Monthly Archives: November 2011

inspiration information

Yonta Hande – Njellu

I take a taxi to “Seizieme” — the sixth district. Nouakchott is divided up into neighborhoods, and this is one of the earlier nomenclatures, before things got weird. The new suburbs have names like Basra and Falluja, inspired by the affinity for Arabic satellite TV channels. Seizieme is not far from the capital, but there is more spacing between houses, wider the streets and more sand. More room for the wind to blow in off the sea.

I meet Max next to the “third water post” (everything in the neighborhood is designated by water stations, there’s no central lines). He’s the percussionist of the group, wearing signature knit cap, an embossed photo of a Marabout dangling around his neck. A tall smiling kid, much younger than his height suggests. We walk around the corner and between the clusters of houses where children are playing soccer, kicking a ragged ball between makeshift goals of two hunks of concrete, deftly placed. He leads me to the bands rehearsal space — a squat concrete room. The walls are covered in blackboards, the floor a musty carpet. The walls are likewise covered in variations of Pulaar phrases, haphazardly scrawled in orange and green marker. One of the band members uses this space as a school — for transliteration of Pulaar language, apparently. There are two portable amps, for the guitar and the vocals, and two drums, the large djembe with four metal pieces on the periphery, and a smaller drum played with a hand and stick. The latter is lifted and rests on a partially crushed yellow plastic water bidon, the ubiquitous multi-function tool, to carry water, to sit, apparently as a drum stop.

They launch into the repetition without hesitation. The volume is crushing, maxed out in the typical fashion where each element of the orchestra is attempting to fight for sonic dominance. The crackling, clipped vocals are belted out by the lead vocalist, a young Pulaar kid with dreadlocks and features not unlike the great star Baba Maal. Though his vocal styles don’t stray far from the melodies of the aforementioned predecessor, the energy is pure mbalax, the clatter of the drums bouncing throughout the concrete chamber, until even the echoes are drowned out, washing over every audible frequency. With the blue walls and the flooded sound it feels like the rooms is closed, filled like a tank. It is “river” blues after all, which at it’s heart is never far from Fouta, and at least the memory of seasonal floods.

The group is called Yonta Hande — Pulaar for “New Generation” — and it’s a collective that extends beyond something as simple as music. In their words, “A new project concerned with the new generation for development…” Not just a music group, but also a collective of theater performers and educators.

I leave the compound after recording their repertoire — I’ll burn their music on CD for the group afterwards, getting recordings in a method that is immediately beneficial to both parties. When I walk out the door, I hear the muted amps blasting through the wall and into the street, as does much of the neighborhood. The sound in the dark street is encouraging, if not for the education of the youth and much touted concepts that seem to get lose efficacy in their repetition, but for something more simple and immediate — the promotion of the act of creation. And that as long as that is kept alive and people are doing something, and saying something, the voices will flood out the city and maybe leave a fertile ground for the next crop.


Souleyman Marr – Pekane

In the fluvial region of Northern Senegal, Fouta Toro retains some of the remnants of the highly stratified society it once was. Cuballo are the fisherman caste. They’re not low of the hierarchical strata, somewhere below the “nobles”, but well above the blacksmiths and griots. As fisherman, they live alongside the river and make their living from the meandering rivers trickling to the sea. The cuballo are also practitioners of the pekane.

In a poetic portrayal, Pekane is performed during a hunt, the performer joining the men at the rivers edge as they compete to spear crocodiles and hippopotamuses, singing praises to their character and those of great lives past — confident words to inspire courage. In some aspects, the pekane overlaps with the roles of the griots – it draws from family genealogies, village histories, and tales of local heroes. But included in this repertoire is a more mystical aspect: the incantations, the hypnotizing spells, the esoteric and nonsensical phrases that can be cast over the dark river to call forth animals. I hear of endless accounts of the magical cuballos who, simply by uttering a phrase, can send fish jumping into their canoe. Indeed the origin of the pekane itself is supernatural – the words were given by a Djinn to a man named Demba J, the first Pekane practitioner before anyone can remember.

Souleyman Marr comes from a generational lineage of cuballo. His indoctrination into pekane is not so direct. Born in the village of Ngaoule, Souleyman grew up as a fisherman, listening to the pekane broadcasts over the radio, and as he came of age he decided to learn the trade. Most of his material he learned from traveling through the region, conducting ethnographic fieldwork, collecting folktales and stories from the elder inhabitants of sleepy river villages. But a large part of his repertoire came from radio broadcasts, cassettes, and later digital mp3s — recordings of the late Guelaye Ali Fall, the first poet to popularize the pekane.

Isolated groups have always proved a fertile ground for research, speculation, and hypotheses, if for anything else, because they exist outside of external influence — and indeed, this is what much of early ethnomusicology research relied on (see the Georgia Sea Island singers, studied to develop links between New World blues and West Africa). The idea of modern technology as cultural contagion is in itself an old and outdated idea, touted with much less frequency than in earlier ethnographic circles. Rather, the dispersal of information via “new” folk transmission (new in name only, the radio broadcasts carpeting the countryside since the 1960s) has allowed wide dispersal of information. In the case of the pekane, it has done more to encourage tradition than it does to silence it, providing yet another outlet for the expansive histories of the Fouta in the modern world.

In the recording, Souleyman recounts stories from the beginning of the Isle de Morfil until the stretch near Matam. The language is Pulaar, but he would argue the words are not so important to understand. The pekane is a gift of the djinn and significance is of little importance to the power of their sound…