Monday, 28 January 2013

What would you do?

Hope your weekend was pleasant and if not at least bearable! Yes, for some if not many, some days seem to be and some days are just bearable. You know those days that you want to say in that Florida Evans voice, “damn, damn, damn! If you don't know who Florida Evans is you can google her, better still look for it on youtube. I know those kind of days and now I do my best to stop hopefully before I get out the 2nd damn and start to let the WORD do ITS work. It’s a work in progress!

Well get cozy, sit up straight or whatever position you like to read in and check this out……….

I’m still reflecting if you recall from the previous post, “Victoria’s Proverbs”. I had plenty of time to reflect in September of 2007 and months to come since I was almost bedridden. Something I had been through many years prior had prepared me to this semi confined state I felt like I was in.  Oh my goodness, be so thankful for your mobility, the use of your limbs! It hurt to move and it hurt when I lay down! I’d rather have a baby! Natural childbirth was a scratch compared to that pain. Yuk!

Didn’t matter though about the pain; I had to arrange my Mother’s Memorial in Kentucky. I decided to have it the nursing home were my great uncle was residing. He was nearing 100 years old and had fallen a couple of years back and broke his neck. His mind was still sharp as a tack. I had visited him a few years before and he pulled me close to him and said, “Write it down, you’ve seen more than many people will see, write it down”. Uncle Walter! He was the son of my great grandmother and she lived long enough to see my children!

Oops, I got off track, sorry! Well I organized the Memorial there because my spirit let me know that my uncle would not be around that much longer and he was the patriarch of our family. Since he could not physically make it to any venue, I took it to him. We have a small family and I knew they had facilities that would accommodate us, plus everyone at the home loved Uncle Walter. He passed a couple of months later. So I had to travel back and forth to Kentucky dragging my painful leg, but hey; the show must go on and so it did!

Anyway getting back to Chicago after the Memorial was time to wait, ease my stress and let GOD do the work. Can’t say I was peaceful during that time because there was a lot of family drama going on. But I knew that I was going to be okay, them I wasn’t sure. I kept it and still do keep them in prayer.

I had been through it! Africa had savoured me as it chewed me up, and I was good! So good that it just held me in her mouth sucking my juices while feeding me! OK, you’ve been warned before that the longer I’m here the more proverbs I speak in. it’s not intentional, it just flows from me. I was drained! My faith, character, body, spirit, heart, all of me was going through the fire. I couldn’t walk, had lost my mother, lost all my money, but I didn’t feel lost! Geez! I was full! I felt victorious and began to understand and feel why my Father had named me Victoria!

I may not always land on my feet, but I land! As long as I can roll over and scramble to my feet I’m going to get up! There’s no choice, GOD didn’t make me to stay down! I reflected on all that I had lost and all that I had gained. Freedom! Purpose! Increase in faith! These three things filled me! I felt free to be me and explore the possibilities of me. I didn’t have a chance to do that any more when I was in the states. The daily grind had taken over and my creativity was smothered.  

I began to realize that I might be afraid to go back because of everything that I had experienced and remembered that no matter what I’d been through I was prepared because GOD qualified me. All my yesterdays had me ready for the days. I prayed about it since I knew it was up to GOD anyway. Sometimes though I wonder if I’m listening to GOD or what my subconscious is saying to me. GOD grant me discernment!

So now the question was once I had recovered and I had no doubt I wouldn’t; was I going to go back to Africa? 

Friday, 25 January 2013

Music in the Air!

Last Friday I started sharing information about West African Instruments and I hope you see their place in modern day instruments. I also let you know that the word griot is not an African word at all, but French. The correct word or words for the "storytellers/historians are Jeli (Mali) and Jali (Senegambian region), for females you add muso to the end of each word.

Last week I spoke of the Kora and Djembe. The Kora is a key instrument for the Jali/Jeli, so I think it's only fitting that I give you the two other main instruments of the Jali/Jeli, the Ngoni and Balaphone. Here we go....... 

Ngoni is the Bambara name for an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa. 

Several hypotheses have been presented concerning the origins of the Jeli/Jali lute. The prevalent view, as first presented by early 20th century musicologists, has been that the modern Ngoni is derived from the lutes played in ancient Egypt. These Egyptian lutes are then believed to have spread West across North Africa and down into the Mande region. However, is that if in fact there is a connection between the lutes of ancient Egypt and those of West Africa, then the Egyptian lutes more likely moved south and across the Sahel to reach their destination. It is equally possible, however, considering the lack of material archeological evidence (lutes being constructed of non-persistent materials including wood and hides) that either West African lutes actually spread to Egypt, or that the two instruments arose simultaneously.  

In addition to this academic view of the origins of the Ngoni, there is also a mythical, spiritual story of where the instrument came from. According to the world famous Ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, the first Ngoni was given to his grandfather by a jinn, or water spirit.

Though typically a small instrument the Ngoni has a big sound and a big place in the history of West African music. Its body is a hollowed-out, canoe-shaped piece of wood with dried animal skin stretched over it like a drum. The neck is a fretless length of dowelling that inserts into the body, which unlike the Kora (whose neck goes totally through its calabash resonator) stops short of coming out the base of the instrument. For this reason musicologists classify the Ngoni as a "internal spike lute." The Ngoni's strings (which are made of thin fishing line like the Kora) are lashed to the neck with movable strips of leather, and then fed over a fan-shaped bridge at the far end of the body. The string closest to the player actually produces the highest pitch, and the player plucks it with his thumb, just like a 5-string banjo. This feature, coupled with the fact that the Ngoni's body is a drum rather than a box, provides strong evidence that the Ngoni is the African ancestor of the banjo. Boom an original African invention, the Banjo!

Instruments of this general construction can be found from Morocco to Nigeria, and everywhere in between. Some are very large, such as the Gimbri played the mystic Gnawa brotherhood of Morocco. Others are tiny, such as the one-stringed Gurkel of northern Mali. In Senegal the Wolof call it Xalam (pronounced: Halam) while in the Gambia the Mandinka have a 5-string version they call Kontingo. The version played by the Manding Jalis of The Gambia, Mali and Guinea is typically about two-feet long and has either four or seven strings.

The Kora, the Ngoni and the Balaphone are the three indispensable melody instruments of the Manding Jali/Jeli. All three instruments are found throughout the Mande world, but each has its region of dominance. The Kora rules in Gambia, and the world’s best Kora players are found along the meandering river that bisects that country. In Mali, the Ngoni is king, and if you ask a Malian Jelimuso singer what instrument she prefers to work with when developing repertoire, she will almost surely pick the Ngoni.

Guinea, the forested, mountainous nation that lies between southern Mali and the Atlantic Ocean, is the province of the Balaphone. In Guinea, some still talk about "the Sosso Balaphone." This is a historical reference, and it helps to explain the connection between a modern nation and an ancient instrument.

The Manding (Mandinka) Empire rose early in the "13th” century with the ascendance of its first king, Sunjata Keita. The epic tale of Sunjata's transformation from invalid child to all-powerful ruler remains the quintessential legend of Jeli lore eight centuries later. Sunjata's chief adversary in this epic is Soumaoro Kante, the Sosso king, whose kingdom lay within the region we now call Guinea. Soumaoro was a sorcerer of fearsome power. He ruled with an iron hand, and kept tight controls on his people. 

As the story goes, spirits gave Soumaoro the first Balaphone, and he kept it for his own pleasure. No one else dared play it. During his wars with Sunjata, Soumaoro managed to capture Sunjata's close friend and Jeli. As a prisoner in the Sosso king's home, the Jeli came upon the coveted Balaphone, and ventured to play it. Though off on a hunting trip at the time, Soumaoro instantly heard the sound and returned to confront the Jeli. But instead of killing him, Soumaoro found himself deeply moved by the Jeli's performance and ceremoniously authorized him alone to play the magical instrument. 

Soumaoro dubbed the Jeli,  “Bala Faséké” —Balaphone player—and Faséké became the first public Balaphonist. He continued to play at high ceremonies even after Soumaoro's defeat and the rise of Sunjata. 

Faséké's death: the Kouyaté family in what is now Guinea became the official keepers of the original instrument, and there is an elaborate ritual for passing along the relic to the next "keeper" or Balatigui. The instrument has reportedly survived with only minor modifications.
Meanwhile, countless Balaphones using the "7"-note (heptatonic) scale of the original Sosso Balaphone have been disseminated throughout West Africa. And it is no longer only Kouyatés who play them.

The Balaphone is constructed from 17 to 21 rectangular wooden slats, arranged in an array from low to high notes. The slats are generally made from béné ( Ebony) wood, and are carefully dried over a low flame to achieve their sonorous resonance. The ends of each slat are burned black with an iron to seal them. The instrument builder tunes each slat by shaving its underbelly. Two rows of calabashes provide natural amplifiers for the Balaphone.

The design of the Balaphone has not changed much over the centuries. European travellers described the instrument as we know it back in the early 1600s. Interestingly, we also know that Balaphones found their way to the New World. There it was modified and is called the Xylophone, an original African invention! Boom!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Victoria's African Proverbs....

I’m sorry I didn’t post on Monday, but I was given an unexpected assignment that day that I had to complete that day. Did it, done! I hope to tell you about it later.

When I’m not with you, you are on my mind! I’ve missed writing for you and sharing with you. Thanks for hanging in there with me! You guys are great, especially those of you that have been with me from day 1’s post, “Lacing Up My Shoes”. 

I don’t know about you, but there is a certain something, energy, excitement in the air. It’s the 1st time that I can remember that I could feel something shift in the atmosphere with the coming of a new year, but hey it could just be me and an answered prayer. I’ve prayed for this shift so I must give GOD all praises and continual thanks. 

This is probably a good place to pick up from my last post on my journey, “Just Say No”. I hope you like and appreciate the history lessons I post on Fridays. Don’t think for one minute that I’m sharing information about this culture and teaching about mine, uh uh! 

Yes I had a lot of time to reflect on the time I had spent here so far while waiting for my insurance to kick in before I could have surgery to get rid of the pain and I could walk again. It took seven months! Dang, geez! Now imagine if I would’ve been taking the extra strength narcotic pain killers four times a day, every day for those seven months! Not to mention the ones they tried to give after I did have the surgery. Geez, I’d still be in rehab!

I see Africa differently now that I’ve lived here. Africa has become a reality to me and not a fantasy. You know what I mean? It’s no longer on the bucket list, although I do want to go all over this continent, well maybe not all over. 

Many people from the African Diaspora talk about Africa with a longing, a yearning that to just touch the soil would and fulfil their soul, soothe their inner spirit. I understand that, it was me as well. I’ve touched the soil and the feeling is eased, but it’s there someplace in you that you can not find. I think knowing your tribe has a lot to do with that and I do not know my tribe. No matter, I love the feel of Africa. It’s like a heartbeat.

Anyway I think that when some Africans from the Diaspora think of Africa they think of it as paradise. Even though we hear from the media and see images about how much hunger, disease and poverty that is in Africa many still may believe that it’s Shangri La. It may be that, but that doesn’t mean that some of the same problems we see else where in the world are not seen here. Teen pregnancies, single mothers, disrespectful youth, disrespect of elders and the like are here along with the other severe problems that are reported and under reported. 

When we see ourselves we should see Africa. We are the same people. The bright colors, hanging on the corner, children starting not to act like children.

The village falls a part if everyone leaves for the city. I mean that figuratively and literally. Our families all over the world are at risk as we move away from each other and every body minds their own business while minding your business. Huh, what!?

OK, I’ll break it down, humph, the longer I’m here the more proverbs doth I speaketh! Hahaha as people begin to seek things and focus on having this or that it takes the focus off of family and community, and then cohesiveness is gone. So if you see a neighbor’s child or any other person doing this or that you won’t stop to correct that person, but you’ll gossip or judge what that person has done. Got me!  “Minding your own business while minding some one else’s”.

So no matter where we’re at in the world we need find some glue to get the cohesiveness back in us so we can be a village again. Once the village is strong those that left for the city will return. Hmmmmmmm

     Back tomorrow with some more information on West African Instruments!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Let the music play......

It’s in the air, music. Most times you can hear it at any hour, day or place. It’s so familiar the sounds of it, yet so different. 

For the next few weeks I will focus on some, mind you some of West Africa’s Instruments, especially instruments of the Senegambia/Mali Regions. 

Listening to an African instrument is listening to history and culture playing out in a sweet melody. Like so much of Africa’s History the music and instrument’s history pass from generation to generation from the elder to the younger. Word of mouth and not any mouth, but by the mouth of the Jali (male), Jalimuso (female) of Gambia or Jeli (male), Jelimuso (female) of Mali or maybe you’re more familiar with the term, “Griot”. Well surprise, Griot is a French Word, not African at all. So in the future let’s use the original term for the Master Storytellers of Africa and since I’m in Gambia I’ll use Jali or Jalimuso.
You can read more about the Jali at:

Since I’m doing the teaching with my own music playing in the background makes me your Jalimuso of sorts.

The first time I came to Africa was in February 1999 and the streets of Dakar where nothing like I expected Africa to look. The hustle and bustle of Dakar reminded me of New York, busy, busy, busy! Traffic that seemed to have no rules, people bumping into each other, horns, whistle, action! Phew, my senses were on overload! Then we stopped to have lunch in a quaint storefront restaurant in the midst of it all. It seemed that once we walked through the door of that restaurant we were transported to another place and another time. The music that filled the room swept me away as if a magic carpet had lifted me above the chaos. I thought it must have been a recording because the music was so sharp and clear. It was heavenly and I thought it might have been a harp, but was sure I hadn’t heard this sound before. To my surprise in a quiet corner of the restaurant was a man seated on a pillow playing what seemed to me to be an enormous multi stringed instrument. Our guide told me it was the Kora. I was in love and still hope to learn how to play it.

The Kora is a 21 stringed West African harp-like instrument. The instrument is played in the Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau regions and has a known history which spans over eight hundred years.

The harp like instrument is constructed from a large gourd, or calabash to be exact, which has been cut in half length-ways, gutted and covered either with the hide of a cow or the skin of an antelope to make a resonator.  It has a notch or bridge to support the strings which assists with the vibration and helps to circulate the sounds through the air.
The strings traditionally has been made from strips of antelope hide,or fishing lines plaited together in an effort to increase the thickness of the strings.

Eleven of the 21 strings are played by the left hand and the remaining ten by the right; however in recent times four bass strings have been added to the Kora by players in the Casamance region, in an effort to improve the overall sound.  The Kora has the most strings of all the other instruments in that family. This unique instrument is played using the thumb and index finger to pluck the strings whilst the remaining fingers are used to hold and steady the instrument when it is being played.

Kora players originate from the Mandinka tribe and are Jalis. Usually as the Jali sings or recites he is playing the Kora.

An electric version of the Kora called the gravikard, has been produced and has been used by ‘Herbie Hancock who is regarded as one of the greatest living jazz musician.

One of my favorite Kora players is Toumani Diabate of Mali. You can go to to sample his music. And oh yeah, while you’re sampling listen to my favorite West African singer, producer, musician and much more, Mr. Salif Keita!

Of course the sound of the drum is everywhere. That same first time I was in Senegal I saw a building being constructed and with every beat of the drum a shovel full of cement was tossed form one level of the structure to the next. There are many, I say many different types of drums in Africa, but let’s today focus on the Djembe, the D is silent, sound familiar.

Djembe history, just like African history in general, is hardly documented in writing. But it is clear that the traditional, sacred rhythms and dances have gone through a dramatic transformation in recent years. The exact beginning of the Djembe history and tradition is unclear, but it was certainly present way before the 13th century, when the great Mali Empire was formed.

Apparently, it has its origins with the Malinke (also called Maninka, Mandinka, Mande) and Susu people, who roughly occupied the area between today's Bamako (Mali) and Kankan (Guinea).

The "Numu" are a social class of professional blacksmiths and are believed to be the first carvers of this wooden instrument. 

There is also a story in circulation about the "true inventor" of the Djembe: A woman. While pounding millet, she broke through the bottom of her old mortar and mounted a goat skin on it. The goblet-shape of the Djembe still reminds of the mortars used by African women.
In traditional Africa, often only certain classes of people are allowed to play certain instruments. For instance, the Kora, Ngoni and Balaphone are reserved to the "Jali.

It's believed that the Djembe has magical qualities and is full of life, a life form that consists of three spirits: the spirit of the tree from which the drum shell was carved, the spirit of the animal from which the skin came from and the spirit of the drum's maker. Each drum inherits the characteristics of each particular spirit and is, therefore, unique, even to the point that the color of the drum skin is significant; Djembes with spotted skins have a particular use, Djembes with white skins have another use and Djembes with dark skins have yet another use. 

All I know that when the hands met the skins yo butt meets the dance floor! 

Wow, that’s a lot and we only briefly covered three instruments; the voice of the Jali, the beautiful strings of the Kora and the heart pounding foot stomping Djembe. More next week!

Jali with Kora
My friends hitting the skins! Djembes


FYI the Harp: The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. The earliest harps were developed from the hunting bow. The wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs dating from as early as 3000 B.C. show an instrument that closely resembles the hunter's bow, without the pillar that we find in modern harps.