tagged w/ dogons
The six-hour 4x4 trek from Timbuktu to Douentza on the Muslim Feast Day of Tabaski (i.e., no stores open in the two towns we passed) did me in. We stopped an hour or so north of our destination to shoot the sunset behind the first Dogon cliff landscape, and I felt a might queasy – or was it just the poetry of the moment? (This is the sunset conclusion riff that concludes the 2nd show, “From Timbuktu to the Dogons.”) The piste was ass-crackingly rugged, hellishly bouncy with intimations of carsick. Was it because I was memorizing Dogon salutations, which can go on for seemingly ever? Researching Douentza hotels? Reading David Markson’s The Last Novel? Maybe the heat? The luncheon salad in Timbuktu? Whatever. While checking out our quarters at Gourma Campement I became a walking projectile-vomiteer. Three times sending indecipherable stomach remnants into orbit. Diarrhea. I am sick in Africa.
So I lay down, Bea helped me, brought cold Coke and a bucket, and in this night of fitful sleep I drift unthinkingly through consciousness. No fever, so probably not malaria. I look at myself for the first time on the trip: I have aged. My face is red. My lips are badly cracked, bleeding. My hair is crazy. A tired, sad sack. Now sick.
Heave a couple times overnight as well. Really wished I wasn’t the guy who had to decide in the morning, but I am and do. The working principle for this trip seems to be Stick to Schedule. Keep On. So having skipped dinner and now breakfast, feeling “better,” not hungry, we’re on our way.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/The six-hour 4x4 trek from Timbuktu to Douentza on the Muslim Feast Day of Tabaski... more
After all the hoopla and tears of yesterday, we settle in on the roof. The starry canopy, the rustle of breeze from the Dakar shore, it’s a respite refuge. Papa and Karamo trade kora, get Bea to sing. I read a few poems, we make up songs, poems, sayings, teasings, proddings, yuks. It’s the oral tradition in action, and as ephemeral as Eric Dolphy’s last date, real life art.
Tough sleep, Papa too. We’re up at dawn to pray. Hit the local internet as its opening at 9, and sign in, but before we can do anything I realize the guy gave us hour (not half-hour) passes and guess what – they don’t work. Nothing works, oy. Into town, Place de l’Independence, big email place signs us in, I am able to upload our first photo! A young boy cooling out under the Barack Obama Bookstore sign. But, get this – Bea’s mom forgot to attach the passport PDF! It’ll be hours before we can get the copy. Tragedy rearing, we decide to hit the Brazilian Embassy anyway (BTW, we were stuck in the elevator there yesterday for five hellish minutes).
And Lo and Behold! Bea, now a Goddess as well as a Genius, is able to walk out half an hour later with a new passport in hand. Tip o’ Hat to Carlos Leite and his staff!
We shoot some great interviews about Senghor, and the port billboard as well. Run into his wife’s sister-in-law. Our cab driver knows nothing, a great moment. Lots in Wolof, the Arabicky-rasp and lightning crashing amazingly against the rolly rotundity of Mandinka…
Let’s make some passport Xeroxes, put ‘em in the Black Book (production book), what say?
And then, let’s go Bamako!
Simply Put on the Roof
Want to hear a poem: call Bob
Want to hear a kora: call Papa
Want to watch a movie: call Bea
Want to put it all together and sing it at the same time: call Karamo
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/After all the hoopla and tears of yesterday, we settle in on the roof. The starry... more
Let me just take a moment and introduce you to our Sound Guy, Papa’s fourth child (in fact, it’s here at the Brazil Embassy, when I ask Karamo which number child he is that we learn this from Papa – Papa’s first child Bunka, named for Papa’s jelikuntigi (lead griot) father, who died at the age of two).
26, handsome, laid back, devoted to Father and family, an awesome brilliant kora player, I first spoke to Karamo a couple weeks before I left for Africa. Papa overheard Ram and me talking about hiring a soundman – I was deep into last minute French classes, lunching with the wondrous Banning Eyre of “In Griot Time,” Timbala’s guitarist, and Afro-Pop renown, getting filmmaker Sandra Paugam to translate my francais mauvais to the travel agent recommended by Alain Kirili, the sculptor who often works in Segou and Dogon country, hiring MC Paul Barman to be my assistant back home, Peter Townsend (the architect, not The Who guitarist (with “h”)) to fix up apartment – But enough about me! “On the Griot Trail” needed a local sound man because, folks, I’m too untrained and was already booked as host/director/producer/friend of Papa. And when Papa heard this he had the solution!
Karamo grew up in Ballike Sissoko’s compound in Bamako – his mother, Papa’s second wife, is Ballike’s sister. He speaks perfect French, Bambara. And he is a first-class griot, though he prefers not to sing. He writes his band’s music. He is in the process of building a sound studio at Papa’s compound. He’s dedicated and terrific and reliable and, well, I just can’t say enough about this team, the dedication and talent, and the great gift of having Karamo with us. The trip provokes problems with his girlfriend in Old Jeshwang, but he seems dedicated to her. Bea broke up with her boyfriend, just a few days ago. And of course there’s my loss, too, my wife Elizabeth, inspiration for this trip, a year ago. So we’re all kind of openhearted orphans right now, a bit tender and propping each other up as we run through this streak of bad luck.
Bear with us. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled poem in a moment.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/Let me just take a moment and introduce you to our Sound Guy, Papa’s fourth... more
I finally ask Karamo to look at my watch. We cannot figure out what day it is. Bea and I think it is the 15th, Karamo assures us it’s the 18t. I can’t make out the date on my watch because the hour hand is bisecting it. Pause.
We’ve been in Africa less than a week and we’ve lost three days.
The main reason it takes so long to drive Gambia are the police stops, about every 25 miles – every time you enter a new district they have to make sure you are not sneaking in from Senegal. Occasionally they’ll wave you through after you slow to a stop, but usually they scrutinize the driver’s ID and insurance and the white folks’ passports, and a couple times they tried to shake us down.
One policeman asserted that the fact the Gambian stamp entering from Senegal didn’t have an exit date meant I was illegal. Papa tried convincing him that it wasn’t my fault, and then I told the story of my triumphant entrance into the Gambia: instead of paying a tax on the blank tapes we brought with us, the Commander of the Border gave me his card, a smile, and a copy of the Koran, which stunned Papa – evidentially, there is no more auspicious act than being given a Koran. And all I had to do was promise to help get his son into Columbia, no problem. This particular cop wasn’t moved, and it wasn’t until I asked his name (Sanghay) that he backed off.
Between Sotuma Sere and Basse maybe a hundred cars a day pass, which gives the paramilitary police at the checkpoint plenty of time to think of a scam, and the one they came up with was pretty good. The stern policeman stuck his head in the car and told the driver to get out. The crime: Bea, who was shooting Papa’s childhood from the front seat, did not have her seatbelt on. AND, the policeman as policeman said as he carefully unfolded an ancient Xerox, THAT is against the law!
I went into my professor spiel: educational intent West African Culture to the world of poetry yes yes after which policeman as policeman says, Can you read? I take the paper.
It’s the paper that is central here, the magical power of writing. Like many 5 and 10 Dilasi notes (2 ½ cents a Dilasi), it had been so used that it had turned to vellum, the letters weakening, changing to other letters, the folds more like rivers than creases, the vellum feeling like earth, dust just barely formed into a solid.
The writing was that peculiar colonial Brit that you hear from bureaucrats here. Section 3, Subsection (d) Paragraph 2 says that unless you are an ambulance, security vehicle or fire truck ON DUTY (emphasis policeman as policeman’s) front seat driver and passenger MUST wear their seat belts, or they can be arrested.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/I finally ask Karamo to look at my watch. We cannot figure out what day it is. Bea and... more
I get the bed under the mosquito net, Papa’s on the mattress on the floor. Sometimes that’s the way it be. The people of Sotama Sere want to give the honored guest the bed and Papa, here in his home town, is one of the people. On the other hand, Papa’s earned eternal shotgun in the car, with me in the middle in the back so that Karamo and Bea can have easy access to recording and shooting.
Travel Guide Updates
The guidebooks say 5-6 hours from Banjul-Basse, which is the district capital five miles away from S-S. It took us 10-1/2. We did stop for lunch in Ferrafini, and searched for a restaurant Karamo knew of. When we found Eddy’s, by the Youth Center, it looked great, sweet little courtyard, but it wasn’t until we sat down, relaxed and ordered that we learned that if we wanted chicken (we did) they’d start cooking now, we’d eat in an hour or so. So it was off to find Todie’s Fast Food (I have mentioned there are no addresses, period), which is closed so it’s a one table home cooking delicious cheb’n-jen with these little bitter squash that were superb. We also stopped to shoot a cow herd and the boys with it, one of whom played a lonely melody on a Fulani flute, probably not accounted for in the guidebook’s estimate. Might as well mention that the ten hour trip Dakar-Banjul took us nine, including the border officer’s giving me a Koran when I said I’d write him a letter of recommendation to get into Columbia.
There are three ferries – ferries more common than bridges here. Banjul to Barra is the worst. Even though all three ferries were working, even though we paid the baksheesh to get through the barrier and the additional to get past the gate into the loading area and the additional to jump the queue – which failed, by the way, and I got sent to the car for complaining, but Papa did get the money back – it still took us an hour and a half just to get on board. The second ferry, in Georgetown, was at the other side when we arrived, and took forty minutes to decide to return, even though it only holds four cars. And the last ferry, just a few miles past Georgetown was really scary – by now it was 7pm, dark, and the two-car ferry was at the other side and wouldn’t return until a car came to the other side. The only person on the riverbank was a woman sewing by flashlight, and Papa asked her if she had the phone number of anyone on the other side of the placid, deep and gorgeous Gambia River, thinking we could offer double (price of car and four passengers is 57 Dalasi, $2.20), but she just laughed. I was settling down to sleep in the car, but luck was with us, yes, and a car arrived on the other side in less than ten minutes. The final fifty miles was on the south road, which has fallen into total disrepair since the last time Papa was here. It took two hours to get to SS.
Papa and I are abed and talking about Ram and the budget, how much to leave these people at Sotuma. “It’s a good thing it could only be you and you’re here,” he says, referring to Binta and Grandma. I agree. And then it comes to me – we’ll dedicate the film to them. And to my wife Elizabeth who died last year, my inspiration for life’s ongoingness. “Hamddu’Allah,” Papa breathes contentedly. He sleeps. I hop across him to get to the hole in the ground covered by a metal dinner plate that suffices. Up above, the Milky Way is the creamiest I’ve ever seen.
Karamo and I are talking.
What’s more different, French and English or Mandinka and Wolof?
They are about the same difference. French and English are the same at the roots, so are Mandinka and Wolof.
How about Fulani?
Oh nooo! Fulani is completely different! I don ‘t speak it.
This for three languages that overlap greatly for hundreds of miles.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/I get the bed under the mosquito net, Papa’s on the mattress on the floor.... more
It takes all day to get the camera. Meanwhile I make the mistake of handing over an Obama t-shirt to Kinda, Papa’s 14-year old son, too early and here they come: Moussa (14), and Moussa (13), who are always together and known collectively as Moussa Moussa; Saana, Papa’s 9-year-old granddaughter which means Isatou (12), Fatimata (8), Sarjo (7), Bunka (6) and of course Abdullah, who’s one, silent, carries a shoe everywhere, is the epicenter of the family. His t-shirt reaches the ground. And who could say no to the wonderful maid, Bourry, whose first English words to me are “Barack Obama”?
I made a deal with the Director of his program at the YMCA to rent the camera for a week, so we can shoot the Goody Samedhi show being aired tonight, Saturdays at 11pm – Papa and I will be on the national television network’s most popular show. And the kids in their Obama t-shirts. And maybe some (wo)man-in-the-street interviews on Segnhoir in Dakar. Not to mention getting started in Bamako, until we figure that one out. But Chinua ain’t answering the phone, he’s got the keys to the camera, and Karamo now is on the trail of another supervisor who may know Chinua’s address.
We have a general idea where the supervisor lives – there are no street numbers in Banjul. In fact there are no street signs of any kind (well, the occasional stop or yield sign – NB: there are seven traffic lights in the whole of the Gambia). We walk into a compound that has all then earmarks of being the right one, but they’ve never heard of our man Pons. A little more digging though and oh yes, maybe the compound next door. There’s Pons’ car! His wife Cecvilia comes to the door speaking New York English, WOAH. She calls Pons, who’s watching football at a TV hall – he’ll meet us at the Y in 45 minutes. He’s good to his word (an hour 15), and the deal is done. It’s 9pm, we go back to the compound, tune in Goody Samedi – Papa is great and I am a dancing fool, alas, but do get in one professorial comment as the headline band, Pa Mahn Jack, aka Fish ‘n’ Chips, rocks out. Their fan club makes up most of the audience, seriously beautiful Gambian women in their early 20s, who saunter, not dance, up to the lead singer, and hand over Dalasi bills, slowly and directly, one at a time. The fervor of a jeli’s concert tempered, even as the music gets louder and more raucous. Go figure.
6:30am we head back to the crocodile pool. Papa and I kneel down in the folds of a giant banyan (bangtano in Mandinka) tree and beg their forgiveness. I smell them, I feel them. The sound on the new camera isn’t working, but our faithful Sony Digital Audio Recorder with Karamo at the control, catches us as we catch the beautiful sunrise at Kachikally, which is where I believe we came in. We’ll head to Dakar, it will take us eleven hours to do it, and then fly to Bamako, where the poet Lamont Steptoe will fly in with his special alien abduction camera.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/On Words!
It takes all day to get the camera. Meanwhile I make the mistake of... more
Kachikally Pool 6:50 am, 11/23
Large antediluvian reptiles in cotillion
Crawl down rock bed into soft green vitreous liquid meld
And you are pregnant
Birds caroom music trill sheen
You are – the only one
Fecundity ripens and spits goo
The air is oily with hints of morning rubber tires
Crocodilian noses arouse the millefoil
Bamboo towers float far over pool edge
Pearly bead motion tops the dark water
You are – the only one
My only one
…that’s where I was when the camera broke so I guess that’s the end. At least I had thoughts of the end – I mean, if the camera. Just. Quits. Then what are you to do? It’s not like the epitome of lo-budge indie pop films is walking around with a spare camera. Oh no. We’re just a walking disaster zone, spell it Dumb Ass-ter.
Is this the end of the Griot Trail?
Well, of course not. Bea gets Ram on the phone (4am in New York). No, no liquids. No, no falls. Yes, one minute we’re looking for the White Crocodile of Kachikally (guaranteed to win you a seat in Parliament!), the next, nothing works.
By the end of the day we’ve discerned: there’s an email trail of a certain rare but fatal flaw in the Canon XL2 which held Bea in good stead while in India the last ten months. Something inside goes on occasion, you send it in to Canon, it’s covered by warranty, no problem. Unless you happen to be in West Africa. In which case, well – good luck!
Change the little lithium battery. Nope. Leave both batteries off and let the camera rest overnight. Pray. Do the Fonz Maneuver (appropriate shaking, rattling, and a good swift kick). Nada.
Meanwhile on the Find a New Camera Front (thanks to Banning Eyre and Janet Goldner who responded with alacrity and rich info) it turns out that the camera Karamo has been using to shoot music videos for his job at the Banjul YMCA is available and, while 30p rather than 60i, is still broadcast quality. Problem is the price to rent for the remainder of the trip is the same as a new camera. Which turns out to be the same cost as SENDING a camera via DHL. Which turns out to be the same as FLYING SOMEONE to Bamako with camera(s) in tow. Which brings up the name of the poet Lamont Steptoe, old friend and coworker with Ram and Rattapallax Films, and who just happens to be a great shooter with a great camera and deep roots in Africa….
We decide to stay another day in Old Jeshwang to regroup. We learn that instead of taking the 50 Dalasi taxi to Wesfield, we can do a share for 6 apiece. That’s where a faster internet is (I still prefer Yacouba’s cozy place, right off the main highway in Jeshwang, but his server’s down) – but even here at QNet we can’t upload photos. All this would be different (?) if we were staying at the Hilton, which is (Spelunker Advisory) located near the ocean and is completely underground. Literally. All you see are these bunkers, rolling towards the sea.
This is the seventh day from the tandem deaths of Binta, Papa’s 20 year old daughter, and her grandmother, Aja, who raised her. It is a day of the extended family dropping by, and Bea and I decide that this is a time not to intrude, not to be the tubobs (white people) who need to be introduced. Take a day off and search for a camera. Go to the Canon store in downtown Banjul. When we ask for a digital camera, the manager unlocks a safe in his office and pulls out a low end still camera and, for some reason, a wireless printer. Oh, it works with the still camera.
A day of waiting, pondering, Ram checking in with web updates and ideas as we think our way through the crisis. The result is some mighty changes. Staying an extra day in the Gambia is just the beginning.
Papa’s grief has started coming out when he gets tired, like when we spent all day finagling an appearance on national TV, which led right into the shoot – how much Papa has given to this project! After Bamako, where we’ll be staying with Papa’s cousin, the world-renowned kora player Ballike Sissoko, we’ll be moving out of jeliya territory, and away from Islam, just as we approach Tobaski, the Muslim Christmas. Is this the time to acknowledge our situation thus far, two weeks into our six week trip, give Papa some much needed rest and downtime with his big family (Hassan and Sunkung have flown in from New York)? Long talk, the four of us, five including Ram’s input. Papa will do what I want, we have worked three years on this project, no turning back now. But things have changed. After Bamako, Papa will come back to Banjul, see to his house getting painted, celebrate Tobaski with his family, jeli style.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/Kachikally Pool 6:50 am, 11/23
Large antediluvian reptiles in cotillion
I ask Kinda if he knows Ballake Sisoko, the great kora player. No. He knows that Sissoko is Susso in Mali, though. Balake is Papa’s cousin, and Karamo has worked with him. Ballake lives next door to his cousin, Toumani Diabate, on the Street of the Griots in Bamako. Toumani is generally considered the greatest kora player in the world. And Toumani’s and Ballake’s fathers (Are you following this? Yes, nods Kinda) were also both great kora players and put out an album of kora duets, Ancient Strings, a true classic that introduced the hypnotic sound of the 21-string harp-lyre, the iconic instrument of the griot, to Europe and US.
So of course the two cousins put out their own album, pushing the kora into new orbit, “New Ancient Strings.” Both have developed their own careers, solo, with bands, working with musicians around the world. Many (Roswell Rudd, Damon Albarn, etc.) come to Bamako to record. And we, I conclude, thanks to Papa Susso, will be living at BallakeSissoko’s compound! His sister was Papa’s wife, is Karamo’s mother and Karamo was raised there!
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/I ask Kinda if he knows Ballake Sisoko, the great kora player. No. He knows that... more
Papa Susso on Making an Appointment
Don’t call. If you call they will have an excuse. They will expect something. Just go to the door, dadadada. You are in, you are talking. You sent two emails, no reply, they are too busy. Unless you are there, they are too busy. How many emails from people who don’t come, who say they are coming at one time and come hours later or the next day. No, Bob, listen to me –
An appointment in the face takes place
An appointment in the book stays on the hook
The oral tradition trumps.
Papa Susso on the Word “Griot”
Papa says he’s a griot, his father called himself a griot, his father’s father was a griot, all the way back, that’s good enough for him. And good enough for 26-year old Karamo (Wolof: Karamoko), his son and our Sound Director (and an amazing musician who’s putting his wages towards building a recording studio in Papa’s compound). He’s a griot and his father, etc.
But many people, including some griots, really hate the word, thinking it a colonial holdover. And “griot” does seem French, eh? From “cri haut,” or loud cry, shout, and certainly griots are shouters, yes indeed. And the fact is that “griot” is the only word found in all West African languages. In addition every language has its own word for the oral historian/praise singer/poet/musician – in Mandinke, that’s jeli (male), jelimussow (female, or griotte), jeliya (the tradition or way of life of the jeli and jellimussow). Professor Thomas Hale, one of the advisors for “On the Griot Trail,” in his essential text, Griots and Griottes, traces the lineage of “griot” back through the Islamic conversion route to the kewalie singers of India, like the great Ali Akhbar Khan. I can hear it.
For the opposition I quote Amiri Baraka: “It must be jam, cause jeli don’t shake like that.”
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/Papa Susso on Making an Appointment
Don’t call. If you call they will have an... more
Bea and Kinda and I are sitting around after breakfast. Kinda taught me how to disable the ground on the Gambian electric plug to allow me to insert the two-prong adapter, so the AASUS is up and running and charging. Last night’s experience at the Banjul internet was the worst yet – couldn’t get past loading on Gmail, the AC wouldn’t work for some reason, and I couldn’t even get a phone call through to Paul or Ram to orate the blog. Amazing how quickly you can get so far away.
Bea is telling me how I have to make it clear to Papa that the project is a labor of love, that the budget is the budget, and that if there is any money made we all share it. I’ve been working with Papa ten years, so of course he knows this, I reply. It’s a utopian idea, I say, and Kinda, who’s 14, looks at me with that May I please know look and I ask him if he knows what Utopia means. It’s a country, he replies, his intelligence burning. Where is it? I toss back. Now he thinks, and tentatively replies, “I think it’s Africa.” So I launch into Sir Thomas More’s book where everybody’s good and nobody’s hungry, where there’s no war, no crime, no poverty. Bea is surprised – he made it up? “I thought we always had that word!” she says with her Brazilian lilt, then launches into a folksong about Utopia, “Quero a utopia.” Don’t we all?
Because this is a Utopian project, NDAI. Yesterday’s first-ever Gambian Kora Festival was a great example of that. It started at 10am, we got there at 11 (by get there I mean riding the back roads of Old Jeshawang or whatever townships we passed through, roads so rutted the car was tilting at 5mph, at one point through three feet of water, at another a pile of sand covered half the road so we had to pull the mirror in to get through, past storefronts “The Bosom Restaurant” and “Harlem Nigga Store #2” ((electronics) everything is adventure), things weren’t really underway, “waiting for the musicians,” but there were plenty of koras in evidence. I was given the cook’s tour, literally (Vegan Alert) – two horned sheep tied to a tree out back, that’s dinner.
So we head into Banjuil. First start is Mamadou Joof, Chief Director of the Department of Arts and Culture for the Republic of The Gambia. It’s all those “the”’s, especially the one for “the” Gambia, that adds the oomph vault from orality to High Literature. Papa and I had sent two emails to Director Joof, no reply. But here we are told to wait, he’d see us soon, so we do, and within ten minutes are ushered into a leather-chaired African office (for definition of African office watch the truly extraordinary films of Senegalese master, Osmene Sembene). Joof, broad smile, affable, tall, urges us to make ourselves at home while he attends to something, which we do by moving the furniture around completely so Bea can have a bookshelf backdrop rather than the blank wall. When Joof returns I apologize, sorry for commandeering your office into a set. “I told you to make yourself comfortable,” he replies wryly, “I’m honored that you did so.” We hadn’t expected much from the interview, hopefully to gain a way to shoot the taping of griots for Gambian National TV – the move of oral into digital. But we got a live one.
We started off with some questions to establish who and what, mainly the evolution of Department of Art and Culture from the original Department of Arts, Culture and Sports through the Department of Oral History and Antiquities – believe me, you can trace the decline of colonialism, rise of nationalism and the accompanying academic-folk culture clashes through these byzantine bureaucracies. Doesn’t exactly make for great TV, however.
But when we dug into the theories of Endangered Languages, Joof sparkled He really is a politician with a grand view, a pragmatic cultural advocate. As a native Wolof speaker in a Mandinke majority, he’s on the ground in the language wars (I’ve been hearing about creeping Wolofization of Gambia (Wolof is number one in Senegal). Basically, Joof hears the insertion of English into Mandinke or Wolof as evolution (creolization?), inevitable, but that this does not preclude the necessity for maintaining the griot traditions (jeliya in Mandinke). He rests easy with these contradictions, and is doing all he can to maintain and further the griot tradition, The delightful Museum next door has a room full of koras and other stringed instruments, balafons (xylophone-like), drums. Culture preserved. And culture maintained – he’ll see us at the Kora Festival this afternoon.
On the way out of town we stop at the arch that is the vantage point of the City. Looking over the port and the whole rather small city (Banjul is an island, pop. 50,000), Papa plays and I freestyle:
Where the big river gets bigger
Where the land yawns and says enough
Banjul, take these kora strings
Untie the words from their sounds
We stop off at Susso compound. Dchepn-jen (fish, veg, rice), which is indeed my favorite so far, is served and is delicious. Bea, Papa, Papa’s friend, and I at one bowl, ten at the other. Then our bowl goes there. Eat with hands. Learning to pack the rice, clump and pop.
Joof says that he’s not sure if the national variety TV show, “Goody Samedi,” has griots this week, but it does shoot on Wednesdays 11pm and airs on Saturdays at 11pm. He gives us the phone for Mamadou Sanyang, head of The Department of Television and Radio of the Republic of The Gambia. Again, we bumrush. And again, we’re escorted directly in, to a bigger office, and finally I understand: THE HALLS OF POWER ARE AIR-CONDITIONED.
I’d really forgotten about air-conditioning after less than a week in Africa. What a sensuous luxury! Sanyang is affably brusque, one eye glued to his watch. We’ve agreed that Papa will start this one – he slept through the meeting with Joof. He quickly turns to me, but Sanyang obviously gets it, supports the project, we should see him on Monday, I realize we have to flip the trip to Papa’s village, Sotuma-Sere, way upriver, so say we’re back on Tuesday, he’s free all day on Wednesday, I think we’ve got a verbal contract here!
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/Bea and Kinda and I are sitting around after breakfast. Kinda taught me how to disable... more
I suppose I should have been expecting Binta’s death. I met her for the first time yesterday, we shook hands, her touch was light, nonexistent, her skin ashy. She is Papa Susso’s third daughter with his first wife, it was hepatitis. Her brother Hassan, who I helped get to the US with visa and plane fare, had found a hospital and doctor in Poughkeepsie who would treat her without a fee. Hassan’s employer had lent him enough cash to qualify him as sponsor, but the visa people said No good, we need bank statements going back months that show you have the money. So, this was a few weeks ago in New York, I accepted being her sponsor, faxed in bank statements, letter of responsibility. She was to return to the Consulate on Monday. This is Friday. You could say she died of Bureaucracy.
Papa comes over this morning to tell me the funeral will be at 2, be at his compound by 1. And, then horror upon horrors, Binta’s grandmother, who had been grieving voluminously, died this morning. Just fell over. Now two funerals at 2. “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” says Papa stoically, “that’s all you can say.” But his voice says a lot more. It is hoarse and rough, full of disbelief. Dissociated from his body. His voice is crying.
Five hundred Muslim men are walking at a good clip through Old Jashwang. I made it to Papa’s at 1 and Binta had already been buried – we are now going to bury Aja Amie Susso, her grandmother, and the traffic on the main highway stops as we make our way to the cemetery.
I run into the star of yesterday’s Kora Festival, Alhaji Mbaye, a bravura kora player and shouter griot. With his wife, the extraordinary jelimussow, Mariama Sakho, he had put together the Fest – I empathize, the artist taking on the admin work, common enough worldwide. “I am so sorry,” he begins, “and the death of her best friend, too, they were so connected!” “But it was her grandmother.” “Oh yes! Her grandmother, of course!” And I realize I am now taking my part in this great chain of information, the ongoing poem that is the Oral Tradition. I am here as a Susso.
The only women here are the two in the ground. The cemetery is overgrown dried vines, tree stumps, sand. You get the feeling that the event is what matters, after that nothing happens here. Until the next time. Everyone’s packed around the open grave. The Imam speaks maybe a little too long in the broiling sun, I feel the shuffling impatience begin, but we have to suffer a little, and the Imam’s voice is bold and righteous, and speaks, Papa tells me, of the rarity of two deaths in the same house, how we accept the will of Allaah. Plywood on top of the caskets. Some branches and leaves are snapped off of one of the few nearby stumps that still grow, and then the dirt is shoveled in, tossed on, and we all head back. Twenty minutes.
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/I suppose I should have been expecting Binta’s death. I met her for the first... more
We get back to the 10am Kora Festival at about 3:30 and it’s as if they were waiting for us to begin. Greetings greetings greetings from all all all as we walk into Maali Music School, first place in Gambia to teach kora to non-griot families (the caste system is breaking down – see Salif Keita, talk to Papa’s daughters). Evidently there were some kids’ workshops after Papa and I left for our Banjul jaunt, so we’re actually back in time for the first performance, and the room – well, courtyard – is energized. Hey wait – what’s this? Familiar face? Unbelievably, I actually know people here! From hanging with Papa at the Bowery Poetry Club and in the Bronx, saltations from Gambian griots now back home in Banjul. I love being on their turf! Guess I’m home, too.
Here’s the voluble griot Djelimadi Kanuteh with his endless smile taking the mic and introducing (griots are always introducing, it’s the monologue version of the call-and-response hello). Djelamadi holds a well-thumbed hardcover of Tom Hale’s book, in which he’s mentioned – the one that has Papa Susso’s picture in it! On top of the book is a portable CD player cued up to his solo griot CD, which I remember being recorded in NY in 2004. And here, dressed in the same gray boubou he was wearing last time I saw him, the wild-eyed, sharp-tongued and sharp-witted marabout Manjacko Susso, who had been a major player at the concert at the Gambian Cultural Center in the Bronx just a couple months ago. Sponsored by the Center and Bowery Arts & Science (co-producers of On the Road with YT, thank you very much!). Manjacko is a wild card, mischievous, an expert at grabbing the mic and getting jibes in edgewise. There are others, too – education is remembering names here –it’s Old Home Week! Papa and I settle in, right up front, and the music begins.
Mandinke greetings are minutes-long rituals, contain the essence and origins of call and response, and I’ve learned to just respond in English (acceptable here in Gambia which was a British colony, so English is the “common tongue,” unlike Francophone Senegal and Mali) to keep the rhythm flowing: Soomalay How are you? Eebaday OK Thanks Torraceeta Hope you’re having no problems? Tacita No problems and then on to the family and the job, etc., etc. We’re doing the whole thing now, and it’s real – I never expected to make it all the way here and discover I’m just another part of the family. On the griot trail indeed. Boisterous, jovial, touching, jeliya. In Wolof, guewel. In Fula, Nyamakala.
Where is the First Kora Festival held? Not at the big concert hall downtown because – there is no big concert hall downtown.!There are no large venues in the Gambia at all – the notion of going to a concert, play, poetry reading is not in the vocabulary. This I learn from one of the Festival coordinators, Uisadou Ndjie, who is the only woman on stage. She favors an academic approach, felt the Festival would be more successful were it held indoors with planned breakout groups and discussions. The griots come to your house for ceremonies, and the upper crust makes it to events at hotels. So this Festival truly is an experiment – halfway between folk and academy, art and history, popular and classic. Thus it’s held out in the boonies for an audience of maybe a hundred. And the result is a party unlike any other. The norm for the life of the griot….
Bob Holman is the host of a new travel series focused on endangered languages called ON THE ROAD WITH BOB HOLMAN on LINK TV. He traveled to West Africa, Middle East and Asia and these are his blog stories from his travels. More information at http://www.rattapallax.com/blog/on_the_road/We get back to the 10am Kora Festival at about 3:30 and it’s as if they were... more