Fighting with Bala
Harlem, New York, 2015
Famoro sits on the couch facing his balafon, which lays wooden keys facing down, gourds facing up, exposing its underbelly. My friend of twelve years and the ancient wooden xylophone hail from inner Guinea, West Africa; yet both are comfortably situated in New York City. He is giving the “bala,” suspended on both ends between two chairs, an adjustment at home. He has a piece of white string in his fist, which he wraps around one of the keys, then ties it off. Then he starts “tuning.” Each gourd on the balafon hangs below (when right-side up) a corresponding wooden key. Famoro lifts up a gourd that is tied to the upturned balafon and taps it with the end of his wooden mallet. It clicks. Then he taps the matching key. The tones do not ring out the same note to Famoro’s satisfaction. He adjusts the size of the holes cut into the side of the gourd, scraping them until his taps to the gourd and wooden key match in tone.
I am looking up information on the Internet about immigration status for him. After a few minutes Famoro says, “Hey! I’m gonna win this fight!” I look over my shoulder at him, but I don’t understand. Famoro is engaged in tuning. I turn back to the computer. Click, click, tap, tap. Click, Click, tap tap. “You gotta listen to me!” says Famoro. I look again, inquisitively and he says to me, “This balafon, she don’t want to listen to me. We fight, but I’m gonna win!”
I contemplate this for a moment. Famoro speaks of the balafon like a living being, and the way it comes across in English is humorous and endearing. I wonder if it has the same emotional tone in Malinké as it does in English.
Famoro is a jeli, a specialized profession of musicians of the Manding people, some of whom speak Malinké. Jelis are considered part of the nyamakala, a caste of skilled craftsmen who shape inanimate objects such as animal hyde (like leather) or metal (in the case of smiths), imbuing them with spirit energy. In the case of the jelis, they shape and imbue sound with spirit through their voices or particular instruments such as the balafon—a wooden xylophone—the kora—a 21 stringed lute-like harp made of calabash and stretched goatskin—the ngoni—a stringed instrument with goatskin stretched over a wooden base similar to an early base-guitar—and now, the guitar. They recall old Manding proverbs, lines from the Qur’an, and other nuggets of well-known wisdom in both musical lines and lyrics to inspire people in their society to act with the highest values for the benefit of the community. The contrasting caste is called the horon, the noblemen and statesmen. They take care of money and law and many are patrons of jelis who serve them by singing their praises of encouragement to act well for the good of the society.
We are not alone in Famoro’s apartment. Uasuf, a young American born to a Senegalese father plays the djembe—an hourglass-shaped wooden drum covered with goat skin and played with bare hands—studies balafon with Famoro. Today Uasuf is sitting quietly on the couch. He is Famoro’s apprentice and exercises his knowledge of African-style respect toward Famoro. He doesn’t let Famoro carry his own instrument. He jumps to get things for Famoro. He is eager to learn from Famoro.
For the past fifteen years I have been doing fieldwork, engaged in a relationship with Manding jelis in various capacities, which began through a method I now call an “embodied musical practice.” In short, I found a place within this culture by becoming a student, and then a patron of balafon music in both West Africa and New York City. The rightful name of a student in West African culture is best described as an apprentice. Rather than pay for hourly lessons, the student is expected to spend lots of time with the master, sometimes receiving musical lessons, but more often experiencing life lessons on ways of being. Compensation for the teacher is part of the learning process, as one is expected to give what she feels, both financially and in service.
This runs counter to every culturally inculcated bone in my body. I want to know with certainty how much an hour of someone’s time costs me. Americans do not tend to negotiate or haggle as is customary in many cultures. Learning to give based on how I feel has been a real struggle within myself, a jihad, in the proper sense of the meaning according to my understanding. It is part of the spiritual and cultural lessons that come with jeliya.
Meanwhile, the teacher imparts the wisdom to the student as he feels is appropriate to the situation, according to how the student assimilates the knowledge. The assessment of success includes the attitude, or the heart, that the student puts into the learning, as well as skill in graceful action; the student will not likely pass to the next level before learning to do so gracefully and in good spirit. She may be (harshly) reprimanded for lack of grace or enthusiasm. Ways of service might include: bringing the teacher tools and instruments, carrying his balafon, playing a new part of the music, driving the teacher if one has a car, and sharing anything that might be useful all while demonstrating good spirit in doing so.
Not far into my balafon lessons with Famoro, it was clear that I was not going to excel in the playing of the music, but I did excel in demonstrating a certain “Manding sensibility,” which I might sum up as knowing how to blend into the environment, how to be respectful of others, while going about my business. This blending in is not trivial because it requires a level of understanding the values that Manding people enact through their body and speech toward each other. For example, one listens to their elders’ advice with respect, offers the better seats to the elders, and often, follows their simple household requests. For another example, one is expected to go at a pace that allows one to not be rushed, to do things mindfully. If asked for something that you cannot give with patience and heart, then you are to decline gracefully and delay the request until later. It may be counter-intuitive for a New Yorker like myself who tends to jam everything into as little time as possible, to be “efficient,” which sometimes leaves me with an agitated and annoyed attitude.
The more I was comfortable with myself in this translocal community, the deeper my level of access. In doing so, my teachers and I negotiated a position within a cross-cultural space that made sense to all involved. I became a patron, a promoter, a trusted friend, a “Doctor of Manding Music” according to elder Jeli Mamady Kouyate which is how he announces and honors me, publically. Gely K, short for Jeli Kouyate and Mamady’s nickname, hails from Guinea; he sought asylum in 2000 and is now an American citizen. In practice, my position shifts in various milieu. I spend a lot of time listening to and interpreting the music and culture lessons with jeli friends, giving advice, offering financial and organizational assistance as well as emotional and cross-cultural support. I send money to support various cultural activities that I attend, I chauffer musicians, I give my time in recording studios and at public shows in music cafés throughout New York City, I take videos of the concerts, I serve as liaison between musicians and venue booking agents, and I perform many other tasks. But most of all, Famoro and others invite me into their home life, and sometimes to private house parties for Guineans.
Today Uasuf and I sit in Famoro’s apartment and Uasuf is slumped on the couch. He let’s out a yawn and through it says, “Man I’m tired today.” Famoro asks, “Why you tired? You not sleep good?” Uasuf answers, “Yes, I slept fine.” Famoro responds, “Then you have to ask yourself why you tired if you slept good.” He insinuates that there is something lingering under the surface, some mental anxiety to explore. Western-style psychology akin to Manding wisdom? I think so.
When Famoro takes out a balafon and turns it over to work on it, Uasuf jumps to his feet and asks how he can help. Famoro responds, “No, you are tired, you lay down and relax.” Uasuf isn’t sure if this is a provocation or test of his loyalty. “No, I’m not here to sleep, come on man, let me help you!” It goes back and forth a few times like this. But when Famoro keeps insisting I know that he wants to do this work alone. Finally I chime in and tell Uasuf, “Sometimes Famoro likes to have his own headspace, to concentrate and do as he wants.” Uasuf isn’t sure what to make of my comment. Famoro backs me up. “Hey, you gotta listen to her. Lisa, she knows me a long time. She knows me.” Uasuf slumps back into the couch.
There is a delicate balance between being an attentive apprenice and giving the master his space. Like any of us, sometimes we want to be in our flow. Perhaps we have a practice that recenters us, that gets us into a calm and clear headspace. This is part of what Famoro and any good jeli teaches us to do through playing and listening to Manding jeli music, and it is also what he does for himself. I recognize this based on my own yoga/meditation practice, and, therefore, can see it in Famoro. Knowing when to step in and help and when to give space is a matter of delicately tuning into another person. When making a mistake or being reprimanded, we must learn to back down gracefully.
Hours later, not much has happened in the apartment. Famoro’s partner, Missia Saran, has come home, and she is quietly milling about the apartment taking care of business. Famoro, Missia and Uasuf have musical lines running through their minds in preparation for tonight’s show. Kakande, Famoro’s Manding pop band will play at Shrine World Music Café, a few blocks from their home on W. 132nd Street from ten to midnight. The bass guitar player, drummer, cellist, and Uasuf are all American students of Famoro and talented professional musicians in their own right. The lead guitarist, Abdoulaye “Djoss” Diabaté, and Famoro’s partner, Missia Saran Dioubaté, are star jelis from Mali and Guina, respectively.
Famoro picks up the bala, lays it keys facing up. He stands over her and contemplates for a moment, perhaps waiting for inspiration to come. He picks up the mallets and the sound moves me from slouched on the soft couch to perked up and intent. He plays the intro to a song I know, and then falls into a polyrhythmic pattern. “Kinsanfaré,” I say. Famoro nods his head. He flows freely between several patterns that tease my brain, fully absorbing me in their interweavings, making me forget anything other than this moment, right here, right now, as it unfolds and passes.
The next day, after their show at Shrine World Music Venue, I visit Famoro. Missia Saran is at home as well. I have come to show them the videos and photos I shot. At ten to one, Famoro’s phone starts to sing out Azan, the call to prayer. I pause the video and ask Famoro is he has to pray now. “In a few minutes, not yet.” The entire time we are listening to excerpts from the show, the Azan is playing in the background, somehow blessing our video session. I finish up, and Famoro and Missia take turns, respectively, in the bathroom to do Ablution. It is a NYC bathroom but there is only a small orange tie-dye plastic bucket in the sink filled with water and no toilet paper. Although I’m in my own hometown, in this apartment we are in West Africa
As each have finished washing, they enter Famoro’s bedroom to pray. Uasuf then goes into the bathroom. I don’t know his spiritual practice. I surf the Internet. He reappears from the bathroom and spreads out a prayer mat right alongside the table where I’m perched. He starts to pray.
I now know from being in West Africa that I can go right on doing whatever it is that I’m doing, and that people will pray, undisturbed, around me or anyone else who is not praying at the moment. The mutterings are soothing as I contemplate the potential annoyance of a bright computer screen. I think about the beauty in taking a few minutes, five times in your day, to focus the mind on holiness, spirituality, a greater purpose to life. I turn down my screen and sit, quietly, in my chair. I am willingly swept into the peaceful moment.
Living in New York is terribly distressing for Famoro at times. He wants to maintain himself on his work as a Jeli musician, but the pay is low and the cost of living is high. He cannot see his daughter back in Guinea nor his parents and brothers and sisters very frequently. Many family members have died while he was abroad. He struggles to pay his monthly expenses, to say the least of sending expected financial support to his family in Guinea. When he does return home he is expected to come with plenty of money to help family and friends. It is nearly impossible for him to match those expectations. His spiritual practice soothes him and gives him an optimistic perspective on a fairly difficult life.
If life is a struggle in the United States, why does Famoro stay at all? Because in America, there are financial opportunities whereas in Guinea there are none. Furthermore, Famoro has a large network of West African and American friends whom he loves, and who find his contribution to their lives an invaluable resource. In short, New York is home, despite the fact that there is no structural place for a jeli in American society. I worry that as the Western world grows more fearful of Muslims, things may grow even more difficult for Famoro and his family to go in and out of the U.S.
In Manding society, jelis live off of donations from wealthy patrons to whom jelis provide a necessary spiritual and social service. Americans and other non-Africans have no known need for this service. In Occidental society, Famoro is recognized as a musician, and for that, he is flown all over the States, even as far as Hawaii, to play concerts and to give balafon workshops to eager American students who pay a set fee. Some open-minded people recognize Famoro as more than a musician; they learn the value of a jeli, a spiritual adviser with skills and talents that surpass the modern definition of musician. In these bicultural relationships, Famoro requests donations, jeli-style, on an ongoing basis. The Americans and other non-Manding people who value his talents find themselves in uncharted waters, constantly negotiating a relationship that has no set price, no rules of exchange, and is wrought with legal complications. Our relationship with Famoro is, in part, frustrating, and in part, enlightening; enlightening, because it has to do with following your heart, something we have perhaps let recede far into the background in our daily cosmopolitan interactions.