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.