Tuesday, February 22, 2011
A Musical Membership
I was reminded of a story today while we discussed folk music and its role in rural identity—a story about a fellow volunteer in Senegal who embraced his love of music and used it as a tool to integrate into his community.
He loved to drum, my friend Paul, and he was fortuitously assigned to a small Sereer village where drumming played an important role in daily life. He quickly established friendships with those in the village most serious about drumming, and they were happy to teach their traditional rhythms to such an enthusiast pupil. Paul was talented and liked to bring his newly learned beats to the communal regional house where he would sit a few of us willing participants in a circle and teach us what he’d learned. I never got to see Paul drum with his village, but his zeal for sharing his djembe experiences and the rhythms his village friends passed on to him lead me to believe that he cherished those times with in the village drum circle. The first thing he’d share with us when he walked through the door of that house was this ‘awesome’ new beat he’d just picked up, one reserved for a special ceremony, and he’d immediately throw his baggage on the floor and gravitate towards the drums. The thing we all admired about Paul, however, was not just how much he loved the drumming itself but how he had used the music as the perfect ‘in’ with the community. He was a required element of his village’s drumming crew—they had immediately accepted him as one of their own, simply because of his fervor for that certain aspect of their culture.
Other volunteers used dancing as a way to integrate—the Senegalese loved to dance, and they particularly loved it when a volunteer would dance. They danced in ways of thanks, and if the volunteer danced with them it was received as a form of welcome. The Senegalese also danced at baptisms and weddings, and volunteers were often encouraged by their host family and friends to join in as a way of connecting with the community. The griots—the bards of West Africa—often incorporated the volunteer into the singing and festivity, sometimes as a way of teasing but also as a way of recognizing the volunteer’s presence as an important time in the family and village history. If a volunteer embraced these musical moments, she often found herself being appreciated as part of the village’s collective identity, and certainly with her host family’s identity.
We were shocked the day Paul came into the regional house bearing all of his personal djembes he’d been keeping at site, announcing that he had given up drumming with his friends in village. He’d been there for nearly a year and a half at that point, and the drumming had been one of the highlights of his service thus far. He was reluctant to talk about it at first, but by the end of the day the story began to unravel. His friends—the griots—had still wanted him to join their drumming sessions, but apparently his host father—the village chief—had expressed concern over Paul’s drumming obsession. The griots belong to one of the lowest castes in Senegal—castes being determined primarily through birthright and heritage—while the village chiefs tends to be toward the higher end of the spectrum. The fact that Paul, an ‘adopted’ son of the village chief, was choosing to align himself with the griots through identifying with their music created a great source of tension within his family and the community. Paul was already the village “other” on account of his race, but this “other” was upheld by the community as a respectable “otherness.” The griots on the other hand, while appreciated within the community for their musical, oral, and historical contributions (especially during ceremonies and rites), were still identified as a different sector—a subculture—of the community culture. This challenged Paul’s initial “otherness” and placed him in danger of becoming depreciated within the village, thus potentially hampering his role as an “agricultural extension specialist” as well as bringing shame to his host family. And so Paul stopped drumming with the villagers, and we volunteers all came to realize how music in Senegal served not only to bring people together but to pull them apart as well. The village could dance and sing together with the griot during times of celebration but only because this was the griot’s prescribed role within the culture. Otherwise, the griot’s music (and specifically drumming) was to be confined to that caste, and to break that boundary risked blurring the lines of identity that had been drawn for hundreds of years.
Paul took his drums back with him to America once he completed his service. He was interested in finding groups in America that were exploring the West African music scene, which coincidentally pay tribute to the griot tradition…but with no class division or caste markers. It makes sense to think that this music, so culturally defined in its homeland, might be less inhibited by cultural parameters and more easily shared and exposed to those outside of the defined cultural setting of the griot, but out of relation to its cultural context the strength of the tradition wanes. For those of us not privy to these particular sub-cultures, perhaps this is the only chance we get to dabble within…as Paul so unfortunately discovered in his small Sereer village of Bouf Poupaye.