First Week in the City of Close Calls

Welcome everyone to the first communiqué from the 2011 Mali-Senegal Kora-Building Kairaba-Playing Voyage Into the Motherland.

When we touched down at Senghor and exited the plane it was 6:30 am local time. Austin and I had sat facing the WCs near the back of the plane, so our transatlantic flying experience was devoid of awareness of how close we actually were in relation to the ground. The dawn in Dakar was a stunning orange, like my coveted turban I had bought in Mopti the year before. But even more moving was the distinct smell of the air, which slapped me with Senegalese memories from my first trip there in 2003: Goree, fish markets, Dudu Ndiaye Rose, Chebu Jeun and the sacrificing of a small black goat to settle a problem with someone’s dream.

While waiting for our connection to Bamako, Austin and I killed time at the airport by chatting with local boys who harass foreign travelers, and we played our new Kairaba recordings for them; we befriended other toubabs in transit, napped in the airport hall amongst outbursts in Wolof and travelers having their baggage shrink wrapped to keep them spotless while in the dirty holds of the airlines that serve Dakar.

While getting continuously pummeled with smells and memories, I reflected on how fortunate I was and how someone I rarely see had recently noted that I had an amazing life. I didn’t know what to think of that comment, but it afforded me a perspective that is unachievable by any other means. I just felt like I was escaping. Leaving behind the now-watered-down but still revolutionary concept of Occupy; leaving, leaving, leaving. Leaving to add further folds into my skin of experiences too powerful to capture anywhere else. Leaving to return knowing myself better. Leaving to see how other cultures seek to achieve what all cultures do in their own way: a good life. Just a good, happy life filled with loved ones.

In the Bamako airport, I quickly let the harassers know in their own language to back the fuck off, that I knew what I was doing and I didn’t need them for a damn thing. They held their Orange phone credits and Dunhill cigarettes loosely and just stared blankly off in the distance. After a few minutes they abandoned me and searched for their next victim.

We are staying in what amounts to a paradise. The neighborhood is called Badalabougou, but also goes by Toubabubougou. “Bougou” means neighborhood or village, and “toubab” means foreigner. There are lots of white folks around here, which means that there are also amenities that are otherwise hard to find, like expensive western-style supermarkets and ATMs and such. Our hosts are my friends Stephanie and Pierce, who are here for a year working and interning. They rent a two-story European style house with a French couple, a woman from Luxembourg and another woman from New York. It’s nice.

This entire voyage for me is 33 days. Part 1 is a mission in Mali spanning 12 days using grant money that I was awarded by the NC Arts Council: commission and help construct a kora with machine tuners with Dialy Mady Cissoko, my teacher and advisor from 2010, and one of the most respected kora makers in Mali. You can read more about him in some of the older blog entries below. Part 2 is a mission in Senegal spanning 21 days: our band, Kairaba, will rendezvous and perform our brand of Senegal-Mali-North Carolina dance music at places and venues that are at the moment unknown to us.

So far so good. My Bambara and French have returned to the front of my brain and I continuously leave Malians surprised at what I know about and who I know in Mali (which honestly is really not that impressive). Just as in 2010, I’ve begun spending most of my days at INA (the National Institute of Arts) with Dialy Mady working on getting the kora done in the small window of time that I have. Alternatively, he’s made me play kora for his music class and flattered me in front of many people that we’ve encountered. Austin and I play our new Kairaba recordings for as many people as possible and they are ALL, without fail, absolutely floored. Even the music instructors have a lot to say. Many are just in disbelief. I wish you could see some of the looks on their faces. They are the kind of looks which are used instead of words. Blessings and praises in French and Bambara shot at me and filled my body up like a storm surge with one of the most beautiful feelings a person can have: that one is doing the right thing.
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