“Sama xarit! Waaw! Namenala! Gej na la gis!” (“My friend! Yea! I miss you! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you!”)
I will never get used to people telling me they miss me here, especially when the only appropriate response is “ma la raw” (“I miss you more.”) “I miss you,” is a serious statement in the States. It suggests a longing, an intimacy, a distance… none of which are required for the same statement in wolof. I’ll meet someone one day and the next they’ll tell me they miss me. One night, the manager of Sahad’s band told the piano player, another American named David, and I that he was leaving the gig early to see his mother because he missed her so much; “Gisuloo ko depuis suba” (“I haven’t seen her since this morning”) he said. ‘Doesn’t he know that he’s telling this to two people who haven’t seen their mothers in months?’ I thought.
As often as I say “ma la raw,” the truth is I feel as though I almost never get to express I miss you to those I miss the most; my boyfriend, lost in his post-masters job search and pre-loan payment panic, can’t seem to muster the time in his regimented schedule to speak with me; my sister, just starting at her new dream job as a sommelier, can’t yet afford an internet connection; my mother, though we do speak often, can only afford a certain level of attention as constantly swamped with work as she is.
There, to be productive, one must put personal relationships to the side, if only for the time being. Here, there is no other time but the time being. Every conversation is punctuated with “insh-allah” (“god willing”). “Alxamdulilaay” (“thanks be to god”) is an integral part of the landscape: written on buses, cars, and buildings. Every moment is adorned with gratitude. When people are together, they treat you as though this moment is the only moment they may ever have with you. I see this urgency particularly in young men who find me attractive and feel the need to tell me they love me after a only few moments of talking. When people are not with you, they genuinely do miss you. They genuinely miss not knowing when a moment with you may return. It’s an engagement with reality I’m not accustomed to.
“Sama xarit! Waaw! Namenala! Gej na la gis!” Faada of Daara J said to me on his birthday at Just4U. It had only been a week since I had seen Faada last but, as his velvet blazer and flowery scent embraced me for a long, cozy few minutes, I say “ma la raw” and mean it.
Only a few weeks prior, I had finally seen Daara J perform for the first time in the very same bar. They took a break halfway through and this very tall, large senegalese guy came up to me at the bar and said “Yow. Yow yaa aasi?” “Kii? Man? waaw.” “Kaay, kaay” (“you – you’re aasi?” “Who? Me? Yea?” “Come, come.”) I had a moment of pause. ‘I probably shouldn’t follow strangers around in a club,’ I thought. But, when I looked around, I had the realization that I had somehow become a regular here. There were so many people who knew me there that it would probably be fine. So I followed the guy and he led me backstage. “Kii kan la?” (“Who is this?”) says another staggeringly large Senegalese man. “Freddy moo ma ko laaj” (“Freddy was asking me for her”). The second large man moves to the side revealing a seat across from Freddy. I’d never seen anyone with body guards here before. It was very odd to see someone I had become so personally close with be so crowded and need so much protection. I sat down. Freddy’s eyes were closed and his head was laying on his electric guitar so that he could hear it. I could also hear him softly humming. I had no idea why I was there. I felt like such a foreigner in this moment. He finally opened his eyes and said “Ey how are you?” smiling. “Me? I’m wonderful. C’est incroyable le concert. Ca m’inspiree beaucoup, beaucoup. Et toi? Ca va?” (“The concert is incredible. It is inspiring me a lot. And you? How are you?”) “Ah, that’s really nice. It’s you who inspires me. Yea, I’m fine. Would you like to sing?” I laughed. “Bien sur, mais ca va, ca va.” (“Of course, but no worries.”) I genuinely thought it was a joke. “Okay, see you in a minute.”
A few moments later, Mo Fia, Daara J’s studio manager and a good friend of mine, came from the side of the stage and said “kaay, kaay – pare nga?” (“come, come – you ready?”) “non, non – j’ai pense que c’etait un blague! ca va, ca va.” (“no, no – I thought it was a joke! I’m okay, I’m okay.”) “Freddy wants you to sing, right? C’mon, girl.” Mo put his arm around my shoulder, handed me a mic, and pushed me onto the stage. Freddy was standing there alone with his green, yellow and red guitar. He was in a gorgeous suit made from wax (a very colorful type of printed fabric), a black bowler hat on top of his loose, long dreads, and a scarf around his neck. He was singing some of his solo work. I know some of the songs, but not very well. Singing in the studio is very natural for me – improvising is what I do best. Standing on stage with Freddy is a completely different thing. I looked out into the crowd packed with senegalese people; some dancing, some singing, some swaying with lighters. I could see pride and admiration in their faces. I looked back at Freddy and thought that this must be what it’s like to be star struck. Standing next to him in my jeans, nikes, and a plain long-sleeved black shirt, I definitely didn’t feel as though I had earned this opportunity. He looked over to me, smiled and nodded his head. I started singing – I don’t know what. I’m sure it was bad. The dream I was living was too overwhelming to focus on the music. I remember there was one moment when we were harmonizing that was really beautiful, but that’s about it. “Put your hands together for Aicha!” Freddy got my name wrong, bringing me back to reality. I am more comfortable there.
I’ve hung out with a lot of famous people here before. But, Freddy – he has such a beautiful voice, he is such a talented songwriter and guitar player. On stage, he pushes himself to his limit. He jumps, dances, sings like crazy, raps, beat boxes – all incredibly well. My talent pales in his presence and yet he motivates me so much to work harder as an artist. His belief in me alone feels like a duty. I have to live up to it.
I don’t like to hang out with the other groupies backstage when I go to concerts here. Sure, there’s free food and drinks and famous people around, but it’s so much more enjoyable to feel like one of the many other concert goers who pay to get in because they’re true fans, like me. Also, as someone who wants to record and preserve what’s going on musically in Senegal, it’s a better perspective. I like to hear people speaking in wolof candidly. I like being somewhat anonymous. I don’t need anyone to know that I know the group up there. For the first half of that concert, I sat with my roommate’s brother and a beer singing all the lyrics and taking it all in.
Coming off stage and returning to my seat at the bar, everything had changed. I was no longer anonymous. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. First, backstage, rappers and singers came up to me and started asking me all sorts of questions, taking down my number so that they could work with me. At the bar, there was an even more intense flood of interest coming my way. Tij’s brother told me that everyone around him was asking him how he knows this star. It all felt so false, but it wasn’t. The praise I was getting was really Freddy’s praise. I got to enjoy it by simply knowing him. I got kind of overwhelmed and went back stage again. When Freddy got off stage, he gave me a big hug and said “this is just the beginning.”
As soon as he hugs me on his birthday, weeks later, telling me he misses me, I’m brought right back to that place. I had sung with Freddy a few times since, but, the truth is, I hadn’t been to the studio much because I don’t want to just feed off his fame. I want to meet all sorts of artists, record all sorts of stories, and learn lots of different kinds of music. However when I do sing with Freddy, I feel my heart swell with his talent and passion and faith. I feel like the moon to his star. I am able to reflect, and maybe even absorb, so much of what he gives, but in the end I am just a giant rock yet to be ignited myself. This is why I left studio for a bit – to ignite myself.
But I do miss him. The other day Sahad was describine how I needed to stop being so rushed – music won’t happen that way. That I needed to hang out more and wait. I am too on top of the business too much of the time. I needed to work more on building relationships. But as he was explaining this, he was talking about me in the third person directly to Alec. We’re all sitting at one table, the three of us alone together, and yet he doesn’t speak directly to me. I don’t think he intended to be belittling, but I do think men honestly aren’t used to relating to women as equals. This week in particular has been rife with a kind of commentary about me personally that I think indicates a certain level of comfort and intimacy I didn’t have with my friends (predominantly male) before. For example, normally at meal, it’s just “lekke lekke leeke!” (“eat eat eat!”) as I slow down my pace. Now, it’s “Tu vas devenir gros si tu manges ca – c’est bien ca” (“You are going to become fat if you eat that – that’s a good thing.”) “Tu as un bon corps mais ca va etre mieux si tu as plus qu’un jaay fonde. Peut-etre mange plus de pate” (“You have a good body but it’s going to be better if you get a bigger butt. Maybe eat more pasta.”) I can recognize that the discomfort that these statements cause me comes from being in a new environment, not because I don’t get this type of remark from men in the States. The other day a very old and close American friend of mine reminded me of that. Perhaps this should be prefaced by saying he is studying medicine, but he asked me why I had never considered plastic surgery when I mentioned that I was probably most self-conscious about my breasts body-wise. The commentary is just different in the States. Either way, I will probably never get used to this kind of sexist behavior.
This is why I miss Freddy after a week. His perfect english and expansive music knowledge aside, he never tells me what to do, he never makes comments about me personally, and there is no interpersonal thread that complicates our making music. He makes me feel at home this way. Same goes for my kora teacher, who’s generosity musically is only matched by how much he withholds personally. Like Freddy, he really wants to see me grow. It’s a rare thing. I’m certainly not their equal, but I don’t feel my identity the way I do with the others. There is no surface level interaction, only the deep plunge into the moment, into the music, with them. We descend into the mystical reality of it all. And they have imparted onto me a true sense of missing them when I am not in that moment, alxamdulilaay.
On Thursday, Freddy left to tour France for 3 weeks. Last Saturday, he invited me to go with him. It was hard to say no, but I know I still have so much work to do here and it wouldn’t be fair to me or my projects to pick up and leave. I do miss him, though.
Namenaleen (I miss you all),
More pictures of Ngor beach by Alec Saelens: