Willow and Souley’s containers. The P.A. got to my teachers last year and it’s given them a huge boost to their already full dance card, so to speak. When I met them 4 years ago, they were already the busiest group in all of Brikama. With the P.A., they’ve been able to bump up their fee considerably and are still that much more in demand because literally no other group in the Gambia has one of these P.A. systems. There are plenty of blown out systems and other castoffs that make up the landscape of most West African high life concerts, but it is extremely rare for a traditional music group to be rolling around Brikama carting (literally, the push it along in a wheelbarrow along with the drums instead of carrying everything) a state of the art sound system. I’m so happy that it’s paying off for them. They helped me with their knowledge a few years back, I just wanted to reciprocate however possible.

Sunday March 11, 2pm

Sitting on a mat outside my room with a pillow behind my back. Basaikou and I just did the circuit of internet cafes in Brikama on his scooter trying to find a place where the computers were working. A few places were up and running, but were too crowded. We finally found a place where I could send a happy birthday email to my wife Sara. It was the slowest connection I can ever remember experiencing. Never mind 29.3 modem dialup or whatever, this was like 2.93 dialup. I had little catnaps while waiting for pages to open. And most pages wouldn’t even open! But I did manage to send Sara two birthday emails… the second in case the first one didn’t go through. It’s a shame that the internet infrastructure has not developed much in Brikama in the last 4 years since I was here. As Africans say, “slow, slow.” The problem actually lies not with the slow connection speed so much as what happens when a network goes down. When this happens, a roomful of computers is rendered useless for however long it takes before someone can figure out how to fix them. It’s nice of various organizations to donate computers, or for folks like Willow and Souley in Dakar to ship containers of computers over from the US, so that more and more computers are in Africa every day. But the IT infrastructure needs to nurtured, not treated in a drop-and-run sort of way. Willow and Souleuy's company is one of very few that deals with technology and electronics-recycling in West Africa in a responsible, fair trade sort of way. There need to be more of these enterprises, and less dumping of outdated and/or broken technology by the West.

And speaking of drop-and-run, I was surprised yesterday when Jalamang started to set up the P.A. for the program. He looked at me with a quizzical look and motioned for me to connect the speaker wires to the board, put the mic cord into the right jack, and adjust the levels. No problem, though I will say that is about the extent of my sound engineering chops, sadly. Anyways, it made me realize that here I was thinking I’d done such a nice thing by sending them a P.A. when in fact just dropping off a fancy Western gadget wasn’t really enough. I had to make sure that they knew how to use it. Since I shipped it with Suso’s help, I was lucky that he could help them on this end when they first received it. But truly, he can’t be with them every time they use it. So even though they’ve been using it for upwards of a year, I’m not sure anyone has showed them how to operate it since the first time.

So no program today as it turns out. Often on Sundays some women will come to Jalamang and Mamady at lunchtime and hire them for the afternoon. I’m guessing it didn’t happen today since they didn’t come get me. Tomorrow morning I’ll have another refresher lesson with them, mostly for the sake of the hang. Then hopefully a friend of Basaikou’s who speaks excellent English will come by in the afternoon and I’ll interview Jalamang. Still amazing to me that we spent two months solid together without speaking almost a single word of the other’s language. I got some of his background last time when someone came by one of our lessons who happened to speak excellent English, but never for a prolonged interview. There are many things about this man I’d like to know. And as I’ve thought ever since meeting him, Jalamang is like a combination of Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson, two of the great jazz drummers of all time. His chops are like Dawson’s – meticulous, seemingly effortless, his small hands perfectly sized for these small drums – and his ideas and literal appearance are like Roy Haynes, deeply swinging, so hip, and moving from playing just behind the beat to right in the middle of it to just on top of it at will. As I’ve mentioned a few times now, I must get some of these videos posted. I’ll make a point of taking short videos tomorrow of Jalamang playing each piece in their repertoire on both kutiriba and kutirindingo so as to get the full picture of the interlocking rhythms.

Sunday March 11 2007, Midnight

Around 10pm tonight the power went off. Not just in Suso’s compound, but in the whole town of Brikama. Darkness everywhere except for the stars up in the sky. And it’s a small moon this time of month so it was dark out. What better time than for Basaikou to pull out a Steven Seagal DVD (this one was called Belly of the Beast; anyone ever heard of it? I hadn’t), pop into my laptop, and off we went. Surreality at its most bizarre! And what a shite movie! Oh well. I’ll just say this: when the power came on halfway through, we took it out of my laptop, popped it into the DVD player, and watched it through to the end, awful dialogue, unimaginative fight sequences, painful score and all! Good night.

Monday March 12, 2007, morning

Just took some Imodium. I had a feeling when we ate after the program a couple nights ago that I might have some problems. Sure enough yesterday I pretty much only ate bread, and nonetheless… problems. Woke up this morning needing to fix that problem yet again and though I’ve come from there, I feel like I might need to go back within minutes. Lets hope this Imodium works. Last time I only had one 24-hour spell in two months. This time it’s got me at the end of my second week. Guess I was due.

Tuesday March 13, early evening

In my room at Willow and Souley’s in-laws in Dakar. Showered, shaved, evening sunlight coming into the open but screened window. There are almost no mosquitoes in Brikama at the moment, and just a handful in Dakar. Perhaps this is because Dakar is on the coast and Brikama is 30 minutes drive from the coast? It is drier here than Gambia, so I’d think there’d be less mosquitoes. Maybe it’s that Dakar’s a big city and there’re more open water around. Hmmm… the Sahel feels like its just starting in Gambia but by the time your 1 hour north of the Gambia border things are noticeably more arid. Curious.

Got here after a10 1/2-hour trip from Brikama. Left there at 7am and somehow the trip back to Dakar was easier then it was going. No rush to get on the boat this time to cross the Gambia river. Walked right on, no stampede. It took off soon after, and this time both engines were running so it went faster. Relatively mellow trip altogether. Probably just because I’d already done it once.

The past week in Gambia now seems like a dream, not to be trite. Its was only a week but felt like a very long time. So ephemeral! Got back here, getting caught up on emails and found out Sara and I got wait-listed for the Music Omi summer residency. My second year in a row as an “alternate.” Oh well, that’s how it goes with grants. Sometimes you get them the first time (this Meet the Composer project came on our first try strangely enough) and sometimes it takes three times, as it did with the Durfee Foundation a few years back.

I was standing in the shower (first hot non-bucket shower in a week: I admit it feels nice though bucket showers feel great too) bummed about not getting the Omi grant but you know, I’ve just come from a place where my teacher Jalamang Camara, the Mandinka drumming version of Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson put together, rents a small compound for his family that consists of a cement structure with a tin roof and a small piece of dry land. They have no electricity or running water. Somehow not getting a residency that I’d hoped for doesn’t seem so significant.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A big post coming March14

Just a quick blog, as Im not on my own computer, and have very limited internet time this week.

I´m in Brikama, Gambia, where I was 4 1/2 years ago, visiting with old friends, and hanging with my Mandinka drum teachers. No internet access at the compound I´m staying at so cant post blogs from my laptop. No problem, though, as Im writing in Microsoft Word, and will post a weekś worth of blogs when I get back to Dakar March 13.

Until then....

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Going to Gambia tomorrow Morning

9:45pm on Sunday night here, listening to the minidisc recording from last night’s m’balax concert at Thiossane. Sounds great. I recorded it with the minidisc recorder in one pocket, microphone in the other, cord connected behind my waist. Not bad.

Had a meeting with Dakar musicians at Just 4 You today. We set the plan to start March 15 at one of the musician's studios. Can’t remember his name (there were a dozen folks at the meeting), but he seemed like a nice guy,as did everyone. 5 rehearsals between March 15 and March 27. That’s the plan for now. Will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

Also listening to the minidisc from the sabar program last night that my teacher and his family's band Sing Sing Juniors played. The lead drummer was 25 at most, Malick's second and command he's 19, the others are all under 30 definitely, some as young as 10 or so. Amazing! Sing Sing Juniors are the young band, Sing Sing Seniors is the older group.

So interesting the difference between a Mandinka ensemble with 3 drums and this sabar ensemble which has 7 or 8 drummers. It sounds huge, even with my microphone-in-the-pocket rendering. Another thing about the m’bung m’bung, thiol and all the sabar drums: they’re heavier drums than the Mandinka kutiro drums, and so the exertion for playing them seems that much more taxing than kutiros. Having said that, it probably balances out in the end; there’s only 3 kutiro drummers in a Mandinka ensemble while there are 8 sabar drummers in a Wolof group, so the exertion for the Mandinka drummers to sustain that much more energy may well account for why the drums are smaller, lighter, the stick is smaller (held in the right hand), and its somehow easier on the left hand. I don’t know…. Conjecture? Maybe. More on this later...

After our meeting at Just 4 You, I came back to where I’m staying, at my co-composer Willow’s in-laws and extended family’s compound in the Castor neighborhood of Dakar. I was walking around the corner from their compound and heard some drumming in the distance. My friend Khady Guey (daughter of Willow’s in-laws) said “I think it’s a Serere celebration a little ways from here.” The Serere are another group that lives in West Africa, and they play their version of sabar drums. According to the website from the previous post, Serere and Mandinka drums are offshoots of the Wolof sabar drums. Makes sense I suppose since the lead Mandinka kutiro drum is called the sabaro. And I've been wondering which came first for years! Hard to say 100% because these are oral histories, but still, seems to make sense. Ironic that I found the information in English on a website. Both Wolof and Mandinka keep saying that their tradition came first.

As it turned out it was not a Serere celebration, but a Susu wedding party. The Susu are an ethnic group from Guinea, and were playing Malinke djembes, balafons and dunduns. There were a 150-200 mostly women and children enjoying a wedding after party. I’m so psyched that I actually heard drumming off in the distance and found it, since Khasy Guey wasn't sure exactly where it was. It happened several times in Gambia that I’d hear drumming in the distance at night and not find it. And for what its worth, though I enjoyed the Susu djembe/dundun music immensely, I’m a sucker for the one-stick one-hand drumming. My allegiance as a stick drummer, I guess.

And speaking of Gambia, lets see what happens there this time. I’m going there tomorrow. I’m getting a lift to an area of car transports tomorrow morning at 7am from my friend Babacar who lives at Willow's in-laws. He’s the good man who took me over to Sing Sing Rhythm’s compound to find a sabar teacher two days after I arrived in Dakar. A really nice guy. He’s very patient as I fumble my way through French trying to ask him things, etc. At the transport station, he'll help me find a car/driver or maybe a minibus to to get me to the Senegal/Gambia border. From there I take a short boat (I hope) across the Gambia river to Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Then I'll pick up another minibus and take it to Brikama to my friend Foday Musa Suso's compound. I've seen him in the US since i first went to West Arica and tayed with him 2002-03 (he lives most of the year in Chicago), but I can't believe I'm actually going to see all my friends there finally. Its been a little more than 4 years.... should be great!

Might not be blogging quite so regularly for the next ten days until I get back to Dakar. We shall see...


So we ended up going to Youssou N'Dour's club Thiossane last night. As it turned out, he wan't playing. Sounds like he's gone alot. In Paris, touring, wherever... here pretty rarely actually. As I assumed, there was a killing m'balax band nonetheless. The group was led by vocalist Abdougide Seck, and had two sabar drummers, one tama (talking drum) player, two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drumset, backing vocals, lead vocals, and some guest dancers. He had two fantastic guest vocalists come up and sing a tune or two, and its fascinating to hear the myriad variations here on the classic, Islam-derived almost altimssimo register these guys all sing in. Soaring, nasal melodies over burning rhythms and hypnotic guitar/keyboard/bass ostinati. Everyone in the group is essentially a drummer.

We arrived a little before 2am and there was a sleepy acoustic guitarist and keyboardist warmup act, then a comedian. He had a kind of Cedric the Entertainer vibe, but in Wolof. Needless to say, his humor was lost on me, but the crowd patiently enjoyed his jokes, and before too long it was time for Mr. Seck's band to begin.

His brand of m'balax was similar to M'baye Dieye Faye's (the concert I blogged about the other night) but somehow more poppy. Maybe the fact that Mbaye Dieye Faye ha six sabar drummers with him made things that much more raucous. Nonetheless, Mr .Seck's group did what any good m'balax band must do; inspire people to dance. Seems like most of these groups (from seeing these two and hearing a bunch of other m'balax on the radio and cds/cassettes) adhere to some pretty hard and fast guidelines; major pentatonic 6/8 over 4/4 tunes with 6/8 bridges (sometimes minor), and double-time shout choruses as it were. The effect when the music takes off is palpable and always manages to bump up the energy level a couple notches. This is pop music, ultimately, so its doing what people are expecting it, requiring it to do.

Interestingly, the term "jazz" here means a lot of things, none of which seem to have anything to do with the ding-ding-a-ding standard Stanley Crouch and others have set for jazz to be authentic. Proof once again that jazz is a global music and the argument that it must adhere to 1910-1955 American standards is short-sighted, Western-centric and, ultiamtely, elitist. Fascinating actually, since here anything downtempo, instrumental, or even folksy singer/songwriter oriented seems to fall under the jazz moniker. More on this as I understand it better. I'm going to Gambia tomorrow or the next day so I'll have to investigate this more deeply when I return to Dakar March15.

Just had some delicious Yassa for lunch. White rice, friend onions/peppers in a mustard/oil/pepper sorta sauce with grilled chicken. We ate out of one large bowl in traditional African style, and I had to put down my spoon before to long as the penchant to keep ingesting mouthfuls of rice and assorted goodies tends to inflate one's stomach, and my tummy felt a little sensitive yesterday, so I want to make sure to take it easy.

Off to sabar lesson #6 in an hour or so. More to follow...

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Sing Sing Juniors

Its 1am yet again and I've just returned to my place to make a bathroom pit stop (if you know what I mean... sorry, TMI perhaps?) and back out to Josan (sp?), Youssou N'Dour's club, or maybe Just 4 You, where Orchestra baobb may be playing. Options... I'm telling you!

Have just returned from an 11pm-1am concert of sabar drum and dance on Rue 41 (41st street, as it were) in Medina, the neighborhood where I take my sabar lessons. My teacher's group, Sing Sing Juniors, was playing. He is part of the Faye family, one of the two most famous sabar families in Senegal (the other being Doudou N'Diaye Rose). What an incredible concert! Ostensibly a celebration of President Abdoulaye Wade's recent re-election, it seemed like a good excuse for the good residents of Medina to get there groove on on a Saturday night. I had a great lesson with Malik earlier this afternoon - my 5th, and once again as with my experiences studing Mandinka drums in Gambia, the rhythm skeletons that we work on in each lesson come to improvisatory life when played by a howl ensemble for a ring of 300 or 400 dancers. We added a fourh skeletal rhythm to my humble arsenal: Cheboud'jen. Cheboud'jen, incidentally, is also the name of one of the region's stbale dishes. In Wolof, cheb means rice, 'jen means fish. These women were jumping around all over the place.... Incredible! I got some video on my digital camera so once again I hope to figure out how the heck to post some of this stuff. The world should see these things! Well, I suppose Dakar is just a flight away.

Went over to one of Doudou N"Diaye Rose's homes this afternoon to meet the great man. He has made sabar druming internationally famous with the help of his 100-strong family of wives, sons, grandsons, greatgrandsons, etc. I found his number on the internet, called him up, and went over to one of his four wives' homes today to meet with him. I wanted to see how much it would cost to study with a member of his family, guessing that he wasn't interested in teaching a tubab (whitie). My assumption was correct. One of his sons, Tapha - about 45 years old I think - would teach me if I would like. The thing is, I already have a great teacher with the Sing Sing Rhythm family. Malick Faye has endless amounts of strength and a young lifetime of knowledge. I guess I could take a lesson with Doudou's son as well, if nothing else than for the sake of comparison. Sabar is an oral tradition of course, and so each family lineage has its own interpretations of the classics, the standards. So who knows, it'd probably do me well to hang with Doudou's son a little as well. If I do it will be after Gambia. Originally he asked for 10,000 Senegalese francs/hour, about $20. I've been paying Malick 5,000 CFA for 1 1/2. Am I going to get that much more info, that much better a lesson with Doudou's son. No, but nonetheless, just for the perspective I might try a lesson with him.

For now, I'm waiting for my friend Khady Guey to get ready and we're going to hear some M'balax (if Youssou N'Dour's club) or some Senegalese 1960s-style salsa (Orchestra Baobab). As with everything here, and as I keep saying... we shall see.

Friday, March 2, 2007

M'bung M'bung

About 1am here on Friday night/early Saturday morning. In for the night with the intention of going to sleep early but of course its 1am, so it aint gonna be that early. Listening to the minidisc from today of my fourth sabar lesson. So far we've both played m'bung m'bung drums. Today was the first time my teacher Malick Faye, also known in these pages as "19yr old mofo," played Thiol (pronounced "Chol") while I played m'bung m'bung. Thiol is a heavy, closed bottomed, large circumference, barrel-shaped drum. M'bung has a more resonant bass tone (open bottomed) and a higher-pitched left-hand thwack.

The upshot of this was that when Malick would show me rhythms, all of a sudden they sounded very different because he was showing them to me on a different-sounding drum. Before long he grabbed an m'bung m'bung as well and played both. Its such a wonderful, rewarding challenge to learn these rhythms in our over-before-I-know-it 1.5 hour lessons. Its a lot different than my experience with my Mandinka drum teachers in Gambia a few years ago. With them, we'd spend morning and afternoon playing. Dakar is different. Its a city, people are busy, and the Sing Sing Rhythm family charge by the hour and don't really have the space (or the time? not sure) for an all-day hang like I had in Gambia. Curious how it will unfold in Gambia this time.

As for the sabar rhythms, we now have gone through the skeletal rhythms for three sections of a sabar concert:

1. N'daga
2. Dayourabie
3. Kaolak

There will be much more no doubt. Its some seriously swinging drumming! The pulse is so wide-open, again like Mandinka drumming due to the lack of a bell to lock things down. I can't wait to hear a full ensemble playing this stuff! I'm hoping Malick will be playing a "program" (concert) tomrrow but he seemed unsure as to whether they'd be playing or not. Not sure why. I'll call him in the morning and if they're not playing a program, I'll go over for another lesson. Because even though the poverty is endemic and startling, everyone's got a celphone. Tthe telecommunications industry in the developing world; the subject of yet another dissertation, and one I'm only qualified to marvel at.

Incidentally, every afternoon when I'm over there a lady (his mom? his aunt?) is cooking (read: frying in oil) beignets (tiny donuts with sugar sprinkled on liberally) and the neighborhood comes through buying 4 for 100 senegalese francs, the equivalent of 20 cents. They're delicious! I've treated myself after each lesson. Out of politeness but also because I've worked up an appetite, and well, they taste yummy.

WIllow and I had a meeting with our grant program advisor Modibo today as well. We met Modibo at the compound where his organization has two rooms of 8 pentium4 computers and one lovely air-conditioned conference room. We will give two class workshops (exact topics tba) there starting March15 and have our performance workshops at the club I mentioned in the last post called Just 4 You. Modibo also organized an interview with Radio Senegal International for this coming Monday morning. Not sure if we'll do it then or postpone it until March 15. We'll figure it out this weekend.

Tomorrow night I'lll be going to hear some m'balax somewhere. Youssou N'Dour plays at his club every Saturday night when he's in town; If he's playing I'm there. If he's not, there will be other concerts to hit. Once again, we shall see...

Thursday, March 1, 2007

M' Balax

March 1, 7:30 pm here. Listening to minidisc from my third sabar lesson this afternoon. 4th one tomorrow later (6pm-7:30) than usual (4:30-6) because Friday is the heavy prayer day here so things are pushed back later or postponed to Saturday. Hopefully my teacher and his family are playing a "program" (concert) in one of the streets of Dakar Saturday. If so, I'll be there! Then Sunday is the first workshop for our Meet the Composer Global Connections grant at the popular Dakar club Just 4 You. Co-composer Willow Williamson and I met with our Dakar contact Modibo Diawara and the man who programs Just 4 You, Souleyman Ly, this afternoon. With both of their help (and, no doubt, the help of many others) I'm excited to see how this project unfolds! Then to Gambia Monday I think. I'm superpsyched to visit my friend kora player Foday Musa Suso there, i and re-connect with my Mandinka drum teachers and other friends there who I met December-January 2002-03. Then I'll return to Dakar March15 to resume our Meet the Composer project, my sabar lessons, and checking out m'balax bands, which brings me to the title of this post.

Last night I went to a club called Sahel with my friends Abdoulaye, Khady Guey, and Jacob. Mbaye Dieuy Faye was playing m'balax with his band. There's a good short synopsis of M'balax by Benning Eyre here. What an incredibly rich tradition this music has... Its just thirty-or-so years since Les Etoiles de Dakar, the band that gave a teenage Youssou N'Dour his start in the mid-late 70s, combined the influences of sabar rhythms, salsa, ska, folk, funk, and jazz, and the music is vastly popular throughout Senegal and beyond!

I took some short videos and pictures last night at the club. Got to get it together to post them here. Hard to find words to describe the feeling in that club, with the Wembley-sized speakers in that nightclub-sized room. We arrived at midnight and nobody was there. The concert was supposed to start 1am-ish. By the time they began at 3am, the parking lot was packed and the dance floor was empty, with a ring of people politely allowing the band to work through the first and second tunes. By the time the third and fourth tunes started, Mbaye Dieye Faye had taken the mic from his warmup lead vocalist (wonder what the history is on this tradition? James Brown rocked it of course and countless others - where did it begin?) and the place was going off!! Almost no one drinks there so it was just dancing energy - and of course the high octane gunpowder green tea everyone drinks and soft drinks. Everyone got their major swerve on... doing the m'balax as it were, the jumping dance. Every single person (except the few tubabs- read white folks/westerners) in the club was an incredible dancer! Beyond comprehension the way people's bodies move here...