Writing

Ustad Rshid Khan at Barbican, London; May 30th, 2016

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”
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On Monday, May 30th, Ustad Rashid Khan performed at the Barbican as part of the Mystic Voices Festival produced and presented by Anandadhara with support from the Sama Arts Network.

Khan’s ensemble consisted of two statuesque women on tanpura (Aarthi Iyer and Sandhya Murthy), vocal support (Nikhil Madhav Joshi) between them, a sarangi player (Murad Ali Khan) on Khan’s right and tabla (Shubhankar Banerjee) and harmonium (Ajay Joglekar ) players on his left. Together, they composed a beautiful tableau in their iridescent clothing in the magenta light. Working his way up the 12-note scale paired with elegant hand gestures bending from the wrist, Khan took many pauses to clear his throat at the beginning. Such a show of technique could be compared to being presented with an indecipherable menu. By the end of the performance, however, his precise intonation often blended so well with the harmonium one wouldn’t necessarily have noticed when he had let the note go. The effect was a sonic feast so saturated that one couldn’t help but be gratified not only by his or her own enjoyment and newfound kinship with the knowledgeable audience.

I’m certainly no expert in Hindustani music, but I am not entirely ignorant to it either. I am at the very least cognisant of the weight of the legacy that Khan carries on his shoulders as the great-grandson of Ustad Inayat Hussain Khan (1849–1919), the founder of the gharana vocal tradition of Hindustani music local to Northern Uttar Pradesh. Is his performance authentic? Absolutely; who can argue with a standing ovation after a 3 and half hour performance from a largely North Indian audience? Did Khan’s voice lend itself to a mystic transformation, as advertised? Perhaps not so much. There is no doubt Khan is a refined and impressively technical singer, but at no point did his voice bring him, or the audience for that matter, to an electrifying catharsis. In fact, it was the tabla player’s solo accompanied by the harmonium and sarangi that represented the most dynamic moment of the evening. Whatever your take from it, however, an invitation to see Ustad Rashid Khan should not be turned down.

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso at Barbican, London; May 4th, 2016

 

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”

victorguidini@victorguidini.com

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s triumphant return to the London stage at the Barbican on May 4th was so full of intimacy, grace and humility that one would never know that they remain two of the greatest pioneers of Brazilian popular music. The engagement marked nearly 45 years since their exile to London during the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1970s, yet they still seemed perfectly at home. In button up shirts, black jeans, and matching black sneakers, the two descended onto the stage as if it were their front porch Bahia; Veloso sat with his guitar resting over crossed legs, while Gil used a classical guitar foot stool (unorthodoxly under his right foot), with one glass of water and and another of red wine between them.

With more than 40 albums of material, the two 73-year-old artists had a vast repertoire to draw from for this monumental performance. From massively popular hits like “Tropicalia”, “Expresso 2222”, “Filhos de Gandhi” and “O Leozinho”, to more obscure songs like “É De Manha” (written in 1963 by Veloso, this was the oldest composition of the evening) and “As Camélias” (the newest piece, written in collaboration), they breezed through 25 pieces in less than an hour and half, returning for 2 encores, amounting to a composite performance of 30 pieces in two hours. The feel between them, nostalgic for another time, place and circumstance, achieved a sort of unison seldom seen in younger performers, as their two hands wandered over the neck and nylon strings of their respective guitars like choreographed dancers. However, when the performance began to feel too relaxed or nostalgic, Veloso would spice things up with a performative shimmy or 2 step, dancing to the delight of the crowd.

As individuals, Veloso, one of the most romantic voices of our time, exhibited the best of his dextrous and evocative vocal command in classic pieces like “Tonada De Luna Ilena”, while Gil displayed his endless creativity in characteristic labyrinths of chord progressions, coming to an impressive zenith in a jazzy interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. Together, their effortless vocal harmonies and undulating samba rhythms produced the most romantic atmosphere one could imagine in a room filled with nearly 2,000 people. Indeed, these songs and these performers put their audience at such ease, you can feel couples leaning into one other, holding hands and old friends swaying gently together, shoulder to shoulder. If you are not afforded the rare opportunity to see these two perform, I highly recommend purchasing their new album, “Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música” (“Two Friends, A Century of Music”), and putting it on in your living room with a few friends. This is the most authentic performance.

Rokia Traoré at Roundhouse, London; February 6th, 2016

 

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”

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Singer songwriter Rokia Traoré performed at Camden’s Roundhouse on February 6th and Althea SullyCole was there!

Although Traoré is of noble Malian Bamana dissent, it is much more accurate to say that her music is the product of an increasingly globalized world, perspective, and set of influences, rather than of Mali. She grew up all over the world, settling temporarily in Algeria, France, Saudi Arabia and Belgium in her youth. She has released 5 solo albums since 1998 and her current tour is in promotion of her 6th album, “Né So”.

What is perhaps most notable about Traoré’s performance is her uncanny ability to make any room, no matter how big or small, into an intimate space. She waits for silence before she begins the solo guitar riff of “Mayé” at the beginning of the show. This focused sound exudes strength and calm, asking the audience to lean into it, like children gathered around a sage storyteller.

When the music really gets going, however, it is the strength of her sharp and reactive ensemble that carries the show. Namely, Bintou Soumbounou singing backing, and sporadically lead, vocals in the powerful jelimusoBamana style of mali that Traoré sometimes lacks; Moise Ouattara on drum set bringing a rich syncopation that would rival a much larger Malian percussion ensemble; Matthieu N’Guessan performing a very contemporary West African bass style, in the vein of Richard Bona and Habib Faye; Stefano Pilia, an Italian musician, the only one not of West African descent it seems, bringing in cinematic soundscapes with his ethereal guitar style; and, lastly, Mamah Diabaté, a star n’goni player, whose every accent feels perfectly timed and balanced with the rest of the performance.

Apart from a few selections, namely “Koté Don” from her 2004 album Bowmboi, followed by “Mélancholie” from her 2013 album Beautiful Africa and “Zen” from her 2008 album Tchamantché, Traoré performed all new material from her forthcoming album, taking the audience on a politicized acoustic journey through dark, measured introspection to electrified and exuberant celebration. Through it all, however, Traoré remains devotedly on message, speaking candidly about current issues such as the refugee crisis.

Traoré concludes with “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching anthem popularized by American jazz singers Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, and based upon the poem first published as “Bitter Fruit” by the Jewish American teacher Abel Meeropol. It is hard to believe that the piece could be any more haunting, but Traoré’s intimate performance style and worldly voice brings current black issues, once confined to the African-American community overseas, to be relevant to each member of the audience personally, reflecting on the growing awareness and relevancy campaigns such as Black Lives Matter from the States are gaining globally.

If you have the chance to see Rokia Traoré live, it is a rare and important opportunity to witness not just an award-winning musician, but also an eloquent poet and powerful activist do her work alongside a virtuosic ensemble. If not, you can still get a hold of her album, “Né So,” out later this month on Nonesuch Records.

Vieux Farka Touré at Kings Place, London; January 27th, 2016

This piece, written by Althea SullyCole, was originally published for “A World In London”

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Malian vocalist and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, who has joined us on A World In London on two separate occasions in 2010 and 2015, performed at King’s Place near King’s Cross in Central London. Touré has released three studio albums, one live album, and several notable collaborations since 2007.

Touré sauntered on stage at 8:15 pm or so, donning a traditional mint bou bou and a fedora shading his eyes. He picked up his guitar and dashed into the first two pieces, “Filipa” and “Fafa,” with a particular urgency. His backing musicians, bassist Jean-Alain Hohy and drummer Jean-Paul Melindji, in more contemporary dress but similar visors, followed suit.

His third song “The World,” then launched the audience into the most alt-pop/rock sound of the evening, followed by “Ali,” a salute to his father, the late Ali Farka Touré, (pioneer of the desert blues style of northeastern Mali), with a more African feel.

After one more song, “Jakhal” and a twenty minute intermission, it became clear that Touré had saved much of his energy for the second set. Indeed, “Waliadu,” a cover of his father’s most iconic tune, was certainly the crowd favourite of the evening. The modern Malian traditional “Jarabi” that followed, reinvigorated by one of Touré’s most creative and harmonic solos of the concert, was certainly a high point. By the end of the tune, Touré’s voice relaxed into an earthy, sonorous unison with his guitar–a welcome moment of meditation in an otherwise hasty performance.

To conclude, Touré delivered a few dance tunes, leaving his backing musicians room to build upon dynamics and even do a bit of soloing, though the spotlight remained consistently on Touré. The final few notes ended abruptly, evidently in expectation of an encore.

There is no doubt that Touré is a seasoned performer and virtuosic guitarist with a powerful command of his audience and a seemingly infinite well of creativity at his roots, which is why I couldn’t help but wonder why Touré didn’t seem to be exerting much energy into his performance. Was it the intimate, seated venue, which, compared to the hipster underground dance club stages Touré graces in Mali, lacks some sort of electricity? Maybe the odd twenty minutes between sets stunting the momentum? Perhaps it is that Touré lacks a bit of the patience, charisma and feel of the dessert blues sound without straying too far away from it outside of collaborations with other artists. Or maybe it is that audiences are witnessing Touré evolve a way to stay within the genre his fans expect to hear while also distinguishing himself from his family lineage. Whatever the reason, and however it may read, Touré remains a dynamic and dextruous artist worth watching.

Coming Soon!

Updates from London coming soon… stay tuned!

Ñibbi

ñibbi‘ means “to return home”

One warm Senegalese evening a few weeks prior to my return to the States, I went to my friend Joe’s house. Joe is a bit of an anomaly in my experience in Senegal: a single middle-aged man who owns property. With his heavy dreads tied up behind his head, he experiments with traditional arts and accumulates a wide group of friends within the rasta community. They gather nightly in his small home to smoke weed and drink beer; the things they must hide from their families. Surrounded by these peace-loving pescatarians, a familiar question finds my ears: ‘How is Senegal? Are you enjoying it here?‘ I say yes. They ask me where I’m from. ‘Ah! New York! Well, New York is nicer than here, no?‘ I tell them Dakar and New York are simply different. Joe leans over and expresses how hard it is to hear a foreigner, a toubab, tell him that she is enjoying his country when his own people cannot enjoy it because they are so poor. My friend Momo, a musician who had met my parents, protests, saying ‘Althea is no toubab! Her father is black.‘ Joe looks me square in the eye and pronounces that I am a toubab.

Looking back at Joe I first feel sympathy. I do, after all, enjoy many of the luxuries he imagines toubabs are afforded. For example, upon my return to the States, I fell quite ill, which, in some ways, was a relief because falling ill in the States does not present the same perils that are evident in Senegal. Hot water is summoned mechanically. Rest is easily found in our quiet, spacious homes and temperpedic beds. I don’t personally have a temperpedic bed, but every mattress in America feels like a temperpedic bed after experiencing what’s available in West Africa. In my family, I am surrounded by organic food, hundreds of vitamins and supplements, essential oils, aromatherapy, and just about any medical specialist is a dial tone away with my insurance card in hand. I can no longer afford the luxury of taking these things for granted.

On the other hand, ironically, I had come to Joe’s home seeking a distraction, seeking relief, because I had just found out that my cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t very close to him, but the experience, the sudden death of a family member in an all too stereotypical manner within the African American community, joins a host of others that continue to haunt me.

After my return to the States, once I had recuperated, it wasn’t long before I could see more clearly the gloom that hangs over the country. Moreover, not long after my return, my uncle, the father of my cousin who had been killed, also passed away in an incident that certainly seems related to my cousin’s death.

Recently, on the train home from the city late one evening, not long after my uncle had passed, a young white couple was confronted by two train conductors for not having tickets. I looked up from my book, dipping out of my bubble. The young blonde man was wearing a black hoodie and baggie jeans. A disintegrating backpack was slowly sliding off his shoulders. He was also wearing an expression of smug apathy I recognized from classmates who didn’t do their homework in public school. One of the conductors loudly pronounced that this is the fourth time, as if to make an example of the man. They ordered him to get off at the next stop, as usual, and disappeared as I mentally begged them not to leave.

I took another quick glance at the man, making every effort to be discrete. He bore the same absent wide blue eyes, paired with an irreverent grimace, that gave him an undeniable likeness to Dylann Roof and James Eagan Holmes and Adam Lanza. I patted him down with my eyes, looking for any bulges in his baggy clothing. I thought of what could be in that backpack. Then I wondered if 600-pages would stop a bullet to the head or if my kora’s gourd, resting in the seat next to me, would protect my vitals.

That’s when I realized I was already being held hostage by my own fear, my own sense of having put myself in inescapable danger. It besieges me every now and again, particularly here in New York, and especially on public transportation. Sometimes I can only freeze in the hopes that no movement breeds no movement. Other times, I’ll switch subway cars every stop just to beat the odds.

I know that it’s unreasonable; that the odds keep me safe, even if there have been 249 mass shootings, on average one a day, so far this year in the United States. But I do think I carry a certain paranoia as an African American, one that’s been heightened yet again since my cousin and uncle’s passing. Perhaps it’s because, ever since I was a little girl, my father told me that I must emit an air of “don’t fuck with me” in public. Perhaps it’s simply sharing genes with escaped slaves running north and guerrilla Indian warriors hiding in trees with their arrows. Perhaps it is just my own experience with danger coming out of nowhere. Whatever the reason, I am sporadically paralyzed by a certain expectation that even the most mundane evening could inexplicably turn into a nightmare, as it has for too many members of my family on my father’s side.

When a black couple replaces the poor white one at that next station, I am suddenly unshackled, because chances are this tall brown man may have already been patted down today. Chances are he isn’t stupid enough to carry a weapon on him. Chances are he’s well aware that black men are rarely vindicated by claims of mental illness.

Long after the white man has gotten off the train, the conductors returned to my car, still discussing the white couple. “…to avoid another awkward situation! ..” I heard one say as they pass by me. His disgruntled tone was verging on hate, and, as I look around this car, I wonder if not everyone here is being held hostage by their satin neckties and pearl necklaces; if somehow it isn’t exactly this upper class suburban population that has inherited such a fear. “Evil sown by a man will grow on his children’s heads,” as the Yoruba proverb goes.

When that black couple came onto the train, I realized that I bear a racism as informed by fear as anyone else in the United States. They say that fear breeds hate. But I would say there is something missing in this equation; greed breeds fear, which breeds hate. The American obsession with individualism and acquiring wealth produces a deep fear of the poor. That fear is remedied by hating the poor that don’t look like ‘us’, and we can see that hate is reinforced everyday by our culture: Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists to the cheers of a crowd; police vindicated after shooting our young unarmed black men; Obama referred to as a monkey by state officials; our bold disregard for the asian slave labor necessary to produce most of what we own; the glorification of white beauty standards weaved into Beyonce’s scalp in the form of $145,000 worth of Norwegian hair.

Looking back at Joe now, surrounded by his friends, smoking weed after a big shared plate of food, I know that he has no fear about getting shot in his community. No fear of being unable to pursue certain work because of his dreads. The cops are not going to storm his house, shoot someone or give someone else a heart attack looking for drugs. He does not realize that not having these fears is a luxury most black people don’t experience in the rest of the world. Whatever wealth he pictures us Americans having is real, but no amount of wealth can buy the security he feels in his community. No ivy league education, world travelling, or luxury accommodations can buy you out of the African American experience, I can tell you first-hand. No matter how many people perceive me as black, or not, Joe’s questioning of my blackness is a luxury that I am not afforded, because I will always be deeply tied and informed by my experience as an African American person. That’s what being an African American person is.

One of the most puzzling parts of my experience in Senegal, more puzzling than Africans telling me I wasn’t black, was watching African Americans encounter the country, the continent, and feel that they were surrounded by their own people. Every single African American I met there, especially the new comers, would be so taken aback by being surrounded by other black people, by what they considered their own kind. At first, I found this unsettling and even scary. How could someone who didn’t practice the same religion, speak any of the many languages, or understand the culture feel that they were amongst their own an ocean away from their home? Senegalese people don’t even feel that way about one another; the Wolof, for example, do not trust the separatist Lebu, even though their language is nearly identical, and certainly their appearance by American standards. But we, as African Americans, don’t see or understand such diversity, because we are homogeneously defined by the West, and every time I would hear an African American express a kinship with Senegalese people, especially if they didn’t even understand the languages being spoken, it would show me how deep the imprint of the West’s definitions of race, largely forged by white people, has been made upon us. On the other hand, maybe they are just expressing a longing to exist in a culture where they are not subjected to hate powered by fear.

***

A few days later, I returned to Joe’s home with my kora. It is an honor to have a korist visit your home, demanding no fee, no less. The electricity is out, and I have the stunning revelation of how well I can play in the dark. When I finish, a small crowd of Senegalese men has formed, clapping. One man notes how incredible it is to see a foreign woman playing the kora in a big group of Senegalese men who do not know how to play, if not a little shaming. Joe laughs and yells out ‘okay, Althea, you are a black person!

Xaritu Benn Bakkan

“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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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My thumbs post-concert

Much Love,

Althea

p.s. want to see more pictures? Check me out on instagram.

 

 

 

 

 

Benn At

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Much love,

Althea

Keepin’ It Cool On Hot July Days With The Local Motorcycle Gang

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Kun Yu Dul Ay Ay Lo Ay Dal Nala

Aasi – will you take this letter and give it to my first wife? She lives in the Bronx. That’s not far from you, no?

It’s 2011. My last night in Senegal. I furrow my brow. My homestay father has a first wife?! I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’ve been living here for almost 5 months and this is the first time I’m hearing about her?! I don’t speak much of my homestay family in 2011, but they are fascinating people and I visit them often. Well, at least once a month. I don’t want to use their names, so I will just call them Baay (dad), Yaay (mom), and Mag (short for mag bu jigeen, which means older sister). My Mag is actually the bon, or the live-in maid/cook, but she felt much more like an older sister. She’s from a village, at least 6ft tall, and has a daring sense of wit. Yaay is a pharmacist at the hospital and Baay is a retired economics teacher.

Religion is central to my parents’ life. Baay spends much of his day at the mosque, while Yaay spends much of her time at home praying. There aren’t very many pictures of marabouts around the house, but there are a few of Mecca. Despite having numerous homestay children from all over the world, the only voyage Yaay has ever made was to Mecca.

Mbalax and a social life back in the village dominate Mag‘s life. Mag now speaks a lot of french, though it was limited when I lived with the family in 2011. She of course speaks very rapid wolof and also excellent arabic. Yaay has been trying for many years to learn arabic, particularly to be able to read the Qur’an, and it is one of many sources of tension between the two.

Upon my arrival in 2013, I quickly met Malick, or Matthew, the American that was staying with my Senegalese family until recently. For the past 6 months, I feel as though we’ve become detectives trying to uncover the many mysteries of this family. Malick has done most of the detective work, of course. However, the more I discover about my family, the more mysterious they seem to become. Malick found out recently, for example, that Yaay wasn’t married until 38 years of age, which is pretty late in Senegal where the legal marrying age for women is 16 (18 for men). Before the resurgence of Islamic conservatism in early 90’s, apparently, she was very much into salsa dancing and wanted to write a novel. This is big news for me, having felt the palpable tension when I would return home from concerts at the same hour that she would wake for early morning prayers in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all, however, is the fact that this couple has no children. This is a very rare thing in Senegal. I remember asking Yaay why she liked hosting students, hoping she would shed some light on this issue, but her response was simply a recollection of the many Peace Corps volunteers her parents had in the home when she was growing up. It was normal to her. When Baay told me that he had another wife – a wife that he needed my help contacting in New York – I began to believe that perhaps Baay was “shooting blanks” and in denial that his first wife had left him, quite possibly for this reason. Malick and I debated this often. I was often more Yaay sympathetic, while he was a bit more Baay sympathetic. But, in the end, we often concluded that we knew little to nothing. In recent conversation with Malick, Baay said ‘I’m 64 years old. Your 23. If my son were still alive, he would be 30-years-old.’ That both laid many theories to rest, while opening up the possibility for many others to fester.

You may be asking yourself why I never simply asked my Senegalese family what happened; why didn’t they have any children and what happened with the first wife? The child? If only things could be so easy. You see, polygamy is a very sensitive subject in Senegal, the reason being tension between traditional society and Islam in particular. Secondarily, there is a felt tension, particularly for younger people, between the culture of polygamy and mainstream thinking on polygamy in the rest of the world. This is why one must tip-toe around the subject. This is why, for the rest of this entry, I will largely be using false names or no name at all for the people I’ve heard from on the subject.

In wolof, there is an expression, kun yu dul ay ay lo ay dal nala: “If you don’t change households, misfortune will fall upon you.” Although the topic is mildly taboo, this traditional way of viewing polygamy is still alive and well – Senegal has the highest polygamy rate—the percentage of polygamous marriages among all married couples—in West Africa. However, it is difficult to talk about how marriage existed traditionally. In fact, it is hard to talk about traditional society at all definitively in Senegal. Firstly, there isn’t one traditional society, but many – as many as there are ethnic groups (and there are a lot). Senegal also passed through many African empires both before and after trade roots from the middle east made it to the region in the 11th century, laying a heavy arabic influence on culture. All this, of course, came before the Atlantic Slave Trade and the colonial era, which wiped away many traditional parts of Senegalese culture. Nonetheless, there is evidence that polygamy existed in Senegal long before the arrival of Islam and across many ethnic groups. “The primary activity of our ancestors was agriculture. In order to cultivate the land, you need a lot of hands. So the more numerous your family is, the easier it is to exploit the fields, to produce a lot… and to feed and support your family,” my wolof teacher in 2011 stated recently in an interview on the subject of polygamy. “In Africa, in Muslim countries, polygamy is a reality. I think it is more specifically African than Islam,” explains Penda Mbow, a professor of religious studies at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, also in a recent article on the subject.

Still, some Senegalese men continue to say that Islam demands polygamy. According to one Imam (the head of a Mosque here in Dakar), however: “Polygamy is first of all an option. It is not an obligation. It is an option that god gave to men. Each individual is free to choose whether he wants to be polygamous or to stay monogamous. If [one says he wishes] to be polygamous, religion permits [him] to marry multiple wives. If [he says he wants] to be monogamous, religion says that that is a choice.” In fact, Islam, though sanctioning the practice, actually makes polygamy quite hard to achieve. Mbow says “polygamy, in my opinion, should be the exception in Islamic society and not something you find all the time.”

Islam, nonetheless, plays a tremendous role in the maintenance of the practice of polygamy here in Senegal. From what I understand, in Islam, there is only one absolute love: that for the creator, God, and the prophet in which one believes. For everything else, however, love is relative, or non-exclusive. Exclusive love becomes a desire of possession. God has rather given each person an immense love, an ocean of love, in which multiple people can swim. In this ocean, everyone can get the love that he or she wants.

In my Senegalese experience, however, this idea of an immense love may actually deprive many from receiving the love that they may want or need. For example, one of my married friends – let’s call her T – said that “Men will say ‘if I want a second wife, you must support me in that because you love me.’… Women are dieing of stress here in Senegal. People are always saying ‘oh yea, she died of cancer of this or that.’ It’s stress. It’s the stress of having to take care of everything for a man who does who knows what with his time. A man who is allowed by society to go out and do whatever he wants, to treat his wife like she doesn’t even have a heart.”

When I asked why polygamy is practiced in Islam, one friend told me that, at the beginning of Islam, women were being treated as possessions or slaves that could be thrown away or even killed. It is thus that the prophet took multiple wives for political alliances or to protect women who were struggling to stay safe. The prophet was never lustful. He did not take multiple wives for pleasure or material luxuries, as evidenced by his celibacy until twenty-five years of age and marriage with a woman fifteen years his senior, to whom he was completely devoted until her death. My wolof professor explained that if Muhammad had asked men to stop practicing polygamy altogether it would have been much harder to gain a following. Instead, he regulated the practice and it decreased the rate of extramarital sexual relations. It is often explained that this was advantageous to women as well; women, more numerous than men, would not have all been able to get married if strictly monogamous marriage was practiced. Forbidden to have sexual relations outside of marriage, unmarried women would not have been able to fulfill their natural needs. Barbara Freyer Stowasser, author of Women in the Qur’an, Tradtions and Interpretation, justifies the contemporary practice from a woman’s perspective saying that

[It] protects the older, sick, or barren wife from divorce while ensuring progeny for the man who may take a second young and healthy spouse. Secondly, polygamy is the most equitable solution to demographic problems in times of war, when soldiers are killed and there are not enough men to ensure marriage and motherhood opportunities for all females.

The limit of wives in Islam has been set to 4 – the number of wives that the prophet Mohammed possessed. Men are expected to follow Mohammed’s model and perform the four fundamental tasks of a husband in the Islamic faith; 1) find lodging for one’s wife; 2) provide one’s wife with food and other necessary items; 3) satisfy one’s wife sexually; and 4) assure one’s wife enough clothing. If a man takes on more than one wife, he is expected to have the means to support all of his wives and children, and to not favor one wife or treat his wives unequally. The women’s role, on the other hand, is to educate the children, take care of the children, take care of the husband and family, and to be in charge of the children’s education. “To me, women have so much more than men,” one of my older male friends told me. “They are the ones that make a home. They are the ones that make life happen. A man just works to make sure that she can do that. He gives her everything.”

One proposal I get quite often is “Am naa benn jabar, waaye begg naa naar. Yow laay begg.” (“I have one wife, but I want two. I want you [to be my second wife].”) I used to respond to this kind of proposal with internal shock and disgust, but now it is more like a part of daily life and I hardly have the energy to care. When a casual conversation unravels into a marriage proposal, particularly a polygamous one, I sometimes laugh or say “that’s nice, but no thanks.” Other times I simply nod. Then there are times when I tell them “okay! You will be my fourth husband.” “Your fourth?!?” they respond in shock, sometimes anger. “No, no that’s not normal.” From an American perspective, while women are expected to be treated equally in a polygamous marriage, polygamy does very little for women’s equality in the greater society—a society that already suffers from great gender disparity. Senegal ranks 102nd out of 134 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (produced by the World Economic Forum since 2006), which measures the position of women relative to men in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival. Many women’s rights activists here as well say that the practice violates the principle of equality, promotes gender disparity, and compromises women’s progress in society. “Polygamy is a form of modern slavery, believe me it’s not easy as it sounds. Women involved in this form of marriage have no voice and no channels to complain,” says one Dakar woman who secretly counsels and advises wives in polygamist marriages. Fanta Niang, a social worker and gender activist in Thies, Senegal’s third-largest city, states that “[polygamy], which in the past was widespread in rural areas, has reached urban areas with alarming proportions. And abuse is on the increase, mostly in Dakar, where polygamists are becoming younger and younger.” One female 23-year-old university graduate, forced to marry a 48-year-old man here in Dakar, said in the same article that “polygamy is hell and a pack of lies… look at me, I am young and supposed to be doing things most girls my age are doing. I had dreams and aspirations to own a small company and travel the continent. I’m trapped and feel I’m going crazy because this illiterate rich man won’t let me fulfill my dreams.”

At the time of slavery, if a master were to impregnate one of his slaves, she would become his wife, even if he already had four. This is one of a few exceptions to Islamic law, though no longer applicable now that slavery has almost completely disappeared in Senegal. There are still ways, however, that Senegalese men can acquire wives that are not necessarily sanctioned by Islam. The first, and most obvious, is without the consent of their first wife. The Senegalese Family Code has made this legally possible. The 1973 Code states that the man is “the chief of the family,” and thereby the one in charge of the most important decisions with regards to marriage and family. When a couple presents themselves in front of a civil state officer for a marriage certificate, it is only the husband that may choose whether the marriage will be monogamous or polygamous. He can opt for two, three or four wives (the latter is known as integral polygamy) and his decision cannot be changed later in life. A man who opts for two wives may never seek more than two. If he does, he can be fined between 20 000 CFA to 300 000 CFA (a little over $40 to $600), imprisoned or asked for a divorce. This is why many men, even those intending to stay monogamous, often choose to leave the option open, just in case they have a change of heart later in life, particularly since polygamy, generally, is not grounds for divorce in Senegal. At the time that the marriage certificate is signed, the wife may refuse to sign if she does not approve of the decision made by her husband. The civil state officer, however, is still at liberty to override this refusal.

A 34-year-old civil engineer named Khady Ndiaye, said that she never discussed the matter with her husband ahead of their 1996 marriage. She assumed that the answer would be obvious for two educated professionals. However, when they registered their wedding at the town hall, and the husband was asked if he would opt for polygamy or monogamy, he answered polygamy. Khady fainted. “I felt betrayed and still do,” she says.

Entering a polygamous marriage without your first wife’s consent is just one of many ways men are permitted to practice polygamy in Senegal and each is colored by traditional conceptions of marriage. “[Marriage] is the union between two families, not simply two people,” my wolof teacher explained. “That is the definition of marriage [in Africa]… There is not a marriage between just a couple. Generally it is the whole family that is involved.” It is such that, in Senegalese families, uncles are often referred to as fathers and cousins as siblings, and if a woman’s husband dies, her marriage to that family is not annulled; she may immediately be married to her late husband’s brother, regardless of how many wives he may already have. “This is the way of life in Senegal,” says one man named Adama Kouyate, who inherited the wife and six children of his late brother. “This has nothing to do with Islam, but it’s our culture. And no woman has the right to oppose this because she will be harshly cursed for the rest of her life.”

I lived with a family in Mouit, a village an hour north of St. Louis, in 2011, where the third wife was acquired thusly. After her husband died, she and her daughter were immediately taken in by her late husband’s younger brother, who already had two wives. I had been warned in advance that the family I would be living with was polygamous, but it’s possible I may not have known if I hadn’t been told. When I arrived, it was very difficult for me to identify which of the women were married to the head of the house, which were children, and which were aunts or other female relatives. After a few days, however, the family structure became quite clear. Every day, the head of the household would be on a mat or cushion in the center of the entrance way/salon while other members of the family would toil about the house. The peanut shells that would collect around him resembled the skin a snake might shed. His first wife would sit upright on her own cushion off to the far right. The aged, dark-skinned woman, making tea or shelling peanuts, was rarely ever visible. Her gaze was hard and she hardly ever spoke to me, or anyone in the house for that matter. To the husband’s direct left, often directly beside him, lay his voluptuous, light-skinned second wife. While her youth was beginning to give, her triumphant smile was still vivacious as she poured herself over the head of the household and ordered others around.

Then there was the third, who hardly ever sat. She was always collecting water from the well; hunched over a big boiling pot of broth, fish and vegetables; combing and braiding the children’s hair; or mopping the floors by shuffling a soapy towel across the entire house with her feet. Her only true concern was her daughter. Only 4 years old at the time, the little girl needed a lot of defending to get an equal share of the food and not get pushed around by her older step siblings.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m realizing how parallel this family structure is with that of Cinderella’s: replace the stepmother with the husband, the father of Cinderella with the husband’s late brother, and the stepsisters with the other wives, and voila – African Cinderella is born. But there is no prince, no hope of escape for African Cinderella, or the third wife, in this story. The binds of family are simply too strong. However, this is also real life, and things are not so grim. The third wife was afforded a remarkable amount of liberty, exempt from occupying herself entirely with the whims of the head of the house because of all the work she did both in and out of the house; when she wasn’t doing some household chore, she was making her own money as a manager of a nearby national park.

Each wife in the household, to me, represents a kind of wife stereotype here in Senegal. The first wife, quiet and out of the way, represents a perfect Senegalese wife. “A good woman is to stay in the shadows,” is passive advice I’ve received from male friends time and time again. “Senegalese men just want a woman who won’t say a word. They’ll brag about it saying, ‘oh yea, my wife is great – she never talks,’” T remarked more forwardly. “You have to clean the house, raise the children, cook the food, all the while satisfying the expectations of your husband, his family and your own. And if something bothers you, you are expected to smile and not say a thing! If you don’t, your husband will just pick up and find another wife, leaving you behind.”

The second wife might represent what men really look for in a woman; beautiful, voluptuous, lively – someone to tame and show off, I once heard it described. The evidence of the husband’s preference in this home was found in the sleeping arrangements; the first wife had her own bedroom while the second always slept in the same room as their husband. As a side note, one interesting stereotype of the second wife is that she is actually a homosexual woman taken in by a rich man as charity. This type of second wife, as I’ve heard it described, is often allowed to have her own private life, provided she bares children for her husband.

The third wife in Mouit is typical of all Senegalese wives in that her number one concern is her children. The most important quality that Senegalese women seem seek in a man is the ability to provide for a family. This is the excuse that women often give for being unfaithful before marriage. It’s just practical, many of them will say, if you are looking for a man that can best provide for you. Once married, a woman, particularly one with children, is much less likely to divorce her husband, polygamous or not, out of fear of the negative impact it will have on the resources and mentality of her children.

However, a polygamous marriage can have many different negative effects on children as well. Resources for the children of one wife, for example, will be immediately cut in half once the man takes a second wife. Moreover, jealousy that enters the wives may push some women as far as to turn to mysticism to harm their co-wife or her children. For instance, one Senegalese woman I read about recently said that her children began to behave very strangely after her husband took a second wife. One day, she got a phone call from the principal saying that her children had not been to school for three weeks. When she confronted her children about it, they told her that each day they would walk to school but, before entering, some force would pull them to not enter, so they would turn around and return home. The woman visited a fortune teller who told her that it was a curse that had been cast but, now that she knew about it, the curse would be broken once she purified, or washed, her children. She did as the fortune teller said and the children’s behavior returned to normal. The woman still believes that the second wife had performed this curse out of jealousy.

Despite all this, however, the popular conception of polygamy, at least that in which there is one man with several wives and he is the only one benefitting while the women suffer, can actually be turned on its head in practice. Rather than the man having all the liberty and the women having no choice in the matter, some women actually opt for polygamy because of the freedom it yields them. “I chose polygamy to have time, because when you are in a monogamous marriage, I feel you do not have enough time for yourself,” one Senegalese woman explained.

I wanted a husband who could come two days, and I’m free for two days. I am free. To have my time to myself, to see my parents, to do leisure activities, and therefore, to be a woman with a free mind. Besides being religious, I wanted to be free, to not be my husband’s love all the time. No. Marriage, for me, there’s work and there’s the marriage, and there’s the family…I am a free woman in my mind. I like liberty. And I think if I was in a monogamous marriage and my husband tightened the rules a little at the house, I would not be able to do it. I would not be able to because mentally I am not ready to be a wife to be managed, who receives orders. Absolutely not. I am an intellectual woman, who is free-minded, so I do not think I could manage very well in that situation.

In my experience, Senegalese society puts a lot of pressure on women to get married, and so, for those that want more freedom, particularly those that want to pursue higher education, for example, polygamy might be the best option.

Baring that in mind, polygamy can be a very difficult experience for men. Benn jabar, benn soxla – naari jabar, naari soxla, (one wife, one problem/responsibility – two wives, two responsibilities) is what they say in wolof. Indeed, polygamous marriage is a lot of responsibility and it is not easy to provide for two families. Women are beginning to work more and more, not only because they wish to, but out of necessity to provide for a family. This means that two providers are becoming more and more necessary in a family, making one provider for a bigger family more and more difficult and stressful to sustain. Moreover, one polygamous Senegalese woman, the first of two wives, described that she believes no polygamous man is happy:

For the first one, you say you will leave and come back. She lets you do that, mainly because she no longer wants to see you. And there you lose the grand love. And with the second, you do not have all of the same capacities you once had, so you cannot satisfy her…And what does she do? She abandons you. Because she is disappointed. All that she thought you had you do not….The first no longer loves you, and the second no longer loves you. You find yourself between a rock and a hard place…And you are left unhappy…So there are a lot of consequences for the man and the women.

Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that Senegal will ever make polygamy illegal. It remains an important freedom to many. Moreover, forbidding polygamy is largely seen as an acceptance of Western culture, and, pitted against the legalization of anti-Islamic homosexual marriage, that simply won’t due for many Senegalese. “If they are going to legalize anti-Islamic homosexuality in France, then they should leave polygamous marriage alone in Senegal,” a polygamous Dakar resident named Bouba Diop stated. He was reacting to the idea of a round table discussion held at the University on the “evolution, forms and perspectives” of polygamy in Senegal. “[It’s] a dirty[] event and we are not going to sit down and allow that to happen,” he said. “Polygamy is in the mind,” another polygamous Dakar man stated, “those who have not experienced it don’t know anything about it and therefore criticize it.”

Some think that the end of polygamy would result in a reign of adultery, which, given the normalcy of infidelity that I’ve seen, may not be an unreasonable conclusion. “I love my country. I really do. There is just one thing I deplore, Althea, and that is the infidelity of my country’s men,” T said to me. One 22-year-old student at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar named Lamine Camara, explained that he would rather be a polygamist and “officialise all my relationships instead of taking a string of girlfriends and risking diseases such as AIDS.” While the first part of his reasoning may be true for him because he is simply not one someone that can achieve monogamy, the second part is one example of how many of the ideas surrounding polygamy, often in its defense, are sadly evidence of an uneducated population. Polygamy, in fact, has been cited as a possible cause of Africa’s high incidence of HIV, in addition to low savings rate, high levels of child mortality, and female depression. Moreover, the idea that there are so many more women than there are men, and thereby polygamy must exist, couldn’t be further from the truth. According to ANSD’s statistics of the year 2013, women actually make up approximately 50.6% of the population in Senegal. Some calculations show that this should leave 1 in 5 men unable to marry due to a shortage of women. This ratio is congruent to that in China presently, which has been caused by sex-selective-abortion. And yet the misconception that there is a larger population of women is undoubtably the most common reason Senegalese people continue to justify the practice of polygamy.

Perhaps if people become more educated about the actual makeup of the population or if the number of women drops, then the practice of polygamy will continue to drop at a faster pace. However, it will probably take another generation or longer for Senegalese society to reject polygamy, though many people privately oppose it. Senegalese women’s rights activist Codou Bop explained that Senegalese women are just not ready to fight the tradition because of their struggles in other areas like access to education and employment. “Struggling against polygamy is not yet a priority when you consider all the problems they have to tackle – the economic, the social, the political level,” she says. However the problems she cites seem to stem back to family structure, at least to me. West Africa is one of the few places in the world where the birth rate is still growing, placing quite a strain on already limited resources. This rate is of course only made worse by polygamy.

I was recently quoted in an article on the subject of polygamy by my friend Zoe, who came to stay with me for a few weeks in Dakar, saying “The situation for women here [in Senegal] is really messed up.” Not my most eloquent moment, but certainly a simple explanation for why polygmay has become more and more interesting to me. Outside of my day to day interactions with polygamy, often mysterious or even blind, I recently became more interested in the practice for the difference it may represent in the construction of gender in Senegal. Specifically, the way men treat me – sometimes like a child, other times like a possession, sometimes just like an uneducated person – began to make me wonder where this behaviour was coming from. Though research into the subject has certainly shed some light onto my inquiries, the issue seems to be layered and steeped in a history, language and culture that still remains out of my grasp skill-wise. Despite my new discoveries on the position of women here and how that may be impressing upon me, I still have so many questions left unanswered. What am I consistently overlooked in important decisions, for example, with my band or even my friends? What was really going through my landlord’s mind when he made his adversity towards single, foreign women so clear to me without any explanation? Why do women seem both proud and threatened when they catch me on stage or television with male artist?

Maybe more answers next time.

Love,
Althea