Balafon, djembe and congas - Aboubacar Sylla
Abou Sylla plays the djembe at a wedding party in Conakry, Guinea. 2017
Thanks for those of you checkin' out the pics of the Guinea adventures! Some of you might be saying, "Can't you post a smaller album of some of the better shots?" Yeah, I know. I get that all the time. Some day, yeah. But not the days where I'm organizing & trying to save & back up days of photos, videos of practice material, & get my cam, mem cards & batteries ready for the next thing I'm going to record. At some point, I will edit albums for the residents of the home in Simambosia where we stayed, Abou's family in Belle Vue & his fam & friends in Bramaya for him to take to them. Chris Häusler, Mariana Oppel, Susan Snyder, let's get w/ the other students on the sharing. I'll put everything anyone gives me on my hard drive & make it available to Abou & Lisa as well. Then I'll worry about editing albums.
For now, if you don't have the patience or the internet speed to go all the way through the albums, scroll to a random place & check out a few. These are all friends and teachers of mine in Conakry, Guinea, Africa. They took good care of me, & showed me the hospitality customary of their culture & the love of a family member. Everyone was so sweet and kind, and some tight friendships were formed in a brief & intense flash. No amount of photos can capture the magic that went on there in 3 wks. I only took out my cam when I was asked to at first in any new place. Public spaces get shady, especially due to police/military presence. Whenever Abou said to put it away, I didn't even ask about taking it out again until we were some place else.
If you're white in Guinea,you stick out. You're a spectacle. Children line up to chant, "Fote (white guy), how are you?" Everybody looks at you. Everyone who's selling something wants your money. Probably the price of my relatively inexpensive camera could support a family there for a year. On top of this, as a foreigner who doesn't speak their languages, you basically depend on others to take care of you. From bringing you water (which you only drink out of 33ml plastic bags) & food to, "Do you know where I can get a...", you're a white guy being constantly served by black people. The surreality was not lost on me. Oh yeah, the water bags have a white Santa Clause on them in a mostly Islamic nation where scant is the sight of the white man. All of the baby dolls I saw were white. All in all, I probably saw one white person for every day I was there, including the other students & the half dozen or so at the expensive Salif Keita show (accompanied by an escort from the American Embassy, ha ha) & the doundounba.
But the people who know & take care of me are not serving me because I'm white, they're doing so because my program fee is going to support their community, they are voluntarily participating & reimbursed, & because we are their guests & this is their custom. If we arrive, chairs are set out for us while others take a seat on steps below us. When we need a place to sleep, we sleep in their bed while they sleep on the floor.
I have no idea how the breakdown for the payment of all the contributors was. A little US money goes a long way there. Like, $100SD = $705,000 GF (pictured in a stack of $10,000 GF bills in album III). For us, it was a reasonable program fee. I felt good about it, & I hope that Abou does too. In the end, I felt so grateful for all the work that went in to providing for us that I gave him and some of his fam extra $. He not only works tirelessly to ensure that his students are taken care of & happy, he seems to be doing that for everyone he knows at all times. We didn't visit a friend that he did not offer money to, either out of assistance, respect or payment. We could not walk anywhere w/o people recognizing & lovin' on him. His musical renown, his charming character, his unwavering love & loyalty, & overall teddybearishness make him a cherished icon.
There is no safer or better way we could have traveled to this nation on the UT Study Abroad Restricted list or the Extreme Risk Belt for disease precaution, than in the capable hands of my teacher, master percussionist Aboubacar Sylla. He's well-connected, well-respected & no one would dare F w/ him because most people around are his family (the terms "brother", etc. are used very loosely, could be a sibling, cousin, childhood friend & child of a parent's lifelong friend, a Muslim brother, etc.), have been taught by him or helped out by him. He sets an honorable example through his musicianship, his community engagement & service, & his faithful practice of Islam. A devout follower, he prays multiple times daily, & does not smoke, drink or use controlled substances. He is also a very nonjudgmental friend whose basic tenet is to treat everybody in every encounter with love and integrity. He could care less that we are white or non-Muslim, but will share his ideas freely & openly.
People were warm, inquisitive & very initiative. Everybody wants to be your friend, & has something valuable to share. Children immediately pile into a cuddle puddle around you & hold your hand & play w/ you. The first time I let my hair down, they immediately started braiding it. I've got vids of my Friends Youssouf, Mabinty, Ishmael & Mariama singing, dancing & rapping to me. As I packed to leave, people were crying, giving me trinkets & notes, & singing farewell songs on the porch.
Now I have this whole new family back in the homeland who want to learn English, see America, & see me back there in Mother Africa again soon. I would like to be more capable in French & have better familiarity w/ Sousou before that happens. It would be cool to be in a position of being less helpless & therefore capable of helping others more. There's a lot of talented kids there who are eager to learn & teach...
Kids like Mabinty Noir, the beautiful 16-yr. old w/ 1 leg pictured frequently in my albums. Her leg was amputated in 2012 due to cancer, and both of her parents have passed. I didn't know any of this until I had gotten to know her awhile, & wouldn't have guessed it from the way she always carries herself w/ smile, grace & strength. She took the initiative to attempt the first conversation w/ me my first night there, which in turn led to nightly language exchanges w/ her & some of the other teens studying English. Definitely has the hands & energy of a healer, & I tried to impress this upon her. Some of our language exchange is written in a notebook with a red binding w/ the word "hope" on the cover, pictured in album III, which I left the kids, along w/ my Cureville sri yantra shirt & some medicinal & hygiene items.
She lives w/ a family in the little complex we stayed at in Simambosia, which is funded by a nonprofit in Michigan. Actually these particular children & families have it good, as they are sponsored & can actually afford an education. But they have definitely taken some hard knocks as well. Here in the states we think we have rights that are really privileges, like personal space, privacy & protection. Try using a restroom w/ hole in the ground & a curtain or straw wall, collecting & using water by hand for anything you need it for, sharing a living & sleeping space with other people & families in a small shack.
My brother from another mother, Youssouf (w/ me in my profile pic), also studies English in school, plays soccer & DJ's. Africa is kind of like Brazil in that everybody puts me to shame because they're all naturally good at soccer, percussion, singing & dancing. I got to clown w/ people of every generation in Conakry, but probably I'm still perpetually around the emotional, social & intellectual maturity level of a teen, so I naturally attract this kind of shenanigans. Laughing until my sides hurt & my eyes are crying. A lot of folks w/ a good sense of humor that doesn't necessarily require translation. Good times w/ good people who smile through the tough stuff & aren't afraid to show you how much they love you.
I learned once again that I'm a dumbass American consumer. That's not anyone else's judgment, just my own observation. I know a lot, but I don't try to deny my ignorance.
I learned to listen to Abou & to trust him above all others because of his knowledge, his wisdom & his intentions. Again, there's no way I could have navigated life there w/o him. He & others basically saved me from my own stupidity on multiple occasions. I have gained an eternal & grand respect & admiration for a genuine friend & teacher.
I learned about the life in one African nation, one that I didn't know existed a few yrs. back, one that most people I talk to aren't familiar w/, unless they are into West African music. I learned about the profound similarities & differences we share w/ them. I got a pretty inside view that I don't think institutional study abroad, commercial travel or even similar programs hosted by Guineans would offer because Abou is so intimately involved in family & community there. You're not staying in some remote home insulated from the public. You're living under the safest circumstances possible w/in a lockable gate, door & personal rm., but right in the heart of the city, where I have to walk through the equivalent of people's living rm. or kitchen to get to the street & take a taxi, & kids line up outside to see the real white people. A lot of people living w/o the stuff we take for granted.
I still suck at percussion, but I learned a lot about music. Now I see some of the songs I am learning w/ the full effect of instrumentation, singing & dance, & have a better idea of what my playing is supposed to fit into. I took vids of every class, every performance we witnessed, every wedding, every jam. I also recorded a journal for the first time on any trip, & faithfully recorded every day. At some point, I'll edit it & post a blog. For the time being, I've got Carnaval season, the start of school, and the peak of the massage biz yr. around St. Hallmark's Day.
I came home to find out I made my best school performance ever in Fall: all 4.0's in my heaviest semester yet at UT: 16 credit hrs. & another 3-hr. class that I didn't enroll in! Naturally, one of my Spring classes was cancelled while I was out of country & internet. This semester:
Intro to the Nonprofit World, NGO's in the Developing World, Public Leadership Through Service/Practice, Civilization of Spanish America, History of Mexican Americans, Whiteness/Mestiçagem/Immigration (in other words, official racist public policy) in Brazil.
Thanks again, Abou, for all you do for us. Thanks again to all my friends & fam in Guinea. Thanks & praises to all my friends & fam here. One love, Jesse Allan Crandell
I'm home safe from the most kickass journey ever! Hopefully my checked baggage makes it today! 18 days w/o using a phone, email, running water, understanding the language & customs of most of the people around me, or having any sense of self-reliance. Spending every day watching brilliant musicians & dancers make anything I've ever done look like child's play. Playing a hole in the palm of my hand on djembe. Language exchange w/ teens who are learning English & can teach me French & Sousou. Being cuddled & praised & joked & played w/, & treated like royal guests by people I didn't know a day before & have barely begun to exchange any coherent conversation w/. A new branch of lifelong friends & family on a continent I've only been to for the first time. Eating better than my busy student lifestyle normally permits. Saw Salif Keita live! Walking the paths my teacher walked as a child. 28-33 hrs. of airplanes & airports.
Let me back in gently, Austin. Rest & recover (my luggage, ha ha), get my stuff together, & then I'll start, like, contacting people & responding to stuff. I photoed & videoed everything I possibly could, & for every good image there were hundreds of even better missed opportunities. Will post soon.
Special thanks to Travis Riley for never asking for your camera back, dude! It's gone some amazing places! I'm sure you have too, & I miss you, buddy! Also Right On, Dr. Cristina Cabello C de Martínez, for insisting that I had to take this opp, & Chris Hausler & Susan Snyder for being all about it. And of course eternal gratitude to Aboubacar Sylla, my hero, teacher, respected friend & gracious host; Lisa; all Abou's (& my) friends & fam that made all this possible. I will never see a hot shower, or my home, my car, my culture, my society, my world, the same way. Wuntanara, my friends. Hakuna Matata. Love, Jesse
I fly to Conakry, Guinea, west coast Africa this morning. 33 hrs. of flights & layovers. Meet my teacher Aboubacar Sylla's family, get schooled hard by 4 hrs./day of drum & dance classes, excursions into "the bush", tropical coast, try to pick up some French & Susu. Following my legacy of shamelessly getting my butt kicked by real musicians in unprepared-for situations where I'm totally outclassed. Learning trial by fire style. So stoked!
This is an amazing opportunity that I could not turn away from, and it would not have been possible without the support of SO many beloved souls. Abou & Lisa, UT, the College of Liberal Arts, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies (LLILAS), the Department of Spanish and Portuguese (special shoutout to Liz and Christine in Advising), Allan Crandell, Joyce Pfennig, Emma Ratajczak, Nancy James, Julie Pfennig LaFon, Colton LaFon, Dani Crandell, too many fam to name... Please share the love in your respective clans and territories.
This is an independent non-credit study, but was made possible in part by a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship from LLILAS & a Stacie Maureen Sowell scholarship in Spanish. Dr. Almeida Jacqueline Toribio, Dr. Niyi Afolabi, Dr. Henry Dietz, Dr. Orlando Kelm, Dr. Cristina Cabello C de Martínez, Dr. Darien Lamen, Dr. Jossiana Arroyo-Martínez, Dr. Belinda Mora García, Dr. Emilia Arce, Dr. Merry Wheaton. I genuinely appreciate the educators who supported and encouraged me, all the letters of rec, sharing your wisdom in the classroom & in office hrs... I'm writing you recommendations & speaking your praise because I am grateful for the positive impact you have on the lives of others. Teachers, parents, caregivers, healers, mentors, true friends- I am surrounded by you everywhere and feel an obligation to pass on your brilliance.
I believe that this program is valuable not only musically, but academically and professionally, to me, and to society as good faith intercultural collaboration & exchange. I'm going to photograph & video everything I can, faithfully study & participate, & learn a lot more than music & grammar in a "developing" or "underdeveloped" nation on the restricted list for UT study abroad. Awareness, communication, education, empowerment, these are the tools I am trying to cultivate in myself and learn how to share with others.
Tracing the roots back to Mother Africa. Music and massage have been present in every human culture in history. And they actually predate humans because many animals do both. Performance and practice hone the intellect,the senses, motor coordination, creativity, emotional expression, confidence, public identity, purpose, direction, focus, discipline, & commitment, & develop a sense of community honor & civic responsibility. Music is one of the activities that activates the most of the brain simultaneously.
It is applied effectively in healing, education and social movements. Organizations have developed out of individuals in the slums, without education, money, employment, resources, opportunities, or rights... and have transformed into multinational partnerships between lucrative commercial performance art and nonprofit community organizations. They are giving success to talented & marginalized youth & communities while building inner-city schools & reducing violence, drug use, crime, illiteracy, disease, poverty and inequality.
Even much of the Latin American music I perform was passed down by descendants of slaves from West Africa. I'm paying my respects to the homeland by accepting an invitation to visit & hopefully offer something of value in return beyond my payment. I'm also going to see the real world, because large-scale poverty, war, untreatable disease, these things don't exist to me except in movies, books and stories.
Guinea: 178th poorest nation out of 187, according to the UN. Africa is still rich in resources. So why so impoverished? The international slave trade was abolished, right? These nations are "independent"? I just heard the current human trafficking industry is well past the numbers in the colonial slave trade. The USA has the highest inequality index of any developed nation, based on a system that relies on poorer conditions for trade and working classes in the other countries that supply labor and goods. So the middle class is shrinking here and poverty is growing, and our partners have it even worse off. Hmmm...
Cool, human race, we've successfully proven we can conquer, dominate, massacre, exploit, and monopolize wealth. Good game. What about the challenge of providing sustainable consumption that benefits everyone? Worth a shot? World peace? You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one...
I wasn't born in Africa, & I don't claim to be saving the world. Just another ignorant consumer who likes to learn. I just think maybe some of us, particularly perhaps privileged/white/male/Americans/2% of the world with a college education, might be thinking about ways we can learn from and value and give back to those who have given us so many gifts of abundance. It's not a guilt thing, it's not a blame thing, it's not a pity or charity case. It's a gesture of good faith and solidarity. We're all in this world together, so we might as well enjoy it and be good to one another.
I'm using my degrees in foreign language study and my Bridging Disciplines Program in Social Entrepreneurship and Nonprofits to continue to work with organizations that are contributing positively and productively to communities and society. I will always be called to my lifelong disciplines of music and hands-on healing, and so these must be some of the tools of my practice. Judging by the incredibly rewarding relationships I'm building with teachers, colleagues, and communities locally and internationally, I think the signs are promising. Whatever happens, I'll have some fun & help some people however I can. Next stop: West Coast Africa.
No Facebook or telephone or internet for me for the next 3 wks. Not to worry, I've got all my vaccinations, trip insurance & all my supplies. My teacher is from there, homes & meals provided by his family, we will have cheapo local cell phones, & his wife is here in Austin with all of our info.
Happy holidays to everyone, and I'll see you all next year! Probably post like thousands of photos upon my return. I love and appreciate you all, & I know that you wouldn't put up with this Punk Ass Bitch if you didn't share that love and respect. Thanks and praises, and super extra Namaste, Y'all,