Journey Within

African Music as Social Fabric
Harris Eisenstadt

Foday Musa Suso and great-niece Aja; Suso's compound, Brikama, Gambia
Foday Musa Suso and great-niece Aja; Suso's compound, Brikama, Gambia                  Harris Eisenstadt©2007

Week 2: Gambia

I’m at my friend Foday Musa Suso’s compound hanging out with four little girls, Bobodinding (age 5), Baby Isa (4), Tida (3) and Aja (1). It is amazing: when I was here four years ago, Bobodinding (translates as little Bobo: she is named after Foday’s wife) was an infant and Baby Isa was still in my neighbor Sadjoe’s stomach. Now they’re little girls running around with tons of energy. It is such a trip to see these kids 4 years later. Suso and his wife Bobo are always raising kids in addition to the 4 they had themselves. Their kids are 21, 19, 14, and 11.

Village on the road to Gambia
Village on the road to Gambia                                                                                   Harris Eisenstadt©2007

It was a bit of a harrowing journey getting here yesterday. I left Dakar at 9am and got here 10 hours later! Dakar to Brikama should be like New York to Boston. The distance is not so great; the problem is the options for getting there. I wanted to see what it looked like between Dakar and Brikama, and I saw all right. With my friend Babacar’s help I found a ride yesterday morning in Dakar. For $14, I sat shotgun in a station wagon that by specs probably should fit seven people. There were ten of us. Luckily, I was the only one in the front passenger seat. Still, the lack of air-conditioning and sweltering midday heat made for a long five hours. We went by village after village and town after town through the Senegalese Sahel, and I guess now I have some perspective on what things look like between Dakar (a really big West African city) and Brikama (a West African town). There were the usual half-finished buildings, cement structures with or without tin roofs, and there were also villages made up entirely of mud huts with thatched roofs. Very interesting to see, of course, as the thatched roofs are a thing of the past at least in the cities and towns. But they are still all over the countryside. That car trip really de-romanticized “the provinces,” which is only for the good. Since I’ve spent time in West African cities and towns, I figured that the villages were where the most authentic, old way of African life takes place. That may be the case, but perhaps predictably, it isn’t so pretty, at least at first glance. The endemic garbage and waste problem that cities and towns have here exists on a probably equal per-capita scale in these villages – at least the ones visible from the road.

When we finally got to the Senegal/Gambia border, I thought the bulk of my journey was over. I was wrong. I spent about an hour getting my passport stamped first in the Senegal customs office then by Gambia passport control. Then I changed some Senegalese francs into Gambian dalasi. I got on a bus that took another hour to get to Barra. I bought a ticket there for the boat to cross the Gambia River from Barra to the capital, Banjul, to catch a cab to Brikama, my final destination. After buying my ticket I proceeded into a kind of waiting area with a few hundred others. How many people were going to get on this boat? We waited an hour until all of a sudden there was a rush towards the gates. The boat was here, they were loading cars and trucks, and presumably on-foot passengers were going to be next. We must have waited 45 minutes in a packed huddle around the gate until they finally opened. There was a stampede of people trying to get on the boat and though we all made it on eventually, I must say it was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. It made me think of the thousands of West Africans who have been risking their lives in perilous attempts to get to the Canary Islands, Spain, and Morocco by boat. The crush of people just to get on a boat from Barra to Banjul was completely chaotic, claustrophobic, and had a kind of desperation to it that I’ve rarely experienced. After yet another hour on the boat, we finally landed in Banjul and I waited until everybody got off to avoid getting caught in a stampede again. Once on land, I went into hard-core bargaining mode, found a cab driver who would give just me a lift – not me plus 3 or 4 others going all over the Gambia – and yet another hour later finally arrived in Brikama.


I’m sitting on a mat in the Suso compound listening to the family play traditional Mandinka music. It’s not a concert, just something folks felt like doing this evening. I came back from emailing and everyone was there. Bobo, Suso’s wife, is singing, his oldest daughter Nene is singing, an aunt or friend of the family (unclear) is singing, Basaikou, Suso’s oldest son, is playing kora, his youngest son Balamin is playing balafon. Their former neighbor from Suso’s old compound, Lamin Kouyateh, was playing balafon when I got here but he seems to have left, so Suso’s 11 year old son jumped in. Lamin is one of Suso’s neighbors from his old compound, where I stayed last time I was in Brikama. What a treat to hear this informal music-making. Again, this is not a concert. Nor is it the Western model of kids practicing scales on the piano or violin while the parents watch TV in the other room. Suso is one of the five Mandinka griot family names. Susos are hereditary musicians. Though the specific castes aren’t observed as rigorously as they were in the past, they still very much exist, so if someone in a musician family has any aptitude, they are encouraged to learn the traditional songbook as it were. There are a series of hundreds-of- years-old songs that every Mandinka knows, whether they are musicians or not. If they’re musicians, they know how to play all of them. There are endless variations on the themes for each of these standards, and everyone worth their salt develops their own interpretive style. Such a beautiful way of passing down history: orally and aurally.


I’m going to have the first of a few lessons with my Mandinka drum teachers Jalamang Camara and his deputy Mamady Danfa. Since I was here in ‘02-‘03, my third-in-command teacher, Dimba Diba, has passed. He was probably close to 80, so he lived a long life. I would have liked to see him again, but such is life. My teachers don’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandinka, so as it was four years ago, we can’t really communicate much without an interpreter. But there’s lots of love between us. We spent almost every day of two months together then, and they could tell I had lots of respect for their traditions and abilities. Jalamang and Mamady are the best drummers in this region, and I have the good fortune of studying with them because of my host Foday Musa. He hooked us up. So lesson today, then programs Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then a lesson Monday, and back to Dakar Tuesday. Too short but, hey, I’ve got to get back and start our Meet the Composer project. Suso talked to my teachers about how much I should pay them for the few lessons. They basically said that because I’d kept my promise to them from last time, that I’d sent them a P.A. and speakers when I could, that I’d come back when time and money allowed, I was part of their group and didn’t need to pay them anything. I will give them some money because they need it, but I appreciate the gesture very much. It’s been my experience that even when you give people money, clothes, medicine, etc, they keep asking for more things. This is understandable. People here often have very little material wealth, so when someone gives them something they assume that person is able to give them more. With my teachers, they know that our relationship is such that I will do whatever I can for them. They have given me so much, and so I try repay them as best I can.


Just had a refresher course with my teachers. I’ve played kutiros in the US a decent amount over the last 4 years, but I’m out of practice. The rhythms I thought I’d learned are pretty much intact, except for a couple that are slightly different than I thought. So interesting because I transcribed the rhythms from my minidiscs over the two months of intensive lessons last time. Further confirmation that it takes someone who’s not from here a long time to really internalize these rhythms: much more time than I’m able to spend. Its like a broken telephone; somehow by the time I got back to the States and taught them to a few people, they were slightly different and doubtless if any of those people tried to teach them to others there’d be yet another version, each time less authentic but, hey, one tries one’s best. As far as the one-hand, one-stick thing goes, it’s the right hand stick skills that erode the quickest. There’s a mute, an open stroke, an open stroke with left hand mute, a roll, and subtleties within each of these strokes.

I keep coming back to the same feeling of déjà vu. We just had our lesson in the same compound that I had my lessons in 4 years ago. A different set of kids than ‘02-’03. They heard drumming in the distance and came to see what it was. They were shocked just like the kids were last time that a tubab was playing their drums. Then before long they’d start to dance and that was that. And what a beautiful thing to watch Jalamang and Mamady play again; they’ve been playing these drums for decades. Jalamang has small hands, perfect for kutiros. Mamady has small palms but long fingers, well suited to the kutiriba, the bigger of the two support drums.


Jalamang Camara; Brikama, Gambia
Jalamang Camara; Brikama, Gambia                                                                         Harris Eisenstadt©2007

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

Anyways, Jalamang and company burned up fere, musubajulo, and lenjeno, the standard rhythms that are part of every womens’ recreational program. They’ve been playing a “new track” for the last couple years called Yeyeng that’s killing. And every single woman danced incredibly. Whether it is the acrobatic feature dance movement for lenjeno or the group dance party movements of the other pieces, every woman here can get down, from young to old. They got me up to join them about two thirds of the way through, and as usual everyone got a kick out of watching the tubab dance. I can hang… particularly in the West with a bunch of tubabs, but here its mostly just comic relief, which I’m glad to provide, as its in good fun and comes with appreciation that a tubab tries and ends up somewhat resembling the real thing.


They played two programs in the Nema section of Brikama today. The first was a short program for a manhood-training celebration for six boys. They sure get younger and younger from the sounds of things. Back in the day in the provinces (read: up until 10-20 years ago in any village that wasn’t Banjul, Serekunda, or Brikama, the three largest centers in Gambia) manhood-training took place when boys were as old as 18 apparently. Ouch! The look on these boys’ faces as they were passed from elder to elder was what you’d expect from a child as young as 3 years old. They had no idea what was going on, all they knew was there was a celebration taking place and they were the guests of honor. I have to say, from a Westerners perspective, I’m glad manhood-training is happening younger and younger for Mandinka boys, and that circumcision happens in hospitals with sanitary practices. So interesting to weigh the differences between traditional village life and modern urban life. But as with so many parts of life here, the trick seems to be how to move forward and embrace the positive aspects of Western culture while retaining the rich traditions that have existed for centuries.

The afternoon program was a womanhood-training program. This is the first time that I’ve seen my teachers use the Fender Passport P.A. sound system that I sent them. What a treat! Depending on where they are playing, some compounds have power and some don’t. And of the compounds that have power, some have reliable power sources and some do not. Yesterday’s compound had no power at all so using the P.A. was a non-issue. Today, there was power that went in and out throughout the program; more in than out I’m happy to report. A female song leader, called a kanyele, always has to sing at the top of her lungs to barely be heard compared to a huge of chorus of women who respond to her. With the P.A., the kanyele gets on the mic and soars above hundreds of women, which must be an incredible sound off in the distance, because it was overpowering to be right beside the P.A. and drummers and watch/hear it go down.

I owe a big thanks to my friends Willow and Souley for this one. They ship containers of computers between the US and Dakar, and after three years, I finally was able to buy my teachers the P.A. they’d asked me to get them and put it in one of Willow and Souley’s containers. The P.A. got to my teachers last year and it’s given them a huge boost to their already-full dance card, so to speak. When I met them four years ago, they were already the busiest kutiro group in Brikama. With the P.A. they’ve been able to bump up their fee considerably and are still that much more in-demand because no other group has one of these systems. There are plenty of blown out speakers and other castoffs that make up the landscape of most West African high-life concerts, but it is extremely rare for a traditional music group to show up at a program carting (they literally push it along in a wheelbarrow along with the drums through the dirt roads to wherever the gig is) a state of the art sound system. I’m so happy that it’s paying off for them. They helped me with their knowledge a few years back, I just wanted to reciprocate as best I could.


Just did the circuit of internet cafes in Brikama trying to find a place where the computers were working. It’s a shame that the internet infrastructure has not developed much in Brikama the last 4 years. As they say: “slow, slow.” The problem actually lies not with the slow connection speed so much as what happens when a network goes down. When this happens, a roomful of computers is rendered useless for however long it takes before someone can figure out how to fix them. It’s nice of various organizations to donate computers, or for folks like Willow and Souley in Dakar to ship containers of computers over from the US, so that more and more computers are in Africa every day. But the IT infrastructure needs to be nurtured, not treated in a drop-and-run sort of way. Willow and Souley's company is one of very few that deals with technology and electronics-recycling in West Africa in a responsible, fair trade sort of way. There needs to be more of these enterprises, and less dumping of outdated and/or broken technology by the West.

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

Mamady Danfa and Jalamang Camara
Asst. teacher Mamady Danfa (L) & teacher Jalamang Camara (R); Brikama, Gambia     Harris Eisenstadt©2007

Tomorrow morning I’ll have another refresher lesson with them, mostly for the sake of the hang. Still amazing to me that we spent two months solid together without speaking almost a single word of the other’s language. Jalamang is like a combination of Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson, two of the great jazz drummers. His chops are like Dawson’s – meticulous, seemingly effortless, his small hands perfectly sized for these small drums – and his ideas and literal appearance are like Roy Haynes, deeply swinging, so hip, moving from playing just behind the beat to right in the middle of it to just on top of it at will.

Jalamang and Mamady; Suso's compound, Brikama, Gambia                                      Harris Eisenstadt©2007


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

Weeks 3-5: Dakar

In my room at Willow and Souley’s in-laws in Dakar. Showered, shaved, evening sunlight coming into the open-but-screened window. There are almost no mosquitoes in Brikama at the moment, but they are in Dakar. The sad reality is that Dakar’s a big city and there is more open water around, hence more mosquitoes. Got here after a 10 -hour trip from Brikama. Left at 7am and somehow the trip back to Dakar was easier then it was going. No rush to get on the boat this time to cross the Gambia river from Banjul to Barra. Walked right on, no stampede. It took off soon after, and this time both engines were running so it went faster. Relatively mellow trip altogether. Probably just because I’d already done it once. Crazy traffic as we got into Dakar in the afternoon. Its possible the traffic in Dakar is worse than L.A.!

Not to be trite, but the past week in Gambia now seems like a dream. So ephemeral! Got back here, getting caught up on emails and found out Sara and I got wait-listed for a summer residency we’d applied for. My second year in a row as an “alternate.” Oh well, that’s how it goes with grants. Sometimes you get them the first time (this Meet the Composer project came on our first try) and sometimes it takes three times, as it did with the Durfee Foundation a few years back. I was standing in the shower (first hot non-bucket shower in a week: I admit it feels nice though bucket showers feel great too) bummed about not getting the residency but you know, I’ve just come from a place where my teacher Jalamang rents a small compound for his family that consists of a cement structure with a tin roof and a small piece of dry land. They have no electricity or running water. Somehow not getting a residency that I’d hoped for doesn’t seem so significant.


I've just had a cup of coffee and some French bread for breakfast. Interesting as always to note the different colonial legacies. Gambia was a British colony, and so they have a short, heavy, crusty loaf of bread while the Senegalese staple is a baguette. In both countries Nescafe is ubiquitous. There are billboards for Nescafe everywhere; there seem to be almost no other alternatives.

Yesterday I woke up rested after a much-needed long sleep and had a few hours on my hands before our Meet the Composer meeting with our filmmaker collaborators. I decided to hop in a cab and go to Studio Xippy, Youssou N'dour's recording facility. It’s in the Almady neighborhood of Dakar, the Malibu part of town. Away from the crowded city, on a road that stretched alongside the ocean, it was a picturesque ride and the first time I'd seen coastal Dakar. Almady is made up mostly of posh compounds and luxury hotels. Before I left the US, I'd been talking with my friend Adam Rudolph and mentioned I wanted to go to check out Youssou's studio while in Dakar. His old friend Hamid Drake has recorded there so I asked Adam for Hamid's number to get the studio info. He said, "Just go up to the door and knock." So I did. Youssou wasn't there but one of his sisters was. We spoke for a bit, I told her what I was doing in Dakar, and she got someone to show me around the studio. A beautiful, state-of-the-art live room and board with plenty of isolation rooms, it was comparable to any top studio in New York or LA.


I'll go for sabar lesson 7 tomorrow and then catch Sing Sing Juniors’ Saturday program tomorrow after our lesson. Met with Youssou Ndour’s bassist Habib Faye and his manager for our Meet the Composer Project this evening. We're at a bit of a crossroads, because the grant amount was just enough to cover our plane tickets and living expenses here. There isn't money for artist fees, unfortunately, so we're trying to figure out how to work with some musicians with some serious budgetary restrictions. And what an opportunity! Habib and Aziz have offered to hire the first-call musicians in Dakar for us and organize rehearsal space, studio time, etc. The thing is: we don't have a budget behind us to make the most of this opportunity. So I think the solution is just to lay the groundwork and come back another time with label support, or more grant money. Easier said than done, to be sure, but that's really what it's looking like.

Groundwork Laid

I’ve been back several weeks now. I wrote above after returning to Dakar from Gambia that it felt so ephemeral. The entire five weeks now feels like a dream. And yet returning to the US this time I wasn’t nearly as culturally out-of-step as I was in 2003 for several reasons. For starters, this was not my first trip to West Africa. Not that I’m an old hat; far from it, but there’s no time like the first time. It also has to do with the fact that Dakar is not Brikama. As mentioned above, I think I experienced more culture shock returning from Gambia to Dakar then from Dakar to New York. This ultimately has to do with Dakar. It is a big city, a bustling, cosmopolitan capital where one can find most if not all amenities one would find in New York or Paris. It is astonishing that in a city like Dakar the gap between rich and poor is so vast that one can travel from the Malibu-like Almady to entire neighborhoods without running water, electricity, health or educational infrastructure within minutes. The gap between rich and poor is actually larger than in the West.

I feel no less urgency after coming home this time to return to West Africa. Though the incredible generosity of my hosts in Gambia made me want to return to show that I hadn’t forgotten them, the equally wonderful hospitality of the Sao family and the Sing Sing family in Senegal only reinforced what I somehow knew already; I want to travel to as many places in Africa as possible in my life and immerse myself in music cultures there. Indeed, I would love to find a way to travel to as many places in the world as possible to investigate music and culture. Sri Lankan Kandy drumming, you are on my short list. Madagascar, even though you are not part of contiguous Africa, your flute and drum ensembles woo me like the continental horn and drum hocketing ensembles that I love. Benin and Togo though you are less stable than some other West African nations, your Yoruba Bata drums call to me. Congo, though your Eastern provinces are racked by war, if I ever had the opportunity I would search out Kivu and Goma’s music cultures. South India and Kerala, your mind-boggling, pitch-modulating folk drums entice me more than any highbrow classical music ever did.

Songs of love and devotion to the world’s music cultures aside, I look forward to returning to Senegal and Gambia one day. I hope that I find a way to travel to Dakar with label support and ample budget to create new adventurous music with some of the incredible, worldly musicians there. I hope that my teachers Jalamang Camara and Mamady Danfa in Brikama profit from their increased earning power with their P.A. and that in the future people hear their music outside of Gambia. I know that however my life unfolds, I have been profoundly influenced and inspired by the people of Gambia and Senegal. I pray that the developed world will make a real, concrete investment in West Africa (and, indeed the entire developing world) that goes far beyond 100% debt forgiveness (not that the current US administration would even allow for this!) and move to create real infrastructure. Let us not leave these cultures behind. Let us learn from those poor in GDP yet profoundly rich in cultural and natural resources.

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