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Travel Commentary: BBM in Guinea West Africa 2003-2004

posted by Dave Kobrenski in Travelogue & Journal on March 11, 2004
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This past December 2003 and January 2004, BBM director Dave Kobrenski travelled to Guinea, West Africa, to study the traditional music and culture of the Malinke, the second largest ethnic group in Guinea. Here is his personal commentary on the trip.

Returning Home

I know it’s not customary to begin a story at the end, but my first thought when I sat down to write an essay about my travels this winter to Africa was: I didn’t realize how much I would miss Guinea. And it wasn’t just the shock of returning to the sub-arctic temperatures of my New Hampshire USA small town in the dead of winter. Much of what I learned and experienced in Africa wouldn’t even fully hit me until some time after I had returned, months later even.

So maybe you think I’m crazy, when my life here back home is seemingly so easy, with all the modern conveniences, and having just visited one of the poorest nations in the world…but there it is: I miss Guinea. The music, the people, the red earth and lush foliage. The simple pace of life, the fresh fruit at the roadside markets, the crusty French bread in the mornings. Café au lait made from Nescafé and canned concentrated milk syrup (see, you think I’m crazy!). The countryside, the broken down bus and the chickens, even the dry dust, the cold bucket showers. But as a musician and artist traveling to one of the most impoverished third world countries in the world in search of something I do not have even here in the wealthiest, I miss the amazing abundance of musical traditions and the vibrant culture that it springs from, the sense of community I found everywhere, and the appreciation for the simple things in life that for me, brought a sort of peace even amidst tumultuous times.

Famoudou KonateFamoudou Konate photo by D. Kobrenski

Conakry: Intensive Music Study

Had it been my first time to West Africa, arriving in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, might have been a tremendous shock. The shock I actually experienced was just slightly less than tremendous. The frenzied arrival at the airport, my haggling with the customs officials over the nature of my visit, and the intense humidity at first made me question the sanity of my decision to travel to Guinea — alone no less! Surviving the initial shock, I was escorted by my hosts through the dusty, shanty-lined streets as the early evening sun glowed red, making the sienna earth and tree speckled hills glow, the humid night air hovering heavily over the horizon.

Shock soon turned to excitement and curiosity. The place was alive with activity, colors, and movements. The immensity of the place and the staggering population, the overwhelming poverty, and my own delirious fatigue after three days of travel all hit me at once. I was here in Africa, about to embark on a musical and cultural exploration with one of the most renowned and respected djembe masters alive. Had I any inkling at that moment also of the wondrous places I would see and the friends that I would make, I am sure that I would not have been able to contain my growing excitement on that drive to Famoudou’s compound in Simbaya Gare, where I would spend much of my time.

Drummers in Sangbarala, GuineaSangbarala, Guinea photo by D. KobrenskiThe next month, primarily, was about the intensive immersion in the music of the Malinké. Under the guidance of Famoudou Konaté, along with his nephew Nansady Keita and others, I learned enough material in one month to keep me busy for the next year. It was not until I returned home that I realized how much I had grown musically: rhythms and musical phrases that were before difficult — seemingly impossible! — were now becoming natural and even obvious. My understanding of the music and ability to hear the melodies of the drums grew significantly. Maybe even more importantly, the opportunity to witness the music being played in it’s native context provided me with insights that books and recordings could not.

Guinea: Of Music and Friendship

Certainly, one of the greatest powers that music has is it’s ability to bring people together, connecting them regardless of their background, color, or ethnicity. The unexpected “bonuses” of my time in Conakry were certainly the people I met, and the lessons that a place can impart. In Conakry, I found myself surrounded by an incredibly diverse group of people, all sharing a common interest: music. I learned as much from the people I studied with as I did from the material I was studying; people I can only hope to have the opportunity to encounter once again, someday.

Women in Sangbarala, GuineaSangbarala, Guinea photo by D. KobrenskiOne afternoon late in January, another of Famoudou’s students remarked, “Man, this place is musical heaven. I could just stay here forever…” The sentiment reflected our joy in immersing ourselves in a place where music plays such a vital role. Our evenings in Sangbarala, a village 400 miles inland on the banks of the Niger River, would be spent delighting in the festive and powerful drumming and dancing of the locals, the singing of the women and children, the refreshingly cool night air. One of the village elders spoke to us one day of his wonder that we, who have so much, would want to come to his village of Sangbarala, where they have so little. We, however, marveled at their wealth — a wealth that was of such a different nature than our own. In Sangbarala I did not long for the sound of the telephone, the use of my car, or the comforts of modern living. I took joy at washing my clothes in the river (to the amusement of the local women!) and sleeping on the ground. I was even a bit envious, particularly of their musical traditions and their community.

I recognize, however, that their lives are not easy, and perhaps they wish for some of what we have in the West. Underneath the stars, by the banks of the River Djoliba, I would often think about the differences between having a simple life and an easy life. Having now returned home, I think about it all the more. If ever I return (and with strengthened language capabilities!), I hope for the opportunity to know those people better, to learn more about their culture and ways of life, and even have a hand in preserving a small part of it. Now that I have returned home, I occasionally daydream of passing some lazy hot afternoon beneath the shade of a baobab tree engaging in that universal art of conversation, and delighting once again in the cool tapestry of music filling the night air.

Dave Kobrenski New Hampton, NH USA March 11, 2004

The Stage

2003-4 Conakry 1 Stage

With gratitude I mention my first djembe teacher, Alan Tauber, for the first major cultivation of a seed that had begun to grow. Nii Tettey Tetteh, my teacher in Ghana, and Famoudou Konate of Guinea both tended with care to a growing musical interest and talent. I owe much to their dedication and commitment.

 
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