Harlem, New York, November 2014
I’m sitting with about one hundred Guineans and Malians originally from West Africa packed into a small two-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Every single seat is taken, every couch, overstuffed with people. People stand in extra spaces and sit on arms of furniture. The elders occupy the most privileged seats, the softest couches that are closest to the music and an enormous sized flat screen T.V. The children, American born, sit on the floor, get up, run in and out of the living room, sit again. About ten women move around the cove-style kitchen, organizing food on large aluminum trays to bring out to the people. First I am given a plastic bag of the most delicious thing I would never normally eat: fried dough composed of fat, flour, and sugar. A pure carb-ball. What could be tastier? Then I am given a plate of couscous with green slimy mush. It doesn’t look good, and the texture is a bit like snot, but if you know this to be an African dish made with mashed okra, you know that it is healthy and delicious. I eat it up gleefully. It’s biting my mouth with added red-hot pepper. I am given a plastic bottle of homebrew ginger juice, super strength. Next I’m handed a plate of salad and chicken with raw onions with plastic fork and knife. The plate is white Styrofoam and I’m trying to cut the chicken from the bone and the leafs of lettuce, all while balancing the plate on my lap. I crease the plate. Please don’t poke a hole in it, I plead with myself. Be mindful. Then a plate of fishballs arrives. Abundance!
I am at a baby-welcoming party, also known as baby shower, baby-naming, or a baptisme. Famoro and Missia Saran Dioubaté, two jeli musicians from Guinea living in New York have invited me to come along. I cannot be sure why. I have been learning music and culture with Famoro for over ten years and we are friends, but the relationship is never that simple. Maybe they wanted me to drive them. Maybe they know I am interested. Certainly they trust me to fit in and perhaps they think I will be useful somehow. I’m never sure why they make these decisions to take me to all Guinean events but somehow I am sure it serves them as well as me. Perhaps it increases their own cultural capital by bringing the “local” White American born in New York. I go along with it and take it as an honor.
The baby has already been born and named Little Abdoul, son of Abi, a beautiful, young, classy Guinean woman. A young Muslim leader of prayer called an imam and three jeliw (sing. jeli, or griot in French, is an oral historian/musician/spiritual leader/praise-singer) are present. Famoro is the only jeli instrumentalist tonight and he will play balafon all evening. The other two are singers and will bless the baby and the family members who raise it with prayers to Allah in their own respective ways. Famoro’s songs on balafon each represent another family lineage or cultural lesson, laden with proverbs and sayings in the melodies. Missia Saran, a jelimuso or female jeli, is from Guinean, and Abdoulaye “Djoss” Diabaté, is from Mali. They are both talented well respected jeli singers in the ex-Patriot Manding community living in New York. They will sing direct blessings to family members in the name of Allah, summoning each up to stand in front of them while they praise and bless. They will recall the participants’ ancestors, and the good and noble deeds they have done for the community, often making those called out laugh or blush. The young imam will take the microphone at a decisive moment and everyone will grow quiet. Eyes will close and hands will rest on knees while the imam wishes for this baby long life, prosperity, good health, good family, and a clear path with peace only. With each blessing, people will roll fingers into palms and squeeze, securing the blessing and releasing it again to God.
When Abi realized that I have a nice HD camera that can shoot video, she instructs me through Famoro to get in participants’ faces with the camera at all of the most important moments of the party—an anthropologist’s dream. “Make sure you don’t miss anything,” Famoro warns me. “You know what is important!” Indeed, I do. If the jeli starts praise-singing anyone, I had better be sure to have the camera on the scene, on the praised person or the jeli and the praised person, a very intense relationship. I find it fascinating to observe if the praised woman remains cool, distracted, aloof. Or will she smile at the jeli sweetly, shyly? Just how long will the jeli praise her? How much money will the praised person’s friends pass up to the honored woman? How will she collect the wads of cash in her hands this time, and at what precise moment will she decide to release the money to the jeli? Will she throw it all at once, letting it rain down to the floor, or hand it to her, bill by bill? But surely these aren’t the important things for them. For themselves, they want to remember what and how the jeli or jelimuso sang, to whom, and how each one was dressed. The women take enormous pride in how they dress for these events. Sparkles, bling jewelry, and dramatic make-up is the norm. Drag queens “got nothin’” on these ladies.
I recall the many Africa-jeli events that I have attended. I have seen quite well how the Guinean videographers get right in the faces of audience members, shining spotlights on them as they walk up to throw money at the jelis. It is as if the audience members, the patrons, are superstars and they brought their own paparazzi. They love it. The videographers take their job quite seriously. If they miss anything important, there will surely be complaints.
I am, however, not part of the culture and my position as a White American female cannot be overlooked by anyone, no matter how well I think that I can blend in. I feel intimidated to film, even by request. I am sheepish about walking around instead of sitting safely in my chair, scared of facing the elders–respected men of the community–with a camera between them and us. Thoughts of the intrusive anthropologist block me. Can I balance my knowledge of how and what Manding videographers shoot, the closeness of it, and the reality of my position as outsider? I have a battle within myself, a jihad, if you will.
Anthropologists were once seen as the colonizing, elitist, objectifying researchers. Our profession has been fighting this projection since the days of Malinowski, who, stranded with the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific in the Second World War, finally began to understand that their irrational and hokey ceremonies actually made perfect sense when seen from a different system of logic. We fought with ourselves again in the 1970s, after the post-structuralism turn, trying to let “the natives” speak for themselves. But what happens when the natives become experts in speaking for themselves, filming themselves, and posting videos on Youtube and Facebook for themselves, and they ask you, the self-conscious anthropologist to do it for them so they don’t have to worry about it? Do you refuse because of the colonist-tainted history within the field of anthropology that you have fought to overturn for so long? Even if they know about the supposed “oppression of the anthropologist,” they aren’t thinking about it. It is not relevant. This is Here. This is Now. They are asking for my assistance as one who has the technology and the means. Forget the past. Just do it.
Famoro looks over at me. “You want Uasuf to film the party,” he asks me. Uasuf, the half-Senegalese half-American, male, younger than I, and somehow more culturally legit. Not a chance! I gather up my courage, try to find my graceful flow, and refuse the suggestion. “I’ll do it,” I declare, making it a test of my ability to act “Manding.”
I have a terrible start. Batteries aren’t charged, cards aren’t in cameras. Electrical outlets have to be found and cords, untangled. Imagine me in this mobbed apartment: I’m sitting in one little folding chair squished among many, untangling and connecting all of my devices, searching for power outlets under people’s feet.
More than twice I stop my frantic movements of setting up gear. I pause. Look up. Watch people for a few minutes. Tune in to the vibe. “Don’t be a New Yorker,” I tell myself. “You are on African time now.” Then, with a deep breath, I start again. Mindfully. More slowly. Relaxed, at least ostensibly. Developing this self-awareness and embodying it in practice is something that makes Famoro trust me. I don’t think he is aware of the internal struggle, but he is aware that I am different, that I am learning from him. It is the reason why he feels comfortable bringing me to this party in the first place.
The participants in this celebration are doing what they please, and yet, somehow everyone is doing what they are “supposed to do.” There is a structure, and within that structure there is a lot of freedom. The structure is in the fact that every one dresses nicely, that the elders get the best seats and the adults get to sit on couches and chairs, that the closest friends of Abi are in the kitchen preparing food. The structure is that the jelis sit front-center stage in the middle of the living room on speakers and monitors, on the drum machine, against the huge TV tuned to the American football championship game. Everyone is moving at a relaxed pace. There is a sense of confidence and composure to the room.
Within this structure things are quite free. One woman whips out a nail file and is having a full conversation while filing her nails. Another lady walks in wearing a man’s blazer over her dress because it is cold outside. MIssia is praising another who has her iphone in front of her face between her and Missia so she can film what is going on. Missia goes right on singing as if nothing is unusual. Women walk into the middle of the scene to pass out plates of food. Even Famoro tells me, “Do whatever you like. You are at home here.” Am I?
So I do it. I have the Lumix camera out, and I press record. I move slowly from patron to patron as they eat their food, in the faces of the elder men who just don’t react at all. I keep myself from reacting to my fears of my annoying or disrespecting them. It’s easier when I pass to the women. They love the camera. They are dressed for it. They sit up taller, smile at the camera, joke with one another, hold hands and sway to the music. They help me out by prompting me to hurry and film! when something important is happening in the jeli circle, for example, when Missia is prasing Abi’s aunt.
I occupy this strange position of child who doesn’t know although I am an American who is African-cultural savvy, an American rich with good technology. Many assumptions run through my head none of which I can reconfirm. If I were an African, rich, with good technology, I would never be asked to perform this service of filming because it would be beneath me. If I were a Manding videographer I would never miss an important moment. I may be resented by some for being the intruding American. I may be permitted because I am American. It is difficult to tell whether this thinking is my own insecurities, or reality.
From what I can fathom in my experience, Americans tend to exude welcoming, happy vibes toward someone who may not belong, who may feel shy. Not so with Guineans. They don’t smile just to assuage your insecurities. I feel they aren’t concerned with how you feel. They are concerned with how they feel, meaning that each one takes care to meet the world in the most righteous way possible. They do not trust others until others prove to be trustworthy, but they also don’t tend to condemn unless proven deserving. In that vein, my filming is accepted or tolerated. They could enjoy it if I come with the right “heart” or condemn me if they deem my behavior to be disrespectful. Mostly, what I am doing is unremarkable.
Then I venture into a side room. It is the children’s bedroom, evident by bunkbeds, and about ten children of various ages are playing on the beds and the floor. When they see the video camera they start to perform, singing and waving arms and yelling out. All, except one. She is older than the rest, about thirteen, and she starts to give me a hard time. “Why are you filming us?” she asks snidely. “Who says you can film in here?” She feels deeply confrontational and I am shocked. Frozen. Heat rises in my body. I drop the camera from my face and click it off. “I’m, I’m just filming the party,” I stammer, caught completely off guard. She lectures me now. “You don’t come into my room and start filming me.” I mutter, “sorry,” and add as an afterthought, “Famoro asked me to.” She snorts, and I turn back down the hall to the living room, feathers ruffled, a bit off-kilter.
Boy, I thought to myself, she didn’t use the respect-your-elders rule with me. We were working on a different cultural schema there, one that rests firmly in the United States. No Guinean child ever dared to speak to me this way. Later, I explain to Famoro what happened. “She doesn’t know anything,” he says. “That girl? She’s got a lot of problems. She do bad things sometimes. Next time she gives you a hard time, you tell her to talk to Uncle Famoro.” He told me of some other unfortunate incidents of immodesty that illustrate what a confused teenager she is. I think it must be difficult to be bicultural. Certainly, she is insecure and not sure of her place in the world. Is she Muslim? Is she African? Is she secular? American? How does she negotiate matters of respect between two very different cultures?
Back in the living room I take a seat to calm down. The microphone gets passed to the young imam; people get quiet for the first time. Totally quiet. Even children stop moving lest they receive the glare of an elder man. People who were serving food stop. Those standing crowd into the living room, hands turned up. I am sitting on my chair in a line of people against the far living room wall, my Lumix sitting on my lap. As if proving my American anthropologist position to myself, I wonder, “Can I film it?”
At this point filming does not seem appropriate. I’ve never seen anyone filming a scene like this as far as I can remember, but I am motivated by the desire to show other non-Muslims how non-threatening the prayers are, how well-intended. I am having another inner tortured battle with myself as the imam’s chant starts to roll. When people respond with their first chorus of Amin in response to the imam’s blessing, hands squeezing with each utterance of amin, I lose control and hit record. My camera is delicately balanced on my knee, the little red light flashing. I’m not sure what I’m filming, hopefully some hands, certainly the building rhythm: “May God bless this child’s life,” Amin. “May this child be healthy and strong, by will of God,” Amin. “May this child have a prosperous future,” Amin. I am anxiously listening, the wide-eyed anthropologist, observing and excited, but not participating. Exoticism? The prayer goes on. And on. And on. Now I worry about how much space this is taking up on my precious 32-bit memory card. I am not in the flow. I am not taking part in this important group prayer. I am wasting this opportunity, I think to myself. I switch off the camera and listen.
The prayer lasts longer than I expect; in fact, it is the longest I’ve ever experienced. I try to allow myself to get swept into the flow of it all. I try to release the recent confrontational event in the bedroom. By the time the imam has wrapped up his prayers, about fifteen minutes later, I am calmer. The young man passes the microphone to an elder man on his left, a small child crawls into the young imam’s lap, and the elder starts another round of prayers.
When the prayers end, noise is restored: children play, adults talk and laugh, jelis make music. All things are restored to a lively, celebratory mode. A sacred time has been carved out of this party. The ritual has an effect. I watch the room come back to life for a few minutes. Then, slowly, I rise and cross the room with camera in hand. A woman beckons to me to sit in front of her, a prime spot to film the musical action. I take her up on the offer, a testimony of confidence from a native, a welcoming back to the fold. Through the viewfinder I frame Missia singing to an aunty of her good deeds, Famoro playing bala in the background, and Djoss sitting to one side on a speaker, preparing to sing his next lines of praise. I rest at a perfect angle to shoot the best of the event.
Once the guests have gone, Famoro, Missia, and I wrap up the equipment and move down the hall to leave. Abi, the host and mother of the baby, is walking us out and thanking us when the thirteen-year-old girl who gave me a hard time appears in the doorway. I am surprised to find out that she is the lovely Abi’s daughter. Her mother asks me how she can get the video from me. “Why don’t you just email it?” asks the teenager. “It is too large,” I tell her. She knows technology better than her mother so she and I discuss it together and make an arrangement. We have reached a détente. I think about the clip where she is yelling at me and make a mental note to erase it before I pass them the footage.
Both for this teenage girl and myself, we straddle two worlds, and it requires constant self-reflection measured against a sense of what is happening around us. She has learned some lessons, undoubtedly from fellow Americans, lessons of survival, to be sure, in which she believes that harsh confrontation is the best response to gain status when one feels disrespected. I am familiar because I am from her culture. Her parents, however, exhibit very different norms, ones that I prefer. Consider all of the children born to immigrant parents who are forced to negotiate their acceptance in a society in which they are not the majority. What role do we, potentially of the majority, play in their formation, if any? In the next blog we will see another young, bicultural teenage woman who is negotiating her position in a very different way.
In my experience, Guineans expect within themselves and of others the “right” balance of wholesome values in order to be accepted, or at least tolerated. I am never sure if I am humble, respectful, and confident enough until I am given access, permission, reassurance, which arrives when all things come together in the right flow and I find myself at ease. Ironically, feeling at ease puts one in that flow where acceptance is superfluous. This graceful state of being exists in any culture, it is just that Guineans recognize it explicitly and wish this flow to come into being with the Arabic term, Insha’allah, which I appreciate very much. When those moments of flowing grace come, like when the woman beckoned me over into a good position, we give thanks. Alhumdililah.
 A jeli is a special title of musician from the Manding region of West Africa. A formidable ex-patriot Manding community lives in the New York City area. Jelis take an active part in this community, preside over Manding ceremonies and events, playing balafon, kora, guitar, ngoni, and singing.