2014 November 30

Benn At


It has been a year since I moved to Dakar, and what a rapidly-changing year it has been. I thought I would take time to revisit and respond to the first post I made in this Dakar series, in the airport on the way to Senegal on November 29th, 2013.

“My destination is a neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal called Sacre Coeur, where I will be sharing an apartment with a Senegalese professor and friend. I intend to call this corner of the world my home for at least 7 months, though I don’t know quite yet how long my stay will be.” 

I actually never ended up living in Sacre Coeur. And now it’s been a year. I lived with a good friend in a large, comfortable apartment (even had a washing machine!). He very kindly picked me up at the airport and gave me a place to stay for only a week or two that turned into 5 months. I then moved, and still live, just a few miles south of my first location above two of my bandmates, and, now, with my two lovely British roommates. I still don’t know quite yet how long my stay will be.



at home with friends

“West African music has always struck a powerful chord with me. “

Still true.

“The Senegalese people returned my (primarily linguistic and musical) investment ten fold. Many members of the musical community in Dakar showed me an affection and generosity like that of an older brother to a younger sister. Where, here in the states, my experiences with music had been largely informed by a rigid system dependent on a written score, a desperate industry, and a competitive spirit…”

Still true. Though, ironically, the research I have recently started is largely composed of transcribing audio recordings of traditional Serer music to western staffs (written scores) for the director of the Musee de Thies, about an hour outside of Dakar. It’s fascinating work, particularly because I get to work with a violinist in the National Orchestra who is also a music teacher at the biggest conservatory in Dakar. I think what I love most about it is trying to reflect the deeply flexible and improvisatory feeling of the music that, to me, is antithetical to the written score. Can’t necessarily say I’ve been successful.

“…Senegal was a place where creative ideas flowed freely and generously. All one needed was determination and openness to cohort with some of the countries top musicians and earn the trust, encouragement, gratitude and support of a community.”

Ah yes, that’s where things get a bit blurry. I can’t say that this statement is entirely untrue, but it is certainly far from the whole truth. One of the most surprising things I have encountered this year are musicians discouraging me from playing my compositions, even improvisations, in front of other people. “Asi, you must be careful,” they would say. “You don’t want just anyone to hear that. They will record your sound and steal from you!”

At first, even when they recounted songs that were stolen from them, I thought that this type of comment was very silly. Then, one day, I sat down with the older brother of one of the more well-known artists I work with. We were in that artist’s studio, where many other artists also work. The brother began talking to me about how it was somewhat dangerous that they always have the doors of the studio open to whatever artists walk in. I asked him why and he went through an archival history; playing me recordings of songs that the patron group had never released, and then recordings of other artists’ songs that sounded nearly identical, all Senegalese. I was taken aback. When I asked the artist if he was angry about this and if he had taken any action against the others, he told me absolutely not. “[My musical partner] and I have a wealth of creativity. It is a bottomless well. Those others are limited, and are thereby no competition to us. Why make matters worse for them?”

“It became clear to me very early on in my studies that simply having the agency to study music is hard to come by for most Senegalese citizens. In most cases, it stipulates that one be a man, that his family be open to the idea and be able to afford to give them the education without much expectation of a return, among other things.”

Still true, but I’d like to add that there is remarkable talent in Dakar that has overcome these conditions. Nonetheless, I have committed myself to teaching any girl anything I can about music for free for the reasons above. I now have 5 guitar students because of this commitment.

“My days will be spent recording, archiving, preserving, listening, playing, participating, speaking, learning and absorbing Senegalese language and music culture. My hope is that this work will help the growth of artistic grounding and opportunity for Senegalese musicians; to aide them in establishing a more defined identity in the world music sphere. Moreover, I hope that by recording the lessons of gewels (traditional musicians and storytellers bound by centuries-old rites), in particular, and making them publicly accessible, more Senegalese people will be able to afford to engage with their own music in the ways that I have.”

That’s a long list, ain’t it? Not sure how I expected to accomplish all of it in 7 months, let alone 1 day. I would say my days are largely spent playing/listening/learning about music, teaching (music and English), and sleeping. I have certainly recorded a lot, though I would like to do much more. I hope that all of my recordings will become available, both physically and digitally, at the National Archives, but I have yet to make great strides there; so I would say my efforts to archive and preserve music here have been quite weak. Listening; certainly. Playing; so much. Participating; absolutely. Speaking, learning and absorbing; yep yep yep.


performing with Royal Messenger

Hoping that this work would aid Senegalese musicians in establishing a more defined identity in the world music sphere is full of hubris and arrogance. I have yet to do many important things on that list, and having an actual impact with these endeavors is a mixture of luck, incredible work ethic, focus, and knowledge. I could certainly stand to work on all those things. I would say I’ve made the most progress on knowledge, primarily by accepting that I often know nothing. I’ve learned that if I want to be in far off places, I need to acknowledge and work against the ignorant role I play in those places. Establishing change should not be the goal because the motivation for trying to establish change, however earnest that may be, comes from a narcissistic place that believes that my knowledge (of which I’ve established that I have very little) should somehow  be an authority.  Instead, I’ve learned that I should just try to do what I believe to be productive, learn from that pursuit, and then edit it.

That is of course not to say that there has not been change. Predictably, the most dramatic change has been in myself, thanks to Senegalese people; I feel I’ve become a more realistic, understanding, and smart person since my arrival. I couldn’t possibly recount every lesson I’ve learned, but I know there are two important ones that have stuck with me: One; talk is much easier than action; there are some very talented talkers out here and interpreting the sincerity in their voice as sincerity in their actions is very dangerous; and, Two; patience is just as valuable as it is replenish-able. Patience is an asset.

“It is with great sadness, however, that I must leave my family and friends, some of the best family and friends in the world, for this period. However, I intend to make every effort possible to stay connected.”

I really do have some of the best family and friends in the world, friends and family here and back home that remind me just how lucky and supported I am every day. I apologize for my absence lately. I so value all the people that take out the time to read this and even sometimes respond. The primary reason I haven’t written is that, as time goes on and I immerse myself deeper into this place, the harder it becomes to articulate what I’ve observed, felt and learned. I continue to persevere, reflect, and write, however, and I really believe that some of my most interesting writing has yet to come.

It gets lonely and I do long for my friends and family back home often, while also being in awe of all the new friends and family I’ve acquired in Senegal. This is the price of being lucky enough to connect these two worlds. I had a wonderful time in that role when my  brave, worldly and open friend Zoe visited me in May. It was very neex (delicious, enjoyable) indeed.



with zoe

“I will continue working on my own music projects and releasing new episodes of my podcast (The Earfull) here at altheasullycole.com and on the iTunes music store.”

The progress on music projects has been so satisfying. I recently updated my music page and many more updates should be coming there soon.

The Earfull, my coveted creation, still lives on, though I do not know when the next episode will be released, sadly. I overlooked how difficult it would be to translate interviews I do here in Senegal. However, I promise I’m still continuing to make them and will release them in the future.

I intend to return to the States in June until September (2015). It is likely I will return to Senegal for what I forsee another year here before potentially moving on. But, who knows?


Much love,