The following blog post is from Will, one of our music teachers, who recently traveled to Africa to receive advanced training in the Kora, a stringed instrument you can read more about by clicking here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kora_%28instrument%29
Six weeks in to my twelve week journey, it’s been a wild ride. I should’ve e-mailed sooner, and now I’m a bit overwhelmed with the task of communicating my experiences. Let’s see….
Brikama is my home base. A dusty town of concrete compounds with tin roofs clinking in the wind. Roads of sand, swarming markets of color, diesel fumes and honking. I can now get around on my own confidently, though not confidentially; white people, or “toubabs” have a celebrity status here that can be quite exhausting. I’ve followed the family band to naming ceremonies, where they are ambushed by donators eager to demonstrate their generosity. I’ve spent several afternoons in the bush, practicing new tunes until sunset.
I’ve also spent weeks on the coast, near a small village called Kartong. My first week there, I was consumed by violent food poisoning – 4 days of nightmares and diarrhea. After emerging, my teacher Moriba and I traveled to the southern border – the Halahin river – to stay with a group of sabar drummers from England. We set up camp and head to the river front, where a group of bar owners greeted us with a performance. “Weeelcome, Will weellcoome” they sang, as one plucked an mbira, one drummed, and another rattled. After a painful few days, it was just the lift I needed.
The next weekend, the annual Kartong music festival. Thousands circle a giant sand pit at the local elementary school to watch drummers, dancers, magicians, men on stilts and in traditional garb bang and swirl. Unfortunately, each night the best acts were scheduled last (around 1 am), and by the time they came on, I was more exhausted than entranced.
Such slight disappointment was quickly ameliorated by more intimate performances at Modu’s lodge (also in Kartong). One night featured a djembe, don-don quintet… Polyrythms weave around the fire, drawing in small groups of dancers who stomp til satisfaction. The lead singer is a young man with an old mans voice – a raspy, aching soul.A few days later, Modu hosts a sabar drumming performance. Eight pairs of sticks and hands fill the air with excitement. Most players are stationary, while a few come forward to converse with dancers. Jagged and smooth, powerful yet inviting. Another evening of ecstatic movement; I now understand the English group’s obsession with sabar drumming.
Feb 18th, all of the Brits head home, save an elderly woman named Jane, who sticks around for the next few weeks to learn kora. Speaking of which…
Lots and lots of kora. I’ve learned a ton. New songs, styles, tunings, techniques. Moriba is great player and an ok teacher – a bit more focused on money than music, in my opinion – but I have dragged a lot out of him. He also is overprotective of me, seeing as I am his key financial asset at the moment, and gets very jealous when I hang out with or learn from other kora players. In spite of this, I have found another teacher – Bunja Konte, who is more articulate, passionate, albeit less experienced. We’ve spent many long afternoons in the bush working out new rhythms and melodies. Just when I’m grasping my current material, a new song or variation throws me back into the grinder. It’s wonderful…
A few days ago, Moriba and I went on an epic journey to see a great kora legend, Jeli Madi Suso. An hour and a half bike ride into the wind with flat tires and broken pedals, Madi Susso’s performance is well worth it. We sit in a small, well lit room in the corner of his compound. His kora bursts with color as he plays into the sunset…
Beauty and struggle is a common juxtaposition here. Tight community bonds and profound traditional music, amidst ubiquitous sexism, genital mutilation, pollution, and poverty. The Gambia is a complicated place.
Much love to you all, I hope everything is going well in the wild west. I’ve attached a few pics of my trip. 🙂
Here is a link to Will’s profile: http://www.musicalitynetwork.com/teachers/will/