Doudou N’Diaye Rose Was Still as a Mountain

On this day, August 19, 2015, we mourn the passing of one of the greatest percussionists of our time, the Senegalese master Doudou N’Diaye Rose. I was never lucky enough to meet him, though I did encounter him once from afar. What follows is that short story, written on Friday July 18th, 2003.


I saw him by himself in one of the side nooks next to the dance floor. He was in a light blue traditional boubou, and it was dark so his face looked mysterious. He was still as a mountain while everything moved and flounced around him, just staring at the ground. He was old enough to be the grandfather of anyone there and seemed to act as such. What was he doing here in this place, full of nothing but young Tommy Hilfigers and Fubus?

We were in a club in Pikine, the Harlem of Dakar, to check out some music, and the band started at 1 am with kora, guitar, bass, drum set, and singers. Also on stage was a rack full of sabar drums side by side in a line, a contraption enabling the adaptation of the traditional sabar ensemble to accompany modern electric bands. The music, to this day, was the loudest I’ve ever encountered.

All through the set, drummers would appear out of nowhere, from the crowd, the side of the stage, from the behind the mic, and jump on one of the lead drums and play what sounded like a medley of syncopated Gatling guns. It ran me into the ground and I loved it; I could feel the goose bumps on the inside of my heart. Every now and then there was controversy and the music would stop, people would yell at each other in Wolof, a new drummer and/or singer would step up, and the music would resume without a second thought. People danced and I watched the young drummers in amazement. Again the music stopped, and people were gathering at the front of the stage, screaming at one another.

The old man’s name was Doudou Ndiaye Rose, and I later found out he was the most respected sabar drummer still alive. He had left his nook for the stage, picked up a stick, and silenced the entire Universe with a series of short blasts on one of the lead drums. Everyone moved in closer with wide eyes, and Ndiaye Rose started to play again by himself. He was a short man, and all I could see was the blur of a stick above his head, forming the yellow shape it does when you play with the correct technique. It’s like he was demonstrating that energy doesn’t fade with age, but with laziness, or from too much wandering in the realms of the West. He played and every animal out in the bush looked up. He played and called out things that all of us were too young to know. He played and sent us away. His whole body was sturdy and fixed, yet his arms and hands were smudges against the backdrop of people, and I saw his mouth and lips going at the same rate.

When he was finished, I was also finished.

On December 11th 2013, I Don’t Know What I Did

On December 11th, 2013 I wandered into the new music room in my new house, where my koras are now kept. It used to be that I stored everything in my bedroom in my old apartment because I had no extra rooms – it was like a museum’s warehouse. Furniture upturned, dusty gemstones eyeing you from the desk, components of koras everywhere, a broken hand-carved wooden window-door I brought back from the Dogon Country in Mali resting on the floor with it’s hand-hammered nails waiting to be put back in.

In the new music room, I walked up to my Dialy  (pronounced like “jelly“) kora: a modern take on the ancient instrument, with guitar and bass machine tuners for easier accordage. It has a cute little sewn-up area where I stitched a tear in the cowhide that happened during it’s freight journey here from Mali. I thought back to the first time I saw it, when I was on a Durham Arts Council-subsidized trip to Bamako to commission this kora from my teacher Dialy Mady Cissoko. I was hanging out with students in a music classroom at L’Institut National des Arts in central Bamako. Dialy Mady walked in with a smile and handed me the dried body of the kora – just the gourd, crossbeams, and skin, still wrapped with the twine that was used to pull it tight when it was wet.

Back in my music room, I released this pleasant moment of nostalgia about my instrument, checked it’s tuning, and put it into it’s case. As a musician, I love this time: when you are preparing your tools of the trade for their rendering into people’s experiences. Sometimes I pause for a second and think: yes, kora, you are going into a case now, so compose yourself, because soon you will be singing, gliding, sailing the notes into people’s ears, into the folds of their skin, and just maybe – into their heartspace.

That morning I was headed to UNC Hospitals for the second time to play for patients. The week before, I was a patient.

I thought about this as I walked into the hospital to find a bustling holiday market going on in the lobby. Cutting straight through the hubbub to meet me was Joy Javits, the organizer of DooR To DooR, a non-profit that works to bring the arts into UNC Hospitals for patients and staff. Joy is a lovely person that seems to float around ever-so-slightly, like Tinkerbell, ultra-aware of what’s happening around her. She’s very mindful of people’s boundaries and knows how to communicate; she’s like a patient-whisperer. She put together DooR To DooR in 1993, which brings in over 200 artists and performers each year. Joy delicately facilitates their contact with patients and staff, setting them up with stage performances or going room to room to perform for patients.

The whole reason for writing this blog post is the story that follows. Everything else above is just filler and backstory.

Joy and I decided that we’d go over to the cancer hospital, 3rd floor I believe. Bringing a kora and it’s music into the hospital is like a scaled-down UFO landing – everyone is intrigued and captivated by this foreign thing. I played for 3 patients in a row: a middle-aged guy who was having his vitals taken, a fella in his 80s from Raleigh who was eating lunch with a shaky hand, and a mother with her daughter who didn’t seem sick at all.

While Joy was out finding my next patient, I was playing quietly in the hallway when I was approached by a nurse. She said “I know someone who you might could play for. He’s 24 and has been in here a week. He has a very bad prognosis and refuses to talk to anyone. He’ll probably say no, but I’ll ask. I did his intake, so I have an ‘in’ with him.” She came back the same time as Joy, and said that the 24-year-old had agreed. We all gave a tiny cheer and then went over to his room together. I sat in the doorway to play because he was under a ‘Contact Warning’, meaning he could easily catch something from me.

He was on the other side of the room, focused on his laptop and phone and other devices, and he welcomed me with no expression. I greeted him and began to play a new song of mine called Mes Amis du Kalaban Koura. It has a nice, uplifting, churning spirit to it, and I focused on sharing that spirit with him. Often when I play kora, I don’t look directly into people; that’s the job of my notes. But this time I looked at him and smiled, and noticed he was really interested in what I was doing. After I was done, he asked me lots of questions about the kora and where it comes from and what the heck I was doing playing it so well. I played another song, a traditional piece from Mali called Kulanjan (not originally a kora piece but adapted to kora) and handed him a complimentary CD and wished him well.

A few minutes later his nurse walked up to me in the hallway. She had tears in her eyes. She looked at me and said, “you don’t know what you just did.”

I think she said a few other things, but I never got past the first part. And I don’t think I ever will. Because it’s moments like this that urge me to feel like my chosen (by me or the universe?) profession is the right thing to be doing. That the calling I feel to be a musician is exactly that, a calling. And the universe wins when people answer their calling, right? My bank account begs to differ, but my heart thumps harder and I am more happy every second that I spend sending a note from me to you.

So if it’s part of my job to bring a strange instrument from a distant place into totally new territory, I’m game.

What to Write and What to Keep

Youssoufa’s Band at Kasumay

After writing these words, I took a voyage into the palace of my memory that is the resting place of my experiences. They are all in there somewhere and now I’m choosing which ones to share with y’all. I recently read an article by a memory athlete on how the technique of storing and recalling bits of information works. Briefly, each bit of information that you want to remember is associated with a visual image, and these images are stored together in locations that you can mentally walk through, such as a castle with lots of rooms or a garden with lots of plots.

For Senegal, I chose an old stone castle that I visited in Scotland in 1999. It was in ruin, but it still works for documenting this particular adventure. The chamber at the northwest corner of the castle represents Kairaba’s 4 separate trips to see Diali’s brother Youssoufa’s band play at Kasumay, a bar about 15 km north of Mbour in a town called Somone. Kasumay was dark and dusty, as was the chamber of the castle.

Youssoufa is Diali’s older brother, and heads up the band with his virtuosic kora playing. Diali relates that Youssoufa was next to their father a lot more often than he was, learning kora music and how to ply his trade as a jeli / griot. He plays with a fluidity and melody that is truly remarkable, and is very fluent in every traditional piece there is. However, with his band he plays new creations that he has build on top of the old.

His band is acoustic-style (but loud), with himself on electrified kora and vocals, Baba on electric bass, Kausu on the low and middle soruba drums, Kemu on dunduns (double-headed barrel-shaped drums played with sticks), and Ablaye on jembe and the high soruba. Often others join in, including the members of Kairaba quite frequently. The songs are long and like the ebb and flow of tides. The music ripples at your toes repeatedly, then suddenly it’s going down your throat and flooding the village. The tempos are slow, but the subdivisions are high; that is to say that the main groove could seat itself as a slow waltz, but when the dancers heat up, as they certainly do, the band is suddenly playing 32nd notes. At this, your blood begins to march faster through your veins so when you are pulled up to dance, you are ready to explode.

This was like going to school for Kairaba; like an internship. It was a very valuable experience, playing with such great, smooth, and friendly musicians. Throughout our trip, we continuously inspired each other, and neither side would accept that they were better than the other. I freely threw around words of flattery like maestro, maitre (teacher), patron, big boss, super étoile (superstar), as well as embellishing them with le grand… and le super…. This got me in trouble and had me permanently earmarked for the rest of the trip as maestro or maes (rhymes with nice) for short. Jabu, Diali’s 12-year-old sister, found it continuously funny.


Back in the chamber inside the Scottish castle, there were a few white shells on the floor, dotting the darkness with a pale pearly din. This represents a moment at Kasumay that touches me every time I remember it. Kemu, the dundun player, is a tall, slender, intensely muscular fellow whose figure is sought after by many a lanky boy. He is very sweet and never hesitated to help me with anything I needed. But when he played, he was serious. His blank stare could win the world championships. But there was a moment when he departed from that stare that I found to be especially beautiful.

The band was playing at Kasumay on a dark, cool night with no lights on them. The music was rolling, beer was flowing, the public was into it, singing along and dancing in short bursts. A few whites were there, but it was mostly Senegalese. Ablaye, on jembe and high soruba, suddenly launched into a short burst of soloing, ending perfectly on the same beat with Kemu’s simultaneous and ornamental response to it on dunduns. Kemu cracked a smile, not a big one but like a ¾ one, showing his beautiful white teeth that were not yet darkened by the high sugar intake of his lifestyle. With this smile, he noted his pleasure at one of the most important aspects of playing that kind of music: communication/response. Ablaye called and Kemu answered, adding movement to the music and bringing into that dark and dusty scene an awesome moment of beauty.

Things to Love

1. The scene on the beach at dusk. Every evening, the beach would be flooded by buff men exercising tirelessly. Soccer matches in the deep sand, lutteurs (wrestlers) practicing, joggers going quite slow, men doing crazy push-ups in pits they had just dug, and the same men doing unbelievable backward squats up an incline. I didn’t last long at all in the soccer matches and the squats were just plain out of the question. So I just did some push-ups and then went for a benumbing swim in the cold sea.

2. Moulaye’s morning greeting. Moulaye is a relative of Diali who was very keen on practicing his few words of English, especially ones that he didn’t quite understand how to use. His shining moment, which became fodder for a joke that arose every hour, was when he walked up to John in his doorway one morning and blurted out “I’m fine?” Of course he meant to say ‘how are you’, but he got the question and response mixed up. Later he began to make fun of himself and even started embellishing: “I’m cool fine? I’m fine baby?”

3. The Baobab tree. You’ve heard of ‘em. These are the trees that inspire fantastical fairy tales where old wise owls live in huge old trees and inside is an endless world to be explored down and down and downwards. My living room could actually fit into a baobab trunk. Senegal is dotted with them, some parts more densely than others, and the drive from Dakar to Mbour provides plenty of eye candy à la Baobab. Unlike most other trees in West Africa, they are rarely cut down because the wood doesn’t burn well and the tree provides a slightly sweet white fruit that is dried, blended with juice and made into a nice refreshing drink, among other things. The bark is also sliced off in a vertical pattern and used for rope and provides access to the trunk where water is stored by the tree for the dry season. The leaves are also cooked down and used in dishes and medicines. Many cool things about this tree. I hope you get to see one one day.

4. Eating the repas of the day. I’ve already written about the food (see the entry containing the words “bomb-ass food”) but I’ll do it again dang it. The Senegalese eat a light breakfast and dinner, but the midday meal (the repas) is a serious undertaking. In some cases, the cooks will spend all day preparing it. Typically, everyone eats together on the floor from large platters, using their right hand. I noticed that the men usually assume a customary kneeling position that facilitates easy right-hand access to the platter while minimizing the occupation of real estate next to the platter (often there are a lot of people eating and space is limited). You can try it: start by standing, then kneel down so your butt is almost on the ground; before you fall over backwards, slide your right foot under your butt and rest your weight on your heel. There is also a custom of insisting your fellow eaters to never ever stop eating. Just try and stop eating (when you are full) and see what happens. You will get yelled at by people still eating (with their mouths full), fingers will point back at the platter you just relieved yourself of, and rest assured brows will be furrowed. The only thing to do is return fire the next day, and this will win you MAD cool points.

5. Supakanya. This is more like Things to Love/Hate. This is also under the food category, but it deserves it’s own numeral here on the blog. Supakanya is a dish that, unlike the dishes written about in the ‘bomb-ass food’ entry, wasn’t so popular with the toubabs (foreigners). I was hanging out with the cooks one day while they were preparing it, and I left the kitchen confused and despondent. It’s a red sauce with okra and lots of strange stuff from the sea. I watched as Ami Cole, head chef, dumped tiny bag after tiny bag of strange powders and dried seafood bits into the bubbling goo. I questioned her about the contents and it was always “c’est ______, c’est quelques choses de la mer” (it’s _____, something that comes from the sea). I soon stopped asking and felt content that I at least recognized some small, dried shrimps. The dish is Diali’s favorite and he was ever so excited to eat it for the first time in two years.

6. Music was everywhere, all the time.

Kairaba plays in Senegal

As of this post, Kairaba has played five gigs: one in Thies, two in Mbour, and two in Saly.

We are struggling to find adequate equipment and have experienced everything from broken kick pedals, malfunctioning high-hat clutches, fried 110 volt power supplys, missing jembes and congas, blown speakers; we’ve played without tom-toms, amplifiers, audiences or payment. Three of our shows were basically auditions to get a later gig.

But all our gigs were trumped by a birthday party we played in the street for the 4-year-old daughter of Ablaye, one of Diali’s cousins. A make-shift stage was erected (a torn blue tarp on the sand with a backdrop) and plastic chairs were brought in and set up in a big circle. We rented a sound system which arrived on a horse-and-buggy, but without an adequate mixer. Thin wooden logs were put in the sand to support 2 light bulbs on a wire which ran from the center of the circle to the center pole holding up the tarp backdrop.

While waiting for the mixer, they blasted our CD for everyone to hear. It was extremely loud and children were dancing and chasing each other. Three teenaged women swept the sand with homemade brooms; an older woman set up shop with little bags of peanuts and fruit for sale. We all had a feeling something big was going to happen. We were supposed to start playing at 5 pm but it was actually after 11 pm when everything was finally in place. It was like a mini-stadium with layers of guests and onlookers packed closely so that you didn’t see many bodies, only faces.

While sound check was more or less happening, our driver and right-hand-man Babacar was repairing a broken kick pedal and Jonathan was showing the ‘soundmen’ how to use their own equipment. Diali’s brothers and cousins were entertaining the guests with soruba drumming, a Mandinka style of drumming similar to the Wolof sabar described in the previous post. The drums are shaped and played similarly but the repertoire and feel of the music is different. They are worn around the waist and can be 5 to 7 strong. The lead drummer blows a whistle and plays to the dancers, who suddenly emerge from the crowd, bust a quick move, and disappear as quickly as they came. The soruba drums are decorated with thin strips of sheep skin that symbolize a goat’s goat-tee and descend from the drumhead, hiding the wooden body and swaying with the pulse. Drummers tag out repeatedly so that every time you look up there is someone different playing one of the parts.

Finally when everything was ready, shouts became whispers and the sand that had been kicked up during the soruba session settled back into the ground. The sound from our first song, Kaira, blasted from the speakers and met perfectly the curiosity of everyone there. A few people got up to dance and a few others got up to be closer to their friends to collectively share their thoughts on what was going down. I was a little nervous so I was seeking some sort of sign that what we were doing was good in some way.

And it was. We killed it. After the first song, the thick air of anticipation gave way to cries and screams and dancing and laughing, pointing, singing, clapping; basically an advanced stage of merriment.

Diali talked a lot into the mic about what he was doing in the US, with his wife, with us, with his students… this was his moment. Everyone was quiet and surfing on his eloquence, adding their own from time to time as in some of the more participatory Christian congregations in the States. Then we played our song “Jabu” for almost 30 minutes, with the soruba drummers joining us and creating a deafening battery of polyrhythmic bad-ass-ness. Family members and close friends of Diali seized the mic in succession and spoke about their feelings while the band cooled down to a simmer. “Jabu” is about Diali’s younger sister Jabu and how Diali was wondering: “who’s going to take care of my lovely sister if I move to the United States? I am worried about that.” At the commencement of this song, we made sure to bring up Jabu and embarrass her (and make her a superstar). She had a nice red dress on and a smile that just about made me drop the beat.

Several times the lights suddenly went out and the dance circle would get flooded with people who wanted to leave their seats but were until then too nervous. Then the lights would flicker back on and folks would take off screaming in all directions. There was the timidness of prom, the sacredness of ceremony and tradition, and the ‘anything goes’ attitude of a drunken night of bar hopping; at any moment I could have whispered in your ear: “I have no idea what is going to happen next.” I loved it.

This circle that we created of bright light and music and dancing and love was like a glowing civilization in the clouds – a starburst surrounded by black nothingness, for outside this circle the bustling town of Mbour did not matter and in our experience had vanished. I had seen events like this one on YouTube and in descriptions in dissertations and papers, but I never thought I would be performing at one. I had had misgivings about being a toubab jembefola (foreign jembe player) of debatable intermediate skill level and performing as such in front of young Senegalese hot-shot jembefola who were half my age and twice as good as I’ll ever be. But in this circle, all that drifted away as people showered me with praise that I humbly and quickly tried not to accept but soon gave up. People here are very, very nice.

And I think I can say that it was Kairaba’s most successful performance here yet .

Kairaba in Senegal: Sabar, Kairaba HQ, and Bomb-ass Food

The Senegalese love their most popular style of music: Mbalax. Kairaba’s first show in Senegal was at a club called Palais du Cultur in Thies, opening for a somewhat famous MC called Mode Faye. His group consisted of drum set, bass, keys, 3 singers and a battery of 5 percussionists: one tama (talking drum) and 4 in the sabar ensemble. It was mbalax with a twist.

The power of the sabar ensemble is something to be reckoned with. As a percussionist who has studied complex polyrhythmic forms of drumming for over a decade, I suddenly feel like I know absolutely nothing! If you saw me in the audience watching, you would see me shaking my head whispering “how the hell…!”

The drums are made of hollowed out wood one to two feet long with a goat skin on the top. They are played with a switch in the right hand which gives a crack sound that could wake those in a coma. The left hand plays tones and slaps that form the foundation of the rhythm, the three main drums being of low, mid, and high tones, and the fourth (with a looser skin) giving a thud sound akin to nothing I can think of. I perceive the execution of sabar like the layout of a baobab tree: a huge trunk of an accompaniment-type polyrhythm that branches off into other directions in order to deliver the life-force to the trunk. These branches are short, syncopated breaks that stretch the concept that we know of as “time”. The cracks and tones of these breaks are played in unison but sound like gunshots from a cavalry of 50, some firing in rapid succession, some with thoughtful space. It is stunning. And even more unbelievable is the dancing that accompanies this insane percussion. These short bursts of breaks last for between 2 to 15 seconds, and the dancers are intricately linked to each note, always making sure to hit the ending “WHAP!!!” with a hip thrust or something equally as hilarious. The point is to throw the audience into amazement and laughter at the same time, while one-upping each other late into the night (like 5 am night).

Kairaba HQ

Kairaba is staying at a hotel-type place that is in slight disrepair and is up for sale. It is right on the beach and surrounded by a paradise of palm trees and sand that is relatively trash-free. There are 3 round buildings with 4 rooms each that were parceled out to Kairaba and selected members of Diali’s family and close friends who take care of logistical details. We are on the edge of Mbour, just down the strand from the town of Saly, which boasts 4-star hotels, restaurants and plenty of foreigners on vacation.

Kairaba HQ is situated among a maze of sand streets, some full of shops with hand-painted, misspelled, endearing indications of what is sold or done there. There are lots of taxis and horse-and-buggies for transport, striking a noticeable contrast to Mali where motos are preferred. People prefer to wear western styles here, and especially the younger generations can be found wearing clothes with either 50 Cent or Obama emblazoned on them somewhere. The air is cool and clear near the coast but gets substantially more life-threatening inland. The absence of auto emissions laws (or enforcement there-of) pretty much sentences the entire population to a respiratory illness at some point. Its as if it were a contest to see how dilapidated you can let your vehicle get and still use it as transport.

Deadly Food

Diali’s sisters come to the HQ every day around noon and begin preparing the day’s meal, to be served around 3:30 and feed about 20 people. There are four main dishes, the most important of which is Chebu Jeun. There are two main types: red and white. This is the national dish of Senegal and is made with fresh fish and a plethora of vegetables over fried rice. With Chebu Jeun, as with all dishes here, people gather around a large platter on the floor and eat together with their right hand. The veggies and fish are cooked in large chunks so they must be broken up and parceled out during the gorge-fest that is the midday meal. For example, if the cassava lands in front of you, you need to break it up into large pieces and toss a bit to everyone there. The food is so good we all can’t believe it. We look forward to it every day with our mouths watering and often stagger away from the empty platter like a beaten-down weary-eyed boxer.

Then there is Thiou (pronounced “chew”). Served with fish balls or fried fish (lots of fish here), it is reminiscent of beef stew with a brown sauce and root veggies. This is Jonathan’s favorite. Next is Yassa, a sauce with a suicidal amount of onions and Dijon mustard, alongside the requisite veggies and fish. Last is Mafe, a thick peanut butter sauce that is hard to not kill yourself eating. Mom and Dad – I’m doing my best to stay alive around all this feasting. It’s hard, but we are managing.

The next post will be about our music engagements here, the whole point of coming.  You won’t believe it.

Mali Variations

Yesterday Austin and I went to visit the bougou (Quarter) where I lived last year for 4 months, Kalaban Koura. Half of my baggage consisted of gifts to friends and host-family there, and I unloaded it with firepower. Each person got something special and by the end I was throwing atomic fireball candy in the air to deafening applause and screaming. The living room at the Doumbia’s exploded with love and gratitude, and all my gifts were put on or turned on immediately and then everyone disappeared. My host mom composed a song on the spot for me and serenaded me as a griot (google it) would. We laughed a lot and enjoyed each other’s company. Later we ate a variation of tigadege: rice underneath a peanut sauce with baobab leaves cooked into it, each bite sprinkled with fresh lime.

After that, my role turned to courier and Austin and I went to the Dembele compound, where I was to deliver a letter, some books and a doll sent by my friend Raki who lived with them the previous year. On the way there I was stopped twice by people who recognized me from 18 months previous, when I would make the same trip from Doumbia to Dembele. At the compound I was first greeted and then promptly insulted, in the joking-cousin kind of way. Raki’s host mother is a Camara (though she married a Dembele), making her a joking-cousin of the Doumbias. That means that we playfully and creatively insult each other with the goal of outdoing the other. The most common insult is to say “i ye so dunna ye” which literally means “you are a bean-eater” but colloquially means “you stink because you fart all the time”. We always had it out whenever I visited, and each time without fail she seemed to have the upper hand.

My kora-building project seems to be coming along nicely. The neck has silver machine-tuners and is engraved with “Dialy” (my teacher is Dialy Mady Cissoko) at the bottom and “Will” at the top (however in my opinion it should be the other way around…) It took Dialy Mady’s apprentices three tries to make the perfect fully-dried sound table for the kora, which is composed of half a gourd, cow skin and three wooden poles. Today I designed the back of the kora with chalk and then cut off the excess skin. Then I tacked the design in place with upholstery tacks. Dialy Mady told me I worked a little slow (ahem… his tools are unbelievably dull), but was a good apprentice. Now all that’s left is to cut the sound hole and the holes for the neck, mount the neck and iron ring, and string it up. But it’s never that easy.

I want to paint a picture with words for you all about what life is like here, but I’m never satisfied with the outcome. This is the filthiest place I’ve ever lived. There is an open sewer in front of our house and every time I pass over it I imagine falling in and never being able to get 100% clean ever again. It contains black refuse water from the street’s compounds and houses, plus everything from broken fluorescent light bulbs to moto tires to mosquito larvae to tall grass (somehow growing). Little black bags are everywhere, swaying in the wind, collected in corners, wafting high overhead, perched in trees and burning in piles of trash alongside animal bones which very much likely came from an animal that had been eating from that exact pile of trash.

Downtown Bamako is every man for himself. I actually detest that expression because it leaves out women, but trust me: here it is fitting. With every step you have to be careful not to get killed. It’s as if cheating death gives you points, and at the end of the day you can cash in your points for free cigarettes. Motos weave around the green Sotrama buses and a woman carrying a tub of plantains on her head and a baby on her back dares them all to run her over. In the rush of one-way traffic trying to leave the central market, there’s always an old man on a bicycle wearing a traditional boubou and riding at an unbearable pace, choking in the exhaust plumes and providing an example of what slow-motion would look like in real life. I’ve noticed a technique in traffic: if you let the others know your intentions, they will usually yield. Just nudge out there, and you’ll be alright, probably.

Along with the Sotrama buses (hollowed-out vans) and motos (like a sooped-up moped), people take taxis all the time. I rode in one yesterday and when we went over a speed bump, I felt it with my feet traversing the last half of the car’s floor. Sometimes you can see the ground, other times you can barely see out the windows. Hailing them and negotiating a price is also interesting. First of all, whenever a taximan sees a white person, they honk at least once. It gets really annoying after a while. I used to respond to the honks with a flick of the wrist with the index finger extended, which means “no”, but I no longer expend the energy. Austin had the idea to carry around an air horn, and when you get honked at, you can return fire.

Secondly, there’s the price. It’s discussed in denominations of 500 FCFA, which is $1. I’ve found it’s best to negotiate in Bambara as much as possible, because the drivers are more likely to give you a better deal. I always start with the traditional greetings (how are you, how’s your family, wife, kids, business, etc) and then continue with where I’m going. Usually they won’t agree to my offer, which is lower than most whites expect to pay, and I have to pretend to walk away in search of another taxi until they beep and wave me in while muttering about the price. To go from my house to the city center, a 15-minute trip, is $2.

I’ve been spending almost every day at INA (Nat’l Institute of Arts), which is in the heart of the city center. It’s an oasis that butts up against one of the busiest intersections in Bamako. This intersection can’t survive even a second without police supervision, as people and cars and commerce and transit blend into one big gyre with all things moving in relation to the others. Every now and then I have to tell some pesky mobile merchant to bugger off, but usually I just attempt to wear a demeanor that says something like “I’m not here to buy your stuff. I have somewhere important to be.” It works pretty well most of the time.

At INA, the students are required to wear uniforms made of the INA fabric, but everyone’s clothes are created by their family’s tailor (tailors are everywhere and cheap). There are thousands of styles and most of them are so creative that I find myself wishing I had some clothes like that. INA is separated from the madness by huge walls and gates guarded by friendly old men in oversized brown uniforms. I really enjoy greeting them when I arrive because they always ask me why I don’t have a Malian wife, or more than one wife.

China has a monopoly on providing Mali with two-wheeled motorized transportation, and these motos are everywhere in herds, in varying states of disrepair. At INA they are parked all over the place, giving the kids a place to hang out between classes. The classrooms are simple concrete boxes where kids can learn music (they must choose one traditional and one modern instrument), painting, theater, photography, drawing, graphic design, pottery, screenprinting, leatherworking and more. Taekwondo classes are held each evening on the concrete basketball court, which is swept and scrubbed with water and a bundle of straw each afternoon by an older man who also likes to talk about my wife/wives.

Everyone knows me there as a pupil of Dialy Mady Cissoko, a music teacher there, and I’ve noticed that I get a certain level of respect from that. There are a lot of alumni that come there every day and just hang out, smoke, do the “Mali Chill” (see a blog post from last year, it’s worth it), make tea, and play around with tunes. I’ve showed them some of my original stuff on the kora and it’s been well received. Austin and I have also been inundating everyone we can with Kairaba’s new music which we carry around on mp3 players, and that has led to at least a small level of celebrity status. I was going to try to capture people’s expressions in a photo collage, but it just got to be too much to handle.

As I write this, it is my last full day in Mali. Tomorrow Austin and I fly to Senegal to meet up with Jonathan and John from Kairaba and to begin the second leg of the trip: to rock the heads and hearts of the Senegalese public. While being here in Mali, I’ve realized that I am a foreigner that is built to live here. I thrive. I really enjoy speaking two foreign languages here (French and Bambara, and sometimes Frambara) and I get so much pleasure from interacting with Malians who have taken the time to get to know me. I’m reminded to slow down and to cultivate relationships as if I was writing a novel, word by word and thought by thought. That is what matters. So much has happened here that I can’t put down in this blog, but I can say that I’d like my fourth trip here to be much longer than 12 days… à plus.

Visit this site for photos because I’m unable to load them here at the moment:


First Week in the City of Close Calls

Welcome everyone to the first communiqué from the 2011 Mali-Senegal Kora-Building Kairaba-Playing Voyage Into the Motherland.

When we touched down at Senghor and exited the plane it was 6:30 am local time. Austin and I had sat facing the WCs near the back of the plane, so our transatlantic flying experience was devoid of awareness of how close we actually were in relation to the ground. The dawn in Dakar was a stunning orange, like my coveted turban I had bought in Mopti the year before. But even more moving was the distinct smell of the air, which slapped me with Senegalese memories from my first trip there in 2003: Goree, fish markets, Dudu Ndiaye Rose, Chebu Jeun and the sacrificing of a small black goat to settle a problem with someone’s dream.

While waiting for our connection to Bamako, Austin and I killed time at the airport by chatting with local boys who harass foreign travelers, and we played our new Kairaba recordings for them; we befriended other toubabs in transit, napped in the airport hall amongst outbursts in Wolof and travelers having their baggage shrink wrapped to keep them spotless while in the dirty holds of the airlines that serve Dakar.

While getting continuously pummeled with smells and memories, I reflected on how fortunate I was and how someone I rarely see had recently noted that I had an amazing life. I didn’t know what to think of that comment, but it afforded me a perspective that is unachievable by any other means. I just felt like I was escaping. Leaving behind the now-watered-down but still revolutionary concept of Occupy; leaving, leaving, leaving. Leaving to add further folds into my skin of experiences too powerful to capture anywhere else. Leaving to return knowing myself better. Leaving to see how other cultures seek to achieve what all cultures do in their own way: a good life. Just a good, happy life filled with loved ones.

In the Bamako airport, I quickly let the harassers know in their own language to back the fuck off, that I knew what I was doing and I didn’t need them for a damn thing. They held their Orange phone credits and Dunhill cigarettes loosely and just stared blankly off in the distance. After a few minutes they abandoned me and searched for their next victim.

We are staying in what amounts to a paradise. The neighborhood is called Badalabougou, but also goes by Toubabubougou. “Bougou” means neighborhood or village, and “toubab” means foreigner. There are lots of white folks around here, which means that there are also amenities that are otherwise hard to find, like expensive western-style supermarkets and ATMs and such. Our hosts are my friends Stephanie and Pierce, who are here for a year working and interning. They rent a two-story European style house with a French couple, a woman from Luxembourg and another woman from New York. It’s nice.

This entire voyage for me is 33 days. Part 1 is a mission in Mali spanning 12 days using grant money that I was awarded by the NC Arts Council: commission and help construct a kora with machine tuners with Dialy Mady Cissoko, my teacher and advisor from 2010, and one of the most respected kora makers in Mali. You can read more about him in some of the older blog entries below. Part 2 is a mission in Senegal spanning 21 days: our band, Kairaba, will rendezvous and perform our brand of Senegal-Mali-North Carolina dance music at places and venues that are at the moment unknown to us.

So far so good. My Bambara and French have returned to the front of my brain and I continuously leave Malians surprised at what I know about and who I know in Mali (which honestly is really not that impressive). Just as in 2010, I’ve begun spending most of my days at INA (the National Institute of Arts) with Dialy Mady working on getting the kora done in the small window of time that I have. Alternatively, he’s made me play kora for his music class and flattered me in front of many people that we’ve encountered. Austin and I play our new Kairaba recordings for as many people as possible and they are ALL, without fail, absolutely floored. Even the music instructors have a lot to say. Many are just in disbelief. I wish you could see some of the looks on their faces. They are the kind of looks which are used instead of words. Blessings and praises in French and Bambara shot at me and filled my body up like a storm surge with one of the most beautiful feelings a person can have: that one is doing the right thing.

The Beethoven and the Bach of Mali

So now things are real different. School program is over, classes are over, the other students have gone, and my friend Austin is here from the States to visit and study music with me.


My last school assignment was to do a month-long research project (ISP – Independent Study Project) on a topic of my choosing that related to the program themes of health, gender, community empowerment and development. I did mine on the kora, naturally, even though it doesn’t relate that much to the themes. Overall it went well, but by the time to turn it in, it was only about 10% done. That’s in my eyes. In my school’s eyes it was 110% done. 32 pages. I titled it “The Kora and Korafolaw: A Treatise on the Musical Instrument and Those Who Play It.” I used interviews, various other fieldwork techniques, internet research, and my bible: Mande Music by Eric Charry. I interviewed famous kora players Mamadou Diabate and Madina N’Diaye and several kora students at INA (L’Institut National des Arts) in Bamako. I did all my interviews in French… actually just about everything I do is in French or Bambara, both somehow seeming to get a little better each day. But doing academic interviews with the hottest music stars in Mali? That’s not quite my level yet… But ever since Austin came, I’ve been realizing how far I’ve actually come. He speaks no French at all, so I’ve been doing everything that involves communication with other people, which ends up being just about all the time. I translate for his lessons, negotiate prices for things, relay messages back and forth and transcribe menus. I’ve also realized how impossible Bamako would be to navigate without speaking any French. It’s utterly confusing to figure out how to get somewhere sometimes. To take the public transit, to find a good place to eat, drink, stay… basic stuff. Hard to do. Taking Austin around makes me feel like I’m on track to becoming a tour guide.


I stayed in a ritzy hotel for the final 4 days of the program with the other students and then found a cheap hotel in Kalaban Coura (my homestay neighborhood) to stay in with A/C for Austin’s first 2 nights here. They were like complete opposites. Hotel Mirabeau is near the city center and was $100 a night. Hotel Hollywood is tucked away in Kalaban Coura and was $20 a night. But Hollywood mainly just opens it’s rooms by the hour for lovers, prostitutes, etc. We made sure to stay gone all day and locked up well at night… I don’t recommend Hotel Hollywood.

After Austin arrived we stayed there for three nights which was how long it took to find a real room to rent for 3 weeks (this was quite difficult). Now we’re living there until we leave June 7th. We have 2 little rooms to ourselves in a little bungalow that’s part of a compound right around the corner from where my homestay family lives. It’s secure, safe, and nice. The compound is owned by a Frenchie who’s in France right now, so there’s not much going on. There’s a family who lives here to upkeep the house and a few cute young’uns, a few cute bunnies, and several loud-ass roosters, hens and peeps. Add in the usual peppering of lizards and butterflies, and you’ve got a typical kind of Malian compound.


Austin and I both take lessons every night from music teachers at INA. He takes jembe lessons from a fella called Mama Kone and I take kora lessons from Dialy Mady Sissoko. The jembe lessons are formal (1 or 2 hour, paid by the hour) but the kora lessons are informal and taught “in the traditional way.” This means that no money exchanges hands, only gifts such as kola nuts, dates, phone credit, and maybe in the future a package of expensive guitar (kora) tuners sent from the US. Also, there’s no keeping track of time, and I learn side-by-side by watching and imitating. It’s going very well for all of us. I’ve started four pieces so far: Sackodugu, Mariamaba, Kulanjan, and Keme Bourama. These are old tunes; classics, if you will. The Beethoven and Bach of Mali.

LGBTQ Nights on the Town

A quick note about photos: I stopped posting them here because the process sucks and Facebook is so much easier. Can someone tell me if the links in the post about Photos are working for those of you who are not friends with me on Facebook? Thx. If they work then maybe I’ll link to them at the end of each blog post or something… Now on to the goods.

OK I’m back after a long hiatus. Sorry bout that.  Blog blight or something got me. Actually, I traveled for almost 2 weeks and when I got back I had to hit the ground running with my final research project here in Bamako. I’m in the 3rd week of the 4-week project, so I have a little breathing room before things get even more nuts. It’s supposed to be 3 weeks of research and one week of writing. We’ll see about that.

I’m doing my final project (called the ISP – Independent Study Project) on the Kora, ‘Korafolaw’ (kora players), gender roles, and development. Or something like that; I don’t really know. Due May 7th, 15-30 pages. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to have an ISP advisor who is simply a bad-ass. His name is Dialymady Cissoko, and he’s worked with my school for quite a few years.

He is a griot in the truest, modern sense of the word. Google the word “Griot” cause I could write a novel explaining what the concept means, but I can’t spare the brain cells right now. I will however say that ‘griot’ is a French word for a person who’s a part of a caste of people whose role it is to pass information on from generation to generation orally, through speech, song, and music. But what they do is really much more; MC events, conflict negotiation, counseling, advising, and the list goes on. Some people have said that when a griot dies, it’s like a library burning down. The Bambara word for ‘griot’ is ‘Jeli’, of which ‘dialy’ is a form of. Therefore, ‘Dialymady’ is a definitive name, as if the last name ‘Cissoko’ wasn’t enough (which it is).

Now that you are thouroughly confused, I will say that Dialymady is one of the most well-respected griots in Bamako. He’s renowned for his kora-making skills, and teaches music all over the place. “J’ai pas de temps libre” he says. “I have no free time”. Which is not entirely true, because I’ve spent days with him and a good part of those days has consisted of lounging around at his house on the mountain overlooking Bamako, playing with his amazingly crazy little boy Pabouly, gazing at his 1-week-old son Fallay, sipping tea, and eating like kings.

I place Dialymady around 45 years old; he dresses nice, drives everywhere (a huge luxury in Bamako), and speaks only a couple words of English. He has a dusting of grey hair, a friendly, comic demeanor about him, and is generous in everything he does.

He has set up interviews for me with several kora players and students, and introduced me to the culture at INA, the National Institute of the Arts. I go there just about every day now to ‘causé’ with the kids and jam.

OK now on to the juicy stuff…

Dialymady is also the ISP advisor for a fellow student of mine, Aichata, who is doing her project on homosexuality in Bamako. This is a big, big deal. Homosexuality is ILLEGAL, socially taboo to an extreme degree, and ‘justice’ can be dealt by angry mobs. People who identify as LGBTQ here are literally risking their lives. So, how to do a research project on it? “It can be done” was the response from the Academic Director upon seeing the ISP proposal. Intriguing. As an aside, Elton John is HUGE
here, but everyone refuses to believe he’s gay.

So, since we have the same advisor, Aichata and I have become kind of a team. It’s awesome for me, because I’m very, very interested in her research as well, so I’m obliged to be a part of it. But when Dialymady asked me to help with it, at first I wasn’t sure why. Then one night it became clear.

Dialymady worked on homosexuality a few years back, and had some ideas about how to pursue it. We needed to find informants (who were LGBTQ identified) who were willing to talk to us, as that is basically the only (or best, in my opinion) way to do research here. So, one night the three of us went out about 11 pm to an area where Dialymady knew LGBTQ folks hung around. It was a place across the Niger river from centre ville, back in a neighborhood off the old bridge and near Amandine (the twilight-zone restaurant). It was an “espace culturel”; a bar, basically. And lemme say, there are not many bars here, as almost nobody, relatively, drinks alcohol. Mali is 95% Muslim.

This espace culturel was small, dark, loud with dance music (the annoying kind), and virtually dead. A few groups of men hung around with a slew of beer bottles on the tables in front of them. The deal was this: go in, feel the place out, patronize (buy sodas), and then basically let Dialymady work some magic. The goal was to find an LGBTQ-identified person who was willing to answer some questions anonymously.

It was awesome. We were undercover; incognito… after top secret information- and we stuck out like flashing neon signs. We found a place to sit and observe, and I ordered a Fanta Cocktail, my favorite soda. We sat and waited for a while, and I realized for the first time why my presence was needed. It would be totally awkward in so many ways for Aichata to do this alone with Dialymady.

Dialymady came and went a few times, and after about 45 minutes, he came back saying he found someone to talk to. We went out back to the even darker patio, and there sitting at a table was a yound boy about 15, though in the interview he would give us, he said he was 20. He agreed to talk to us after Dialymady explained him the situation and offered to pay him for his time. We went back to our car and began the interview in the slightly quieter environment (because Aichata wanted to record it). I noticed he kept his door cracked the whole time in case an escape was needed. Rightly so.

Aichata posed her questions and Dialymady translated them into Bambara. The informant gave quick, short answers, and Dialymady relayed them in French. This was when I realized the other reason for my presense: to help clarify things for Dialymady.

Things progressed without a hitch, and after a while it was time to try another espace culturel. It was now about 12:30 or 1 am. Two interviews would be a good catch for the evening. We reasoned that since we were up so damn late, we might as well try to make the most of it so we didn’t have to do it so often (staying up late makes getting good sleep quite difficult because it’s hard to sleep past 6 or 7 in Mali because of the heat).

A few hours later we had conducted another interview, and on the way home Dialymady told us he had posed as a homosexual in order to find informants, which totally blew my mind.

I used to call this entry ‘LGBTQ fishing’ because it felt like that’s what we were doing, and the joke developed between Aichata and I while we were suffering through the 4th hour of loud dance music and our 3rd round sodas of the night. It came about because Aichata’s homestay family’s ethnicity is Bozo (not Bambara), and Bozos are renowned fishermen. It comes up EVERY time Aichata meets someone new. Viola.

Transport Publique à Bamako

Il y a quatre modes majeurs de transport à Bamako : Les SOTARAMAS, les taxis, les cars, et les buses.  Le fleuve Niger n’est pas utilisé pour le transport de peuple à Bamako, mais il est utilisé pour le transport de Bamako à des autres régions au Mali. Généralement, c’est le pauvre qui prend le Sotrama parce qu’il est le mode le moins cher. Par exemple, un billet de Sotrama coute entre 100 et 300 CFA, et c’est la destination qui détermine le prix. Le prix n’est pas négociable, c’est fixé.  Cependant, le prix pour un taxi est vraiment négociable, et les prix sont entre 500 CFA and 6000 CFA. Par exemple, pour aller de l’aéroport à centre ville, le billet coute 6000 normalement. Malheureusement, il n’y a pas de considération spéciale pour les handicapés. Il y a des modes de transport en commune qui va de Bamako à des autres régions au Mali. Par exemple, un car à Tombouctou coute 15.000 CFA.


Généralement, au début la plupart de chauffeurs commence d’apprendre de conduire quand ils sont apprenties.  Pour obtenir un permit de conduire, on doit passer un examen (code de la route) et un test dans une voiture. Le premier permis s’appelle le BC, et on peut l’obtenir quand on a 18 ans. Le deuxième permit s’appelle le BCD, et si on veut conduire un Sotrama ou un taxi, on a besoin de celui-ci. J’ai parlé avec un chauffeur de taxi, et il m’a dit que il était difficile d’obtenir son permit, mais il aimait d’être un chauffeur de taxi. Le processus prend beaucoup de temps, mais il était content avec son travail.


Le system de Sotramas me fascine, et ils sont comme le cœur de transport en commune à Bamako. Le mot « Sotrama » veut dire « Société de Transport du Mali ». Ils sont contrôlés par le syndicat (pas de l’état) et le syndicat est divisée dans deux sections par le Niger. Le syndicat détermine qu’il y a quelques routes qui sont assigné pour sotramas spécifiquement, et qu’il y a des autres sotramas sans des routes spécifiques. Un chauffeur de sotrama peut obtenir une carte spéciale que permettrait le sotrama d’aller quelque part à Bamako. Si un Sotrama est conduisant dehors de leur route assigne, le syndicat peut eux arrêter. Généralement, le system est bien contrôlé est le syndicat sait où chaque sotrama peut aller.

Chaque sotrama est possédé et entretient par un propriétaire ou une association, et chaque peut possède plusieurs sotramas. Le propriétaire et le chauffeur ont un marché unique, et c’est le chauffeur qui paie le propriétaire par leur marché. Après ça, le chauffeur doit paie l’assistant et le pétrole, et ensuite il peut garder le reste de l’argent pour lui-même. Chaque cas est différent.
Il y a des lois sur le capacité et la vitesse des sotramas. Ils sont déterminés par une spécialiste au centre de transport en commune de Bamako. La capacité (typiquement 23 personnes) est le limite de vitesse (50 km/hr) est déclaré au derrière de chaque sotrama. Il n’y a pas d’horaires pour les sotramas, mais ordinairement ils opèrent de 5 heures de matin à 1 heure de matin. Il y a quelques stations majeures pour trouver des sotrama, mais la plupart de stations sont décentralisé. Si un chauffeur est attrapé conduisant trop rapidement ou de la façon agressive, l’amende est la même de tous de les autres moyens (mais ça passe rarement).

Si un chauffeur devient fatigué, il peut donner le contrôle à un autre (non-officiel) pour que le sotrama peut continuer conduire et gagner l’argent. Cette personne non-officielle s’appelle « the american ». Et quand « the american » devient fatigué, il peut donner le contrôle à « the japanese ». La personne à la fin s’appelle « the jamaican », et cette personne est célèbre pour leur faculté de conduire très mal. Chaque personne garde un peu d’argent, mais il doit payer une quantité spécifique à le personne qui il remplacé. Avec ce système, le sotrama n’arrête jamais.

Au début, les modes de transport à Bamako semblent un peu désorganisés, mais en réalité, il y a beaucoup de règles. La plupart de véhicules sont en une mal état et contribue à la pollution d’air ; peut-être une solution est de commence d’avoir des lois sur les émissions.


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