“Xaritu Benn Bakkan,” literally translates to “Friend of One Nose.” The nose is a symbol for ones’ life in wolof, so “xaritu benn bakkan” really means “friend of one life (soul or spirit),” or, truly, “best friend.”
“So, are you improvising this? Or do you both know this song?” Alec’s mom asks, sitting between us. Alec and I peer around our respective koras, furrow our brows and tilt our heads, trying to settle on an answer, because the answer to both of these questions is yes; we both know the song and we are both improvising. All korists know Kelafa Ba and all korists improvise it; no two korists will truly play it the same. “Well who’s leading and who’s following?” she asks. Again, we turn to one another. “Well I suppose Althea is leading,” Alec says, “since she knows the song better.” I do know the song better, and improvising is also Alec’s forte. But it wouldn’t really matter anyway. The instrument is modal – set in a diatonic scale – Fa (F major) or Sol (G major) most of the time – and so as long as your koras are in the same tonality and you know the instrument, then passing through the known and unknown with another korist becomes seamless.
All of this seems so obvious to Alec and me, who have been playing kora for relatively the same amount of time, and together for about a year now. But, bracing these questions, we realize just how enigmatic it must seem to see us non-Africans playing so naturally together. Coming from such different backgrounds, it is remarkable just how closely our paths have converged.
Alec and I arrived in Dakar with two weeks difference at the end of 2013, with the same mission: to play the kora. We had no awareness of one another. I had saved up for a year to land in this place, only vaguely familiar, by plane, while he had hitch-hiked down all the way from Belgium to be in this place nearly completely foreign to him, save his family, who had settled here about a year prior.
Our paths crossed soon after our arrival, via Sahad. You may have recalled me referring to Alec as a ‘glorified roadie’ to Sahad’s band in blog entries from last year. For all the trouble I had with Sahad over the course of that year, some of which I’ve outlined here, but much of which I’ve kept to myself, I do have Sahad to thank for so many wonderful friendships I’ve made here, particularly with musicians, and especially with Alec. As soon as Alec and I met, the time we spent together grew exponentially until it was nearly all our time. We would get lost in our intertwining learning, both through the kora and conversation. When the kora became tiresome, we’d sing and play guitar, and in this time I found a kindred spirit.
After about 5 months of growing ever closer together, it was time for Alec to leave. My intention was always to whole-heartedly master this instrument, while his curiosity has led him more and more towards journalism. And so we were finally ripped apart one day in April by differing ambitions, for which there is deep mutual respect. But there remained an undeniable feeling of loss, at least on my end.
However, when he returned in March this year, it was as if he had never left. This was made quickly evident when we played together. We had both made strides in our kora playing: mine more tangible in an expanding repertoire, while his were more tentative and tended to the development of a personal style. Of course, I had cultivated more knowledge of the instrument, but that doesn’t mean he was ever lost.
Alec and his kora
You see, although I’ve been playing the kora for more than four years now, I’ve only ever learned 8 or 9 songs. Yes, I’ve performed solo and in duos and in bands. I’ve played jazz, reggae, blues, afrobeat, hip-hop, soundscapes, and soundtracks. But, within the repertoire made for the kora, I’ve only learned 8 or 9 songs. Now, this limited repertoire is no reflection of my motivation and enthusiasm, or lack thereof. On the contrary, I think my most enduring teacher, Edou, would argue that I might be too enthused for my own good. Nearly every time I see him he tells me that I am far too pressed.
Let me explain.
The first song I ever learned was Kelafa Ba, as I mentioned above. My teacher, Edou Manga, is a jola (ethnic group) dakarois originally from the southwestern forested region of Senegal called Casamance, with whom I’ve been studying since my start in 2011 and still study today. I’ll never forget when he came into our classroom and told me that we would start a song. My heart began racing. I had spent the first few weeks vertiginously trying to follow my cris-crossing fingers as they’d fumble along the two elegant rows of strings, 21 in total, not unlike the parallel cords that run up and down a cable-stay bridge. Maintaining an even rhythm with the major scale was dizzying enough, how was I ever to mount a pattern?
Little did I know that the song was built upon centuries of yearning, dizzy students like myself, its structure meant to be democratically accessible. It is the first song that most kora students learn, and in it is said to be an ocean from which anyone can drink. I learned it skeletally over a period of time, and then moved on to the next. Over time in those early days of my kora development, my weekly lessons with Edou became daily lessons. He would sit with me each day, sometimes 6 hours a day, while I played the same, short little tune over and over again, and, by my first departure from Senegal, after my first 4 months of playing, I had already learned 7 of the 9 or so songs I know today; Kelafa Ba, Bamba Bodian, Massani Cisse, Maki Tara, Ceddo, Jarabi, and an obscure one whose name I don’t even remember.
You might be wondering what those names mean. I’ve often wondered that myself. Unfortunately, learning the kora has become such a big undertaking that many teachers have thrown out the storytelling part of the tradition in the hopes of keeping students who are so easily lost to youtube guitar tutorials. I’ve certainly never had these names explained to me, except once, by my teacher’s teacher. Edou brought me to him when I started asking questions he couldn’t answer. Edou’s teacher sat me down and clearly recounted epic story after epic story into my little microcasette recorder while I struggled to stay awake. He only spoke in wolof, which gave me no hope of understanding at the time. Nonetheless, in my own research, I have found that the music accompanies epic stories, with certain musical themes following characters and plot-lines. The names of the tunes are mostly the names of men; men of epic stories, which, like most epic stories, glorify the courage of warriors who turn into kings (with a few exceptions). Besides that, there isn’t much more I know. Like so many korists today, I’ve abandoned the epic stories, once inextricably married to the music, to rot in the hearts of a dying generation and on dusty archive shelves. That isn’t to say, however, that this music isn’t still rich with stories to tell.
My kora teacher, Edou (left), with his teacher
On the contrary, every piece, every time a korist plays, is abundant with narrative. Every time I sit down with a korist, I am anxious to know what they know, but they infallibly ask me what I know. So I start playing Jarabi or Allalake, the two traditional tunes I play best. No matter how I well I play, though, each korist always has something new, a new chapter if you will, of that piece to give me. If the musician begins to lose me on something complicated, they return to a skeletal version of the piece; their foundation of the piece, which is always different from the one I’ve learned before. These versions are the perfected amalgamation of what that korist was taught, and his teachers were taught, and so on. It is the foundation of tradition and family and musical kinship. It is an agreed upon creed of their practice. The less skeletal – the more intricate and complex – that the patterns become, the more that korist’s individual interpretation and personality is being imprinted upon the piece’s foundation and the more character development and plot it contains. It becomes the difference between reading D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Homer’s Odyssey, except the heros are sitting directly in front of you.
As it becomes more personalized, the more difficult it becomes to communicate to me, and thereby for my playing to survive it, not unlike Darwin’s natural selection. But as I spend more and more time with a teacher, we create an unequivocal bond in which we share a struggle and a story in that learning and the richness of my playing mirrors the richness of our relationship and musical communication. As I imprint my own, new versions onto each foundation that’s been laid for me, each korist from whom I’ve learned that tune is interweaved into the new fabric my fingers weave as they cycle through the strings.
And so, when I play, I am recanting the call and response of Jola church-goers at mass, tucked away in the forest, that Edou taught me; I am playing the lost desert blues of the Mandingue empire that dispersed into nomads, from my Malian teacher in New York, Yacou; I am playing the shouts and wails of the muslim Bombara people who have grown the enormous families that characterize West African communities today, from Noumoucounda; and I am playing humbly and slowly and basically, like a girl from New York in West Africa who sometimes misses her mother tongue.
“You are precious to me,” Edou says. “I want you to train to be able to push your spirit through those fingers. You must do the exercises so that your fingers have some hope of catching up with your spirit.”
Since Alec’s departure to the U.K. last year, we kept in touch via skype and e-mail, though I’d hardly call that being close to someone, really. Still, when he returned and we played together, it was as if we were never apart.
Playing with him made me feel at home, but his return also wreaked some havoc. Being a musician, most of my friends are men, and the man I was dating at the time (let’s call him F) had come to accept that. But the closeness I share with Alec was just too threatening, and it put undue pressure on my relationship with F. F, overwhelmed with jealousy, was unable to control his sense of possessiveness and anger, and while Alec made me feel safe and free, F began to make me feel threatened and caged. So, in a surge of emotions, that relationship was quickly blown to pieces.
Fast forward to Easter morning, where I am waking up in Alec’s room. Without any other relationship to sever our closeness, I am trying to soak up all the time Alec would allow me to have with him, which ends up being just about all his time. The morning light pries my eyelids open, followed by a gurgling in my stomach and then a sharp pain. Alec proposes we go for a walk. Despite my queeziness, I agree, though struggle through it. When we return home, I situate myself on the couch where I stay and rest.
Alec wakes me up. “Come to the festival with me.” I sigh. He’s talking about the Sahel Festival, in the middle of the desert. I had already decided for some time that I wasn’t going to go. It was too expensive and too far to go see artists I had already seen live before. “You know I want to, but my stomach…” “I’m leaving in 5 minutes, come.” Alec insists. I sighed again. “What if I throw up in the car?” “I have bags for that.” I grin. He’s leaving in two days and I don’t want to miss out on those short 48 hours. So I go. And I throw up in the car.
After a turbulent dune buggie ride through the desert, we finally arrive at the stage situated in a sand canyon. “Ey – kii kan la?” (“Hey, who is that?”) No sooner do I turn and see my best Senegalese friend, a sound engineer named Mo Fia, smiling and waving from the stage, that I throw up, this time with such force that diarrhea uncontrollably comes out the other direction.
Next thing I know I’m up on the dunes, moonlight above me, bare butt in the sand below me. I’ve just whipped off the pants I had cleaned only a few hours before. “You know what? I’m fine. You go have fun. I’m just going to sit through this.” I say, smiling up at Alec. He stays anyway, commending my positive spirit. “Well, if you’re going to have diarrhea anywhere, why not under the moonlight in front of live music? The sand is soaking it all up quite well.” I say. “I’m determined to have a good time.” This attitude is new to me, but replacing what remains of the stubbornly angsty adolescent in me rapidly. It is a result of the biggest lesson I’ve learned in Senegal over the past few months; there is nothing that cannot be overcome. Even if the will isn’t there, time will persevere in its passing. Misfortune is inevitable in life, whether you chose to hold on to your suffering or not, so you might as well let it go.
I manage to get some white rice in my stomach and medication from the medical tent. Alec goes off to enjoy the concert from the audience, while I’m situated comfortably back stage. As I’ve mentioned many times before, there are advantages and disadvantages to being seemingly both the only female and toubab kora player in Senegal. This festival was an example of the advantages: free transport, free admission, free drinks, free food, free medication, free lodging, free everything at a music festival in the desert for the toubab korist, who naturally manages to have a great time.
Alec and I on the road back to Dakar
We finally make it back to Alec’s house the next day, where I can wash my clothes and take a rest in his family’s tranquil home. I think my illness has passed, but it’s only the beginning. I wake up at 5 am the next morning and oscillate between the bed and the bathroom until 8 am, when I realize I won’t make it to work. I’m disappointed, but in retrospect, I needed that day. It was my last day with Alec, and my illness could not have been more ill-timed. Moreover, if I had not stayed, I might not have realized, thanks to Alec’s mother (who is a doctor), that the medication that was given to me at the festival was medication for epilepsy. It is probably to blame for the continuation of the illness for the rest of that week.
It’s now 7 pm and we are on our way to the airport. I’m flattered that, with all his family at home, he chose to have me accompany him away. We ride off through dusk on my precarious motorbike. I hold him close while trying to keep his kora straight and steady behind me. He does the same with his trekking backpack in front of him. The wind is cool and we squeeze on the tiny two wheels, weaving through heavy traffic. Every few minutes he takes his hand off the brakes to hold my cold hands wrapped around his waist.
We arrive at the airport and it is at that highly anticipated moment, not unlike the first time, that we must part. Our whole relationship has been defined by these flights, to come and go. Yet I never quite feel prepared to accept it. I start sobbing as he embraces me. “Thanks for being in my life – no matter what happens, you’ll always be dear to me.” “You mean so much to me, Althea.” And other things that could have gone unsaid. We pull apart and get one last look at each other.
“If there’s anything I haven’t said, you know it to be true.”
The paradox of my relationship with Alec is an emotionally challenging one: without the determination to see through our ambitions, creating distance between us now, I would have never met him, my most cherished friend, in the first place. It makes my heart ache just as much when we are together as when we are apart knowing that I can’t hold on to him and that I may never see him again. But holding on to someone is an illusion in the first place; no one truly possesses anyone, for anyone can be taken from this life in an instant. What’s important is that you make the most of the time you have with someone when you have it, and then try to let it go when you don’t. And, if you can’t let go, at least you can recognize that that pain and that loss is the result of having had something so beautiful in your life that it was worth that pain, right?
After the airport, I return to Alec’s home, where there is a party being held in anticipation of his mother’s departure the following day. I sit down and try to get down some food, still struggling with my digestion. “Isn’t Alec just magnificent?” I hear a family friend say. “He could have a career in rugby if he wanted, a career in journalism, a career in music.. there’s just so many possibilities for him. I think he’s just magnificent.”
In this fancy home, mostly surrounded by Europeans, I suddenly start to see myself through their eyes. These family friends who have seen Alec grow up, and then me consistently by his side twice in Senegal over the course of a year, must think of me as some pitiful riffraff he leaves behind each time. Maybe they think he has girls all over his well-traveled world just awaiting his return. Maybe they’re right.
I leave feeling unduly scorned and self-conscious, but not half as much as when I encounter these people again a few days later. Sitting in front of my kora, fumbling with a mic, they start to flood the art gallery where I am performing solo for maybe the third time in Senegal. It’s about 8 pm. I’ve been working since 8 am: middle-school classes from 8:15-3:30, tutoring from 4:30-5:30, then straight to this art gallery to do a sound check. A tumultuous break-up still in the back of my mind, in addition to Alec’s leaving; a long day of work on the fifth day of my illness still ongoing, and I am worn. And I look it. And I know it. I don’t emanate half of the chic of any person in this gallery, and it is filling up more and more with people who adore Alec. I am suddenly filled with an unyielding sense of vulnerability and panic, the type you get when you meet your boyfriend’s parents for the first time, except it’s not just his parents, it’s maybe 20 important adults who have had a part in raising him. I could never have had a career in athletics or journalism. The kora is all I’ve got and now half my audience is waiting for me to prove myself, knowing me only by my relationship to their magnificent Alec.
I look up at my instrument, pushing my eyelids just half way up, and then close my eyes. The feeling of defeat is the sun setting over my person and my brain is getting cloudy in the coming shadows. I take a deep breath, and to my surprise, that deep breath carries me through an hour and half of solo material. My fingers sail across the strings like a catamaran slicing through the turquoise waves that enter the Caribbean islands. They sing of the forests of Casamance, the deserts of the Sahel, the concrete of New York, and, with everything taken out of me, feeling as though I have nothing to give, I also have nothing to lose. A wind is blown through my spirit as though it were a feather plucked before its first flight now becoming animated once more. I become possessed by melodies and improvisations that had never come to me before. “Althea you are an African American woman. You are a Native American woman. You are a French American woman.” A voice seemed to say to me. “You come from displaced people who dug their hands in the earth and their spirits in the sky; who traversed the highest mountains and the deepest rivers to taste a freedom that they’ve passed onto you; a freedom that you have put to use with a boundless curiosity that has led you, on your very own volition, to places once forgotten. And in this place where you study an ancient language and an ancient instrument you are rooted to a nobility that few will ever see, but in which you can rest assured that you have nothing to prove to anyone ever.”
My thumbs post-concert
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