Many people often ask me “what was it like to study and travel in Guinee”? And “where did you like better Guinee or Mali”? I love both places to study and live but for different reasons. In Guinee I stayed with the late great Kemoko Sano and his family at his compound in Merveilles. I went to Guinea with an old friend who was traveling with me in Mali. But my friend did not like it there so he left after a few days to another compound. It was very interesting for me to stay in a place where no one spoke english except my teacher whose english was barely understandable at best.
In Guinea my first shock was waking up from a dead sleep in the morning. My room was shaking like an earthquake in San Francisco and I was momentarily confused to where I was or what was going on. The room was pulsating and I was dazed and confused. I stuck my head out the door to see the woman’s drum ensemble, (which consisted of all the female dancers from the regular dance troupe) rehearsing full out at 8:00 AM. I got used to this eventually and it turned out to be a nice alarm clock. Better then a buzz or ring anyway! And believe me, these women of all ages could rock!
Master Kemoko Sano, (who I had met and studied with in Oakland , California while he was living there) was a world renown master choreographer for the National Ballet of Guinee as well as krin (log drum hit with two sticks) player, drummer and cultural historian. He had his own troupe now called Ballet Merveille. Almost everyone in his ensemble lived in his “u” shaped compound crowded into small rooms. Rehearsals lasted all day almost everyday and at night they would have long song practice. If you want to know why these African groups you see on Youtube are so darn good it is not only from talent and growing up with the music but from from practice, practice and more practice. Living and breathing the music and dance all day everyday! The Africans like to call it “repetition”. I was invited to practice with them as much as I could handle and often all day long as well. I loved it. I was finally getting enough!
Durring the rehearsals sometimes fights of different types would break out and all sorts of things would happen. If you take a lot of people and put them in a small space and you are physical all day with out a lot of food things are bound to happen! One day the guys next to me got in a fist fight while playing…two times! I have no idea exactly what the arguments or fights were about. No one thought much of it but the images stayed with me. I would often send out one of the young boys to get sandwhiches and soda for the drummers. I did what I could.
If you feel like you can never get enough playing in and want to imerse yourself in a total playing experience then you should consider going to West Africa for at least 3 weeks minimum. I say three weeks because the first few days to week you have to acclimate to the culture which can be a bit of a shock. As I mentioned I was there by myself and do not speak French or Susu or any other dialect of languages spoken there. There was a lot of communication with my hands.
I would squeeze in my daily yoga practice, but just barely before being called for breakfast. I would eat breakfast by myself or with the master of the house or his sons and everyone else would be watching from the corners for left overs. As soon as I was done someone would dash for the left overs. I was quite uncomfortable with this arrangement at first. But I was so hungry all the time I got used to it. Compared to my trips to Cuba there was a lot of food available.
I was of course contributing cash for my stay there so I was getting the prime food. Speaking of cash, to get cash you would bring yor american dollars to the market to a trader. You would give him the US dollars and he would come back with a paper bag of bills because they use “millions” there instead of hundreds like we do. It seemed a little ridiculous at first because after all that everyone wanted US dollars for everything. And walking around with a grocery bag of bills was quite interesting as well. I felt like I was in some kind of gangster movie.
I also sponsored a new bathroom in one of the rooms which I was able to use which was very nice. Because of my lack of language ability I never knew quite what was going on. When I would see the master leaving the compound I would run after him and jump in the car. I had no idea where we were going or for how long, but it was always interesting where we would end up. It was a real lesson in surrender for me and patience. Both of these traits I have little of so it was very challenging for me there. I learned to take naps in the strangest positions and places. When the waiting was too long for me somewhere I learned to simply pass out.
There was always someone interesting to meet, something interesting to hear or see as well. Driving there and getting around was a really amazing. It reminded me of Mad Max Road Warrior. A lot of dust and cars at some points going every direction with no sense of order, at least by western stadards. I am sure they knew what they were doing. When you would take a taxi, the taxi would always stop to pick up other peole, there was no private taxi. And the other people all crowd in. Personal space? Ha!
One day we were driving to a big Spectac (performance) in a private car. A policeman who I am sure noticed me in the back stopped the car. There was a long argument that insued. When I got out of the car to strectch she hopped in the back and would not get out of the car. This was her technique for a payoff. A huge battle of words ensued. Of course people gathered around as it turned into a lively event. I was concerned because I wanted to get to the show on time and see the different djembe groups and west african dance performances. I finally asked if we could pay her off and how much it would cost? It turned out to equal about 50 cents US (less then one US dollar). I paid and we were on our way.
Although this may all read as being a bit harsh now, at the time none of it really bothered me too much. If you just go with the flow that happens there and become very accepting of everything it all becomes easier. Just don’t expect anything to be a certain way. If you are used to being catered to forget it! If you have never been to Africa before I do suggest going with one of the organized groups for your first trip. You will have a much easier time if you do so. However, it may also not be as adventurous with a controlled group. So think about it and choose your route wisely!