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Senegal's musicians keep traditions alive

Senegal's  young generation of musicians are dedicated to the art of building ancient  instruments and keeping their ancestors’ 600-year-old songs and stories alive.
/ Source: Reuters

Beneath the rustling leaves of a majestic mango tree, Aliou Gassama teases a tune from an ancient African harp. Concentration chiseled across his face, he deftly navigates the 21 strings.

Gassama is one of a young generation of kora players dedicated to the art of building the instruments and playing their ancestors’ 600-year-old songs.

“When I first started to learn, I wouldn’t sleep. I would play until two or three in the morning, then wake again at five to play,” he said, his fingers plucking a melody that mingled with the distant cries of women greeting one another in Ziguinchor, a sandy town in Senegal’s Casamance region.

Gassama, 28, still rises at five a.m. but now it is to work on the koras that he builds for Senegalese and European patrons, who have been enchanted by the instrument’s soothing sound.

With his young helper Papis by his side, Gassama begins the intricate work of sourcing, measuring and cutting the perfect gourd — the dried shell of a hollow fruit.

He soaks cow skin then slowly tightens it over the gourd until it forms the resonating body of the kora.

Each instrument takes a month to prepare but for friends and family — most of his clients —they will sell for just $75.

Oral historians
The kora is the instrument of the griot, an oral historian and praise-singer originating from the Manding empire, which once covered much of West Africa.

Griots come from a caste of musicians within the Manding ethnic group. They are believed to wield special powers with the ability to build or destroy careers with words and music.

The title is hereditary: Only sons of griots may take up the kora, and only their daughters may sing the songs that speak of the ancient Manding kingdom, now carved into several states including Senegal, Mali, Niger, Guinea and Gambia.

Gassama does not have a griot’s surname because he was adopted at the age of 3 by Jali Messin Cissokho, a griot from Ziguinchor who played a kora with 28 strings, making it one of the most complex versions of the instrument ever made.

“Messin took me to his house and he educated me, he did everything for me,” Gassama said as he tuned his kora, sweat running down his lean torso and onto the string of leather talismans he wears for spiritual protection around his waist.

Gassama grew up watching his teacher play the songs he would later play himself. He also helped him build koras until one day, when he was 18, Gassama said he could do it himself.

“The day I made my own kora, Messin said: 'I’m not going to touch the skin anymore, you do it better than me now,’ and since then, I’ve really loved the kora.”

Not just an entertainer
Before Senegal’s colonization by France, the griot was not just an entertainer, but also a diplomat, translator, even peace broker between warring families.

Today, he is foremost a musician and the kora has been incorporated into many contemporary music styles that have found their way into the clubs of Europe and America.

But the Manding tradition is strong and griot families still put their sons through elaborate training, not just to learn the music but also to initiate them into griot mysticism.

Eduard Manga, a skilled kora player from the Joola ethnic group, said that even he, as a non-griot, could not fully grasp the kora’s mysteries despite studying for seven years at the School of Music, Dance and Dramatic Arts in the capital Dakar.

“My teacher was a griot and he spoke of the mystery of the griot tradition, but I could never understand it because I am Joola, not Manding,” he said.

The nature of this training will rarely be disclosed to those outside a griot family, although many Africans and others have taken up the instrument that takes a lifetime to master.

“No one can play the kora like those griots,” says Zacharia Diatta, a Senegalese guitarist who recently toured in Europe with a group of griots from Ziguinchor.

“So perhaps it is the mysticism that makes them special.”

Tradition passed on between generations
When Gassama’s adoptive father Cissokho died in 2004, he was left with a small house and a group of children who had been housed by the griot and who looked to Gassama to replace him.

Gassama remembers when he started to teach Papis to play.

“One day I called Papis, I showed him a song and I told him, 'Go inside, and when you can play it, come out.’ He was very angry, he went inside and after two hours he came out and he could play it just like I showed him.”

Papis, who has the same respectful manner as his mentor, now makes djembe drums better than many in the city, despite being only 16. Gassama says he will no longer make the drums, because Papis can do it better than he can.

In this way, the craftsmanship of traditional instruments continues, passed on from father to son, or in this case, from elder to younger, regardless of actual blood ties.

“I have never been to Europe,” said Gassama softly, although every one of his kora-playing cousins is now settled there. “If I have enough work, I prefer to stay in Ziguinchor. I am satisfied here because I am doing something that I really love.”