On December 11th, 2013 I wandered into the new music room in my new house, where my koras are now kept. It used to be that I stored everything in my bedroom in my old apartment because I had no extra rooms it was like a museums warehouse. Furniture upturned, dusty gemstones eyeing you from the desk, components of koras everywhere, a broken hand-carved wooden window-door I brought back from the Dogon Country in Mali resting on the floor with its hand-hammered nails waiting to be put back in.
In the new music room, I walked up to my Dialy (pronounced like jelly) kora: a modern take on the ancient instrument, with guitar and bass machine tuners for easier accordage. It has a cute little sewn-up area where I stitched a tear in the cowhide that happened during its freight journey here from Mali. I thought back to the first time I saw it, when I was on a Durham Arts Council-subsidized trip to Bamako to commission this kora from my teacher Dialy Mady Cissoko. I was hanging out with students in a music classroom at LInstitut National des Arts in central Bamako. Dialy Mady walked in with a smile and handed me the dried body of the kora just the gourd, crossbeams, and skin, still wrapped with the twine that was used to pull it tight when it was wet.
Back in my music room, I released this pleasant moment of nostalgia about my instrument, checked its tuning, and put it into its case. As a musician, I love this time: when you are preparing your tools of the trade for their rendering into peoples experiences. Sometimes I pause for a second and think: yes, kora, you are going into a case now, so compose yourself, because soon you will be singing, gliding, sailing the notes into peoples ears, into the folds of their skin, and just maybe into their heartspace.
That morning I was headed to UNC Hospitals for the second time to play for patients. The week before, I was a patient.
I thought about this as I walked into the hospital to find a bustling holiday market going on in the lobby. Cutting straight through the hubbub to meet me was Joy Javits, the organizer of DooR To DooR, a non-profit that works to bring the arts into UNC Hospitals for patients and staff. Joy is a lovely person that seems to float around ever-so-slightly, like Tinkerbell, ultra-aware of whats happening around her. Shes very mindful of peoples boundaries and knows how to communicate; shes like a patient-whisperer. She put together DooR To DooR in 1993, which brings in over 200 artists and performers each year. Joy delicately facilitates their contact with patients and staff, setting them up with stage performances or going room to room to perform for patients.
The whole reason for writing this blog post is the story that follows. Everything else above is just filler and backstory.
Joy and I decided that wed go over to the cancer hospital, 3rd floor I believe. Bringing a kora and its music into the hospital is like a scaled-down UFO landing everyone is intrigued and captivated by this foreign thing. I played for 3 patients in a row: a middle-aged guy who was having his vitals taken, a fella in his 80s from Raleigh who was eating lunch with a shaky hand, and a mother with her daughter who didnt seem sick at all.
While Joy was out finding my next patient, I was playing quietly in the hallway when I was approached by a nurse. She said I know someone who you might could play for. Hes 24 and has been in here a week. He has a very bad prognosis and refuses to talk to anyone. Hell probably say no, but Ill ask. I did his intake, so I have an in with him. She came back the same time as Joy, and said that the 24-year-old had agreed. We all gave a tiny cheer and then went over to his room together. I sat in the doorway to play because he was under a Contact Warning, meaning he could easily catch something from me.
He was on the other side of the room, focused on his laptop and phone and other devices, and he welcomed me with no expression. I greeted him and began to play a new song of mine called Mes Amis du Kalaban Koura. It has a nice, uplifting, churning spirit to it, and I focused on sharing that spirit with him. Often when I play kora, I dont look directly into people; thats the job of my notes. But this time I looked at him and smiled, and noticed he was really interested in what I was doing. After I was done, he asked me lots of questions about the kora and where it comes from and what the heck I was doing playing it so well. I played another song, a traditional piece from Mali called Kulanjan (not originally a kora piece but adapted to kora) and handed him a complimentary CD and wished him well.
A few minutes later his nurse walked up to me in the hallway. She had tears in her eyes. She looked at me and said, you dont know what you just did.
I think she said a few other things, but I never got past the first part. And I dont think I ever will. Because its moments like this that urge me to feel like my chosen (by me or the universe?) profession is the right thing to be doing. That the calling I feel to be a musician is exactly that, a calling. And the universe wins when people answer their calling, right? My bank account begs to differ, but my heart thumps harder and I am more happy every second that I spend sending a note from me to you.
So if its part of my job to bring a strange instrument from a distant place into totally new territory, Im game.