Archive for August, 2009

August 24, 2009

Griot Story – Part I

It was some time in the early ‘90s when I was doing a banjo program at the Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville that I met Bruce Penner. He introduced himself to me at the end of the program and presented his card. He said he had been particularly intrigued by my statement that the earliest published banjo tuning pitched the banjo in C/F. He then informed me that F is the pitch most commonly found in traditional African instruments, like his bola, a wooden xylophone, for instance. After some further discussion on the topic we parted company. I came home and placed his card on my piled-high desk thinking I would probably like to get back in touch with this guy.

Some time passed, close to two years, I think, before I got around to calling him up. When I did I got an immediate invitation to ride with him to D.C. to see a “kora” player he was studying under, Djimo Kouyate. Bruce described him as the leading kora player in the U.S. at this time. I didn’t really now what a kora was but I said, “Well, okay,“ and so began my African odyssey, one that did not even require a transatlantic trip. (Well, not for me anyway. I guess it did for nearly everyone else involved.) Anyway, up we rode to D.C. in Bruce’s minivan, talking all the way, and eventually pulled up in front of some early 20th century brick row house in what the affluent, older, white residents of D.C., my frequent benefactors, describe as a rough neighborhood. Of course, as a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a one-time summer playground director in that city’s all black Chimborazo Park area, I didn’t feel the discomfort that some of my elderly white benefactors obviously did about such predominantly black neighborhoods, and Bruce, as an avid Africanist, was as accustomed to such situations, as an ivory dot on an ebony fret board. Still, this was D.C., not Richmond, and I admit to at least a heightened sense of awareness. Getting out of the van I noticed that, except for the two Dutch boys getting out of the van, there were no white people in sight, but there were a number of black men around and about. It was a hot summer day, and almost no breeze.

Upon stepping over the threshold into Djimo’s house, however, D.C. was left behind and I found myself transported in time and space. I don’t remember who came to the door. Djimo’s wife was there. I definitely remember the dimly lit, modestly furnished room and Djimo as he sat against the wall on a low cushion cradling a many-stringed instrument with a large gourd resonator between his legs, the kora. The room was sparsely furnished; there was surely some African art about, but I don’t remember any specifics. Djimo and his kora were the primary furnishing of the space. (He may have been practicing and played a little greeting music.) I remember there was some wonderful sense of presence in the room. Bruce presented the white grape juice he had brought for that purpose. A brief introduction of me was made, and we were invited to have a seat.

I sat on a little sofa to Djimo’s right side, close enough to reach over and touch him; Bruce sat facing Djimo. Some of the juice was brought out to us. Then Bruce and Djimo began the lesson. It wasn’t a music lesson, per se, although the subject was Sunjata, an epic poem most often rendered with musical accompaniment by the traditional African griot. Bruce was working on the history at the moment, asking about the royal family, lines of descent, chronology, pronunciation of names and so on, during this session. I knew nothing much of what they discussed. As Bruce asked Djimo all of these questions, I watched closely as Djimo’s fingers moved on this many-stringed instrument, close to 20, I figured. He played gently through much of the meeting. He seemed to use his index finger and thumb to run scales, mostly plucking with the pads of his fingers, but I thought stroking with the nail side sometimes also. He may have used Fingers 2 and 3 at times; it was difficult to tell without a direct explanation from the player just exactly what he was doing. Finger 4 was employed in hooking itself around the dowel sticks protruding from the gourd, which helped to hold and stabilize the large instrument. Djimo’s manner was one of humble dignity; the music was quite wonderfully soothing. It alternately trickled like a stream, flowed like a river, rolled and heaved like the ocean. It had an ethereal breeziness as variable as the wind. It was not so linear or as strictly structured as Western European music, yet was filled with arpeggios and melody and capable of being quite rhythmic.

The setting was calm and relaxed, and at some point I realized I was indeed in the presence of a great master, “the real thing,” sitting next to a living human agent of ancient, ancestral speech and cultural transmission. In that moment I sensed the history and wisdom of generations was being passed down right before me, directly to me, continuing in the exact same manner as it had begun centuries before—orally. Of course, something about our presence, Bruce’s and mine, represented a break with that process as soon as we wrote it down, yet in that moment I was experiencing this transmission directly, as if I was standing in the direct flow of a great river. If I was up to my knees, then Bruce was up to his neck. This was my first introduction to an actual bonafide African griot. I had read about them in relation to my American banjo study, but this was better, way better. I was not the African studies enthusiast my friend Bruce was (mine was Americana), but it was obvious that it would be good to learn more about African musical traditions, both from Bruce and from the Africans whose vocation it was to perpetuate them.

They talked on for a while; I remained focused on Djimo’s fingers. As a courtesy to me Bruce included some basic questions about the life of an African griot. Djimo’s answer to one question in particular got me all excited. The question was something like, “How does a griot get his start? What is his first step toward the griot life? Where does this process begin?” Djimo’s answer astounded me. I don’t remember verbatim what he said, but the gist of it was this:  The budding young griot is instructed by the elders to go to the ocean and wait. Listen for the voice of the ancestors in the wind and pounding surf and find your inspiration there. Without this timeless inspiration and connection, one cannot be a griot. This is the first test. If you hear your ancestors’ voices, if they speak to you, if you encounter their spirits and the sense of the eternal, then you have it in you to become a griot. And in this first real encounter you will be awarded a fundamental talent that will in turn show itself as a certification to the elder masters who will then accept you as worthy of being tutored further and acceptable for training in the griot arts.

Well, a somewhat difference process than getting into Julliard, I guess, but for me it rang so true that I blurted out, “That’s exactly what happened to me! I mean that’s just what I did.” I’m not sure that such a statement didn’t seem a little incredulous to Djimo, who hardly knew me from Adam, but his answer seemed a little incredulous to me also. That this man I had only just met, in less than an hour, had inadvertently given to me a basic certification of the path I had myself begun many years before. What made it so astounding was that he didn’t even know me or anything of my own personal story. So he wasn’t playing up to me. His answer to Bruce had been objective, not personal. And yet at the same time for me it was intensely personal, for it was exactly what I had done some 25 years earlier. It was my beginning as an “American” griot. It had happened so long ago I had nearly forgotten about it, but Djimo had, in one short explanation, brought it out from the depths of my memory. [Digression 1]

Bruce made some other effort to have Djimo bring out another traditional African lute for me to see, a much more ancient one than the kora, as it might have more of a relationship to the banjo, which was my focus. But it didn’t happen. Rather, Djimo’s wife, a D.C. native, stirred by the discussion between Bruce and Djimo, began an impassioned talk on the various unnamed university professors and academic scholars who write books on African history and culture after getting so much of their information from Djimo, yet seem quite reluctant to admit that to the public and don’t really give her husband the full credit he deserves. This topic so struck a chord with me and I again blurted out how I was, myself, familiar with that behavior in academia and had been subject to a similar type of treatment in my own cultural sphere, but she didn’t seem to believe me or think that it was exactly the same thing. How could anyone from privileged white class America begin to know how hard it was for poorer black people, seemed to be her drift. As I began to explain to her that not all white men were equal in this country and I was of that southern outcast lot, I thought I could sense Bruce’s growing alarm at the trajectory of the discussion so I didn’t offer much further elaboration on that point (but I wanted to). She and I both backed off a bit; the discussion remained polite and was then dropped. Djimo bathed the atmosphere with some vigorous kora playing and Bruce and I soon departed. As we headed back to Charlottesville, Bruce assessed the experience as going well enough, but thought the exchange I had with Djimo’s wife was unfortunate. “I really should have told them more about who you are, he said. We talked our way home and I wondered off and on to myself who Bruce thought I was.