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Interview: Ryan Thomas Skinner


Afropop Worldwide’s program New York’s Mande Diaspora, Part 2: Beyond Community continues the story of one of America’s most remarkable and musically rich African enclaves.  The program relies on interviews and encounters with, and recordings by, a long list of artists from Gambia, Mali and Guinea who live or have lived in the New York area.  Links to music and information about those artists can be found at the end of this feature.  The program is built around the scholarship of Ryan Thomas Skinner, who studied the New York Mande community between 2000 and 2003, after having done field work in Mali.  Banning Eyre conducted a very long interview with Ryan, published in two parts.  Here is Part 2 of their conversation.  Click here for Part 1.

Banning Eyre:  Let’s talk about a more recent member of the community, Balla Kouyaté.

Ryan Skinner:  Balla Kouyaté is a Malian jeli.  He plays the bala, which is the Mande xylophone, and he is one of the most remarkable exponents of that instrument that I have ever come across—a true virtuoso.

balla kouyate He’s also a very humble young man, soft-spoken, reticent in some ways, but he says enough through his music making.  His encounter with United States is more recent.  He came in 2000.  And again, like Abdoulaye, I don’t think he consciously left music, but circumstances being what they were, he was forced to make a living outside of music.  He did not immediately connect with the people who would have brought him into the music scene in New York.  And that shows that while the community is large and growing, it is still not totally self evident to a newcomer to locate these places that are going to in a sustainable way help you make a living, whether you are an artist or a businessman or whatever you do.  I know a number of people who do import/export and trading kinds of things, and it’s very difficult to find that sustainable network of people who can in some way guarantee at least in the short term a viable economy for your household.

So Balla travels to Albany.  How that worked out, I’m not sure.  But he ends up in a grocery store in which, so he says, the only language he hears is Arabic.  He might be working in a back room.  He feels not only alienated from home, but from the United States as well.  He is in a place where if he has some English, it’s not being put to use.  He’s doing work that is totally discordant with his upbringing, with the fact that he has released dozens of albums, that he has some renown back home, and here he is in a grocery store.  So very early, as his experience progressed, he says, “I can’t do this.  I have a career for myself.  I have traveled widely in West Africa.  Why should I be here?”

Serendipity struck him in the figure of Balla Tounkara, the kora player who at the time was based in Boston and now is very much part of the New York community. MandeNYCBallaTounkara1 And he really both mentors and takes Balla under his wing.  They tour together and make music together.  If Balla was experiencing a sense of abject alienation, a form of deep fulfillment and contentment with his work emerges that has now convinced him that this is a place where he wants to stay and develop his career as a musician.  And so, from Boston, through the tours, Balla eventually finds himself in New York, where he has done a remarkable job at performing both for local ceremonies within the Mande community, baptisms and marriages, servicing that important binding together, the bringing together of a community that is far from home and that needs to be reminded of its togetherness. And again, this is such an important role of the jeliw, to remind people that they have to be together.  Not only on organizing ceremonies, but in the ceremonies themselves, saying, “Why is this important?  This is important because we are giving a name to this child, or we are bringing this man and woman together, but also, we are a community and we need to come together.”

And so he becomes an integral part of that.  At the same time, with his virtuosity and true musical skill and breadth of mind, he begins some extraordinary collaborations with local artists, African and American alike.  Most notably, during my time, he was performing with trombonist Roswell Rudd with kora player Mamadou Diabaté and their Mali Cool project, which I had the great fortune of seeing born with Toumani Diabaté in Bamako.MandeNYCRoswell_Mamadou1  Later on, I saw its translation into the New York scene with these local Mande New York artists—a remarkable homecoming.  What an amazing thing to see Balla truly explore those jazz spaces, and then to go back uptown with him and to perform at a wedding where that classical repertoire is deployed with equal force.

B.E.:  Balla’s latest coup was to record a track with Yo-Yo Ma on an album called “Songs of Joy and Peace.”

R.S.:  I was not aware of that.  That’s great.  He should have performed at the inauguration.

B.E.:  Actually, he and Yacouba and a singer were down there.  They performed at an unofficial ball at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

R.S.:  In my research, I was very interested in this dialectic between the innovatory moves—the creative moves that these artists were making—but also the ways that they self-consciously root themselves in the tradition.  And I remember Balla showing me on his instrument, “This is how my grandfather would play this piece.”  It might have been “Duga,” or some really great song.  “And this is how my father played it.  And this is how I have experimented.”  And you heard the jazz.  You heard these things that he was not just listening to, but deeply, deeply invested in and taking very seriously as a musician.  At the same time, he bears with him that sense of tradition, if you will, that emergence from a cultural patrimony.  That is very, very strong.

B.E.:  Let’s talk about this duality, if it is that, between “jeli” and “artist.”  What’s the lay of the land of that spectrum of identities?

R.S.:  Well, there is a long history to that, and for those interested, I have a dissertation coming out about the category of the artist and the emergence of that identity in late- and post-colonial Mali.  But let’s take Djekorea Mory Kanté’s case.  He is a Guinean guitarist.  At the time I knew him, he was the guitarist in this community.  He is extremely gifted exponent of the instrument, very adaptable, very creative and inspired in his soloing, also excellent at maintaining a strong accompaniment. And that is so crucial to the structure of the music.  In any case, he, in an interview, strongly distinguished between being an artist and being a griot, in ways that are much more stark perhaps than others might put it.  But what he meant by that, I think, was that when he came to New York from Guinea with a popular music orchestra, basically a pop group, he came as an artist… to do a recording in New York City that they hoped would gain some currency in the United States, a new space for the group to evolve. But he grew up as a jeli, as a griot, servicing a local community in Conakry of local families, in a music scene that every weekend would hold outdoor ceremonies, marriages in particular.  This is where he was musically schooled.  And that is a space where—musically, but also socially—he felt most comfortable.  Like Abdoulaye perhaps, he is someone who is not so interested in that market economy.  In that interview, he said, “I cannot speak to the concerns of artists.”  And what he meant by that I think was that the business side of being an artist did not appeal to him… That did not interest him so much, and so in New York, he very quickly sought out, as he says, the griots.

And again, this seems to be a recurrent story.  Whether it is serendipitous or an act of seeking out, these musicians who have this background have found at least a jumping off point in a community of traditional artisans who are in a very important way working within their local communities in New York, where Djekora found himself.  That’s what he meant when he said, “I’m a griot.  I’m not an artist.”

B.E.:  At the time he was here, and I think he left in 2003 or 2004, but by that time, it it was possible to make a connection with someone like Abdoulaye, or Yacouba. Once you did that, you were “in.”

R.S.:  That’s an important point.  The community was well established.  And not only that, but there was a community of musicians within that community who were well-known, who were being sought out by community members to perform at their weddings—to perform at their baptisms, to be present at these important lifecycle ceremonies—but also who were prominent members of their community more broadly. MandeNYCCherifKeita_DC_2003 To use Chérif Keïta’s term, as “Mande persons” (mògòw).  So yes, he, perhaps more easily then Abdoulaye or Balla, could enter into that community in a meaningful and more immediate sense.

I will say this, as a footnote to the artist/jeli story.  You used the word “duality.”  It is certainly not a dichotomy.  It is a very fluid kind of relationship.  And it is often articulated in economic terms, that there are different economies that pertain to the lives of artists, versus jeliw.  At the same time as many jeliw identify as artists—Abdoulaye Diabaté would certainly identify as an artist.MandeNYCBanning+Abdoulaye

Toumani Diabaté in Mali, an adept businessmen certainly, would identify as someone who has mastered an industry, or mastered the scope of this industry.  These are forms of knowledge and practice that are very much associated with artistic careers, and such careers were born of a state-sponsored nation-building project in the 1960s, as we talked about before.

That’s kind of the historical trajectory.  But what I want to say is, when you ask a jeli, “What does it mean to receive a gift?”  The gift might be money, clothes, even a car.  It is a gift for your vocal praise, or for your instrumental performance, because instruments, as they are conceived of in Mande terms, speak.  Ka kora fò—“You make your kora speak.”  So you are offering praises, offering meaningful ideas, to your audience.  And the question is, “What does it mean to be given money or a gift for what you are offering?”  In answering, jeliw will make a very clear distinction between being paid (Ka jeli sara).  No.  We are not paid.  We are offered a gift.  (Ka jeli sòn di.)  You are given what is due to you.  It is a gesture of respect, and it is alternately reciprocal.  The performance is happening on both sides in some ways.  It’s kind of a fluid performer/audience relationship in so far as the jeli is compelling the audience to rise up and perform their dignity, their hòrònya or nobility—but dignity is a better word because even non-nobles can have dignity.  Even jeliw, for that matter.  So as you show it, or perform it, part of that performance is the act of gift giving.  Whatever it is you can do.  People who are known to be of greater stature are a little different.  The Malian representative at the UN perhaps will be expected to give more.  But dignity is not measured in monetary terms.  It is an act of performance that the jeliw call on people to do, to show, to demonstrate publicly.

B.E.:  Fascinating.  What can you tell us about the amazing kora player Mamadou Diabaté?
R.S.:  Mamadou Diabaté is the son of Jelimory Nfa Diabaté, who is one of the founding members of the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, one of these traditional ensemble that was formed in the 1960s. Nfa Diabaté, if I can push back just a little in his history, comes from Kita where he met Sidiki Diabaté, the father of Toumani Diabaté, Sidiki, who was known as the “king of the kora” in his time.  They came together.  Nfa didn’t play the kora.  He played the ngoni.  And, actually, despite being a jeli, he would often work with leather.  He was a skilled leather worker.  In fact, he is one of the only people I know today who can still make a kora with antelope gut strings.  That aside, Mamadou comes out of this Kita kora tradition, which really emerges in the 1940s space with the Kayiratòn, where you have Sidiki Diabaté, and Batourou Sékou Kouyaté, and a young Nfa Diabaté, who learns to play the kora from these elders who have come from Northern Guinea and the Sene-Gambian coast.  And that’s really, I would say, the birthplace of a Malian— though it wasn’t Mali at the time— of a Soudanese kora tradition.  In many ways, I think there is a strong argument for that.  At least, it is a crucible for a powerful new movement on the instrument, that is different from what you find in Guinea, from what you find in Sene-Gambia.

So Nfa picks this up, and becomes a member of the National Instrumental Ensemble.  And this is the familial space in which Mamadou grows up as the son of a prominent national artist, as a son of someone who is recognized as being one of Mali’s founding fathers in terms of its kora tradition, and it’s something that Mamadou strongly emphasizes in his personal narratives.

I met Mamadou Diabaté for the first time in Bamako. He was coming back to Mali for the first time in five years.  I didn’t know him.  In fact, this was in 2000, and I had not yet begun graduate school, had not yet come to New York myself, and he was living I believe in Ithaca but was still a prominent part of the New York music scene— if not in the celebratory spaces of musical performance, certainly in its downtown iterations and the world music industry.  And he was coming back to do many things.  To reconnect with his family, of course.  But also to promote his debut album, Tunga.  He was very seriously and consciously committing himself to his profession in a new way, and with a commitment to the United States, and he was very serious about following through.  He had no intention to move back home.  He was coming back home to reconnect.  He needed a new kora.  His father had made a new kora for him.  And I just found it very interesting to see the way he promoted his album, the way he engaged with fellow kora players on the local scene.  He really actively was saying, “This is what we’re doing over there, and I want to tell you about it.  Here’s my album,” and go to the radio station.  “Here’s my album,” and go to the television station.  But not just there.  He would also go to the local musicians, and especially Toumani and his cohort.  So I found that very interesting.  We should note that he is one of the few who has that possibility to come home and then return to the United States.  In some ways, in bringing his own work home, he’s also revealing the broader community and the broader space in which jeliya is innovating, opening new doors if you will.

B.E.:  Mamadou has grown so much.  When you hear him play now, his artistry has extended in subtle ways.  There is a tremendous diversity of styles on his recent solo CD, Douga Mansa.  Talk a little bit about what he’s done since he’s been here.  Because his career has rather a different trajectory in the United States.

R.S.:  Well, the way he tells it, he too became a young member of the Malian National Instrumental Ensemble, which despite years of neglect was still a presence, still a touring ensemble into the mid-90s.  It continues to this day, but in a vastly diminished state.  So Mamadou travels to the United States with this ensemble in 1995.  I believe there were two tours.  I believe he finally settled in the United States and decided to stay in 1996.  And from what he says, he was the first Malian kora player in America.  Of course, there were other kora players from the Gambia residing and performing in the United States for some time, but he claims to be the first Malian.  And as we said before, at that time it was not self evident how one would integrate oneself into the local Mande community.

Mamadou has always emphasized a certain ambivalence there.  Yes, he recognized that this community was there, and that he could contribute to it through these ceremonial performances.  But his real interest was always in developing a career in the world music industry.  At the same time, necessities being what they are, he did do a number of ceremonial performances in his early career in New York City, and was widely successful.  I have seen videos of him performing at ceremonies that were shown back home in Mali.  But that wasn’t his principal interest.

B.E.:  Certainly he contributed his share to the community in his time, but I also remember him early on talking about wanting to move beyond it.  He wanted to learn English.  That was one of the big issues.  If you stay in the community, you won’t necessarily learn English.  You might become trapped there.

R.S.:  Right.  He emphasizes a very strong personal initiative and personal drive.  He sees community members not actively taking the time to pick up these skills.  And these are his words, his perceptions, that people are too sort of cloistered in these communities such that they are not really engaging with the broader American society, a society that he sees as containing a vast opportunity for exploration and development, personal development.  So he looks to cultivate a career outside that community in a more formalized artistic world, if you will.  And before long, he releases his first album, which is appropriately called Tunga, meaning “travel abroad.”  In French, they translate it as “adventure.”  It is a risky, adventurous travel abroad.  That album is kind of his tribute both to people who embark on these very risky ventures, but also a kind of personal reflection on what it’s meant for him.  And you see it in the music, which is again appealing to the deep roots, but also very much showing that in America he has taken the kora tradition in new directions.

B.E.:  Yacouba Sissoko (another Malian kora player) and Tapani Sissoko (jeli singer) talk about great changes they have seen in the community in terms of its coming together, its coherence.  They have both been here around 11 or 12 years now.  They recall in the early days finding these noble families who did not really know each other, who were not deeply tied to the tradition of jeliya, but who came to discover new possibilities.  Through reconnecting with jeliya, they discovered each other.  They discovered the value of holding these ceremonial events with griots present.   And they began to, not exactly compete, but to hold similar parties to ones they’ve been invited to.  And in the process, they became far more of a community.  Yacouba and Tapani point to the response to the tragic, 2007 fire in the Bronx that killed members of a Malian family as evidence of the effect.  They weren’t taking credit for it, but they said that the coherence of the community the fact that everybody showed up for the funeral, would not have happened 10 years earlier.  How do you feel about that?

R.S.:  I would come at it from a sort of scholarly point of view, and say that this is totally consonant with the concept of diasporic community that I saw emerging.  This goes directly to the whole idea of badenya.  This is a term that came up so many times, as an CD title, a performance, even a way of referring to the Mande community.  This is a concept of familial intimacy extending broadly outward into society, and in the context of this community, it shows how important it is to cultivate these moments of intimacy, especially in the wake of tragedy for that matter.  And the jeliw are historically central to that cultivation of intimacy, for two reasons.  Part of it is reminding people of a shared heritage.  But another part of it is that they are musicians.  They are using a strongly affective art form to really generate cohesion, to bring people together, to target people personally in praise song, people who might have disparate places within the community.  They are brought together within that performance space.  So the jeliw of New York are doing very important work.  And I know it is not the jeliw by themselves who are doing this, but they are doing very important work in facilitating that process over time, as the community continues to evolve.

Of course, diasporic communities are risky spaces, frequently destabilized by tragedies.  A massive fire can have devastating effects, not just on the families, but local economies, and those that others rely on for social and economic means.  So the ability to re-cohere in the wake of tragedy is important, but the importance goes beyond recovery from the immediate tragedy, and certainly the jeliw have done much of that work.

I saw them in a very different context do similar kinds of work.  This was not a tragedy, but the coming together for Mali’s 44th national independence outside the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building.  Again, the effect was to bring together Malians with a shared national heritage in a modern sense, but also to really articulate what it meant to be a community in a space that was, in the context of Central Harlem, divided, not just between blacks and whites in a racial sense, but also Africans and African-Americans.  So to say that here in front of the State office building, “We are going to come together as Malians, but also as people who have a very important role to play in the broader community in Harlem, in New York City more broadly.

And so I’m making a broader point that it is not just about bringing Mande peoples together or Malians or Guineans, it is also about showing publicly that this community is meaningful, has a place, should be celebrated as a New York City community.  That’s actually a fundamental point.  And I think the jeliw come forward strongly as the most prominent articulators of these ideas—in the way that they move from the record industry to the baptism, in the way that they move from a response to a local tragedy which has national echoes in the U.S., to affirming their own African national identities.  We see how it is not just about being Mande.  It is also about the New Yorkers.

B.E.:  Nice.  Tell me about this song that Tapani sang at that Malian independence celebration, “Fasobaara.”

R.S.:  “Fasobaara” is a term means “work for the homeland.”  The term baara means work or labor, and faso means homeland, but literally father’s home.  In the 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, this also becomes the term for the nation.  It was a way of saying to a newly conceived citizenry, “This is your homeland.  This is your father’s home, Mali, as this new space is being called, with resonances of the 13th century empire with the same name.  Mali is calling you back to come home.”  And I say this because when empire was dissolved, I mean, the territories were already carved up, but Malians were living in other parts of the colonial empire.  They were railway workers in Senegal.  They were even agriculturalists in Ghana.  They were part of the cocoa and coffee economy in Ivory Coast.  And these are all people the new nation was relying on to build its future, to make it not only a meaningful political space, but also a viable economic space.  “We need to develop our own industries.  We need to develop our own crops.  We need to be sovereign in all senses of the term, and independent.”

So in that context, these national ensembles and orchestras were created not just perform the nation, but to call on people to come back to this nation, and to do the work, the “fasobaara,” so important to creating a viable future.  And what it means to perform that song in New York, and in front of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building in 2004, on the occasion of Mali’s 44th year of independence, struck me as an interesting question.  Because the homeland seems apparently from the perspective of the diaspora, to be a homeland divided, or at least fragmented.  But that did not seem to be the impulse of the people who were participating in the celebration—neither those who organized it, nor the musicians who animated it.  The impulse seemed to be, quite to the contrary, to affirm this community as a part of a broader, Mande Diaspora, Malian in this case, that is playing a very central role not only to the contemporary politics and social life of the homeland back home in Mali, articulated most compellingly in the presence of foreign  dignitaries like the UN ambassador, but also affirming their committed place in America, in New York.  “This is in some sense our faso.  We are building a new homeland in the sense that we have established roots here.  And that needs to be affirmed.  That needs to be celebrated, without rejecting our ties to Mali, in fact just the opposite, affirming both the tie to Mali and that national history, but also our contemporary history in which we also need to work to build our community.”  It’s exactly the same message—to bring this community together.  People who may be disparately situated, doing different things, but together they could perhaps create a more viable future for the community as a whole.  It’s a powerful message.

B.E.: Jeliya is such a fluid tradition.  But there are some tensions within it, and we’ve discussed some of them.  One that we’ve sort of danced around that I’d like to hear little more about is the tension between cultural objectives and economic ones.  I think that a lot of these artists come here with a mix of both.  What is your take on that?

R.S.:  I discussed this in my 2004 Mande Studies article, where I talk about the whole idea of social mobility.  It is precisely in the space of pursuing an upwardly mobile position within a socio-cultural space that the structures of culture and economy come together very strongly.  Yes, artists are coming here because of a perceived opportunity, both in the social and economic sense.  It’s hard to really distinguish between the two, because it’s about both making a life for yourself and also making a living.  These things are not discontinuous or mutually exclusive, and they can’t be in a modern capitalist society.  But also, the prestige that accrues to a person through material wealth also becomes a kind of social prestige.  Abdoulaye Diabaté told a story about how a patron here in New York had given him 15 suit coats, 30 ties, 20 pairs of shoes, and he opened up his closet to me and I saw all of this stuff, and he was very, very proud.  So again, a showing of material wealth—these were all fine suits—but also a sense of pride, of having been recognized, and the whole act of being recognized for what I would say are good deeds, ethical deeds, for the jeli to have effectively played the role of the jeli.

This is what’s called in Mande walènyumandòn, to be recognized for a good action or deed.  It is extremely meaningful, so he affirmed himself as a jeli, but also acquired a new wardrobe.  If it’s not clothes, it’s money, so these things are not mutually exclusive at all.

B.E.:  One of the themes that I’m hearing a lot in my interviews is a problem within the jeli community that has to do with ego.  The most common formulation I hear of it is something like, “We could all be working together, except that everybody wants to be his own leader.”  So you have, time and again, these visions happening within musical groups, over some perceived notion of leadership.  What does this tell us about the dynamics of this community?

R.S.:  I think it gets down to the whole principle of fadenya, which I’ve come to understand as being articulated both positively and negatively.  Fadenya—“father-child-ness”—refers to a certain conflict between children of the same father but different mothers in polygamist families, literally.  It is about the kinds of conflicts that ensue within those family structures.  However, in a broader sense, it means competition.  And competition, as expressed in Mande social thought, can engender innovation and creativity, and can be re-integrative, can develop traditions and move them forward, or it can be dissociative.  It can break down social relations such that members of the same group, because of competition for status within the group, will break apart.  However, a certain kind of tension within groups, musically if not socially, is certainly needed to continue to make new, inspiring, creative, à la mode music.  Not just à la mode, but avant garde, to move it forward and do something unique.

And so, obviously, this could be a powerful kind of coming together, however, people in their individual journeys are also motivated by individual needs and desires and wants.  As we may render Africa in collectivist, communal terms, individuals in the Mande context have very strong aspirations.  And there’s even an idea for this.  It’s the whole notion of tògòtigiyaTògò is your first name, and tigiya is to be the owner of.  So this is the whole concept of owning your name.  Owning your name is being recognized and respected.  I will give the example of the kora playing Diabaté family, not just Toumani Diabaté, son of Sidiki, the “King of the kora.”  But Toumani Diabaté.  Toumani.  It’s an important distinction.

And I write that at the end of one interview, Abdoulaye Diabaté says, “That’s when I became Abdoulaye.” Period.  Meaning, that’s when I was recognized as really owning my name, as this important figure within this community who has done extraordinary things as a musician.  “That’s when I became Abdoulaye.”  I was very struck by that statement.

B.E.:  Not just another Diabaté.

R.S.:  Not just another Diabaté, but Abdoulaye.

B.E.:  In observing the dynamic between badenya—togetherness—and fadenya—competition—I’ve always been struck by one particular feature of Mande culture.  That’s this notion of “joking cousins,” the tradition of senenkunya.

R.S.:  This is a tradition that extends back to the 13th century, and the founding of the Mali Empire by Sunjata Keita.  The tradition is called senenkunya.  As oral tradition tells us, it was intended to bring peace to an emergent Empire in the 13th century.  To bring peace between formerly warring clans and between ethnicities, as disparate groups are being brought into this new imperial fold.  In entails prescribed prohibitions on the one hand—that you are not to marry, intermarry between such and such families, and so on.  But in articulating these kinds of prohibitions, it gave license to a practice of joking between families.  This regime gave people the right to literally insult each other.  And these insults are playful, insofar as they have to do with telling certain families that they are bean eaters, and therefore have certain bodily functions that are more pronounced, that they may even be slaves to a certain family, but said in such a way that you might be told in return, “No, you are my slave,” or “No, you eat beans, and there is your proof, because there is your bean field down the road.”   Through humor, this assuages tempers, and brings people together.

B.E.:  It’s a fabulous tradition.  Every culture should have this!  Before we end, let’s touch on a very serious fact of life within New York’s Mande community.  Immigration.  What is the effect of American immigration policy, and present debates about its future, on this community?

R.S.:  I would begin to answer that question by again thinking about the context in France, and the way in which immigration policy is very much an echo or a resonance of a deeper Metropole-Colony relationship.  Again, we refer to it as being an impulse to leave, but it was articulated in a much more personal way in people’s lives, precisely because of that.  This was a state-subject relationship that was part of an imperial worldview.  And this was considered a betrayal of Malians living and working in Paris who were asked, forced, compelled to leave the country—deported.  And so in New York, a lot of people see things differently.  You don’t have that imperial baggage—although there is a strong argument to be made that even American empire, certainly in an political economic sense has greatly impacted the lives and works of contemporary musicians.  That aside, I think people genuinely do see the United States, and New York in particular, as a space in which they might reinvent themselves, that there is more opportunity and greater possibility to pursue their professional lives meaningfully.



That said, in the wake of September 11, 2001 in particular, there is the ever-present worry, the concern, the reality, of being taken by the police, of being deported.  This comes into the picture as a reality that looms over the undocumented status of an African immigrant, of a Muslim.  There are so many ways to define and conceive it.  And occupying so many of these positions, they see how vulnerable they are, or they can be, being undocumented, being African, being Muslim.  And that does loom largely over people’s lives in the African diaspora of New York City certainly.  And especially for those who are here in either ambiguous or undocumented circumstances, as many of the people I knew were.  And while they did see the opportunity inherent in being in New York, the structure of immigration law, the visible presence of a police force, and the reality of a politics that was becoming more and more extreme, loomed largely over their lives too.

B.E.:  Absolutely, and continues to.  Talk about particularly the angst of the jeli who is denied the ability to return for years and years.  What does it do to that sense of reciprocity and reintegration you mentioned, and more generally to the jeli’s capacity to fulfill an ancestral heritage?  A lot of jeliw here use the term “mission.”  To some extent, that does involve the ability to both come and go.  But if they can only go, and not come back again, what is the psychological impact of that?

R.S.:  We were talking earlier about the cycle of ethical agency, the idea of leaving the moral space of a home in the figurative sense, of innovating in some fundamental way on the object of your professional life—if you’re a musician, your music—and that important closure of re-integrating, and bringing an innovation back into the fold of the civil space of tradition and intimacy.  Traveling back and forth is a kind of literal iteration of that sentiment, I think.  And when you are precluded for various reasons—legal boundaries, the inability to acquire a plane ticket, the lack of a visa—this makes that cycle very, very difficult, and can be a further source of alienation.  We’ve talked about other sources of alienation.  And yes, that does weigh heavily on people’s psyches.  And I think this is also inherent to the migrant experience in a modern, or postmodern, world, in which you have these very heavy and increasingly extreme legal regimes that we as citizens of countries like the United States are only peripherally aware of.  We are overwhelmed by it in the news, but if you live as an undocumented immigrant, how much more powerfully and literally do you feel it in the body.  It can be a cause of great suffering, of illness.  I could go on and on, and I’ve seen people suffer greatly under these anxieties. So there is a physical boundary being established.

One thing I did notice during my research that was phenomenal, remarkable, was the circulation of media back and forth.  If people couldn’t travel, videotapes could, CD’s could, cassettes could.  Videos were being made in New York that when I would go back to Bamako doing other fieldwork, suddenly I would see my friends in the New York community performing in a music video that’s being aired and widely popular in Bamako.  So, you know, these musicians are returning, but they are doing so in a way that is rendered possible only by the new technological means like video cassettes, and increasingly, the internet.  That is still very much on the horizon, although you see it emerging in a powerful way right now.

B.E.:  When I visited Tapani, she was watching a DVD of a baptism in Bronx on her TV, and simultaneously streaming a performance from Bamako on her computer.  So that goes both ways.  But you say you saw these New York videos broadcast on television in Mali, not just in people’s homes?

R.S.:  Yes.  Broadcast on television.  And certainly the videos that circulate from baptisms and weddings do turn up in people’s homes.  It is very important that these things circulate and are seen by extended family members.  But also broadcast on ORTM [state television].  I have been sitting with my musician friends in our family compound in Bolibana, and there is Mamadou Diabaté performing with his kora at an event hosted by the UN ambassador to New York, and then there is a music video that’s been filmed and produced here in New York that features artists from the New York community, perhaps backing a diva who has come to New York.  This is also very common, to have a video made in Paris or New York.  It is a sign of prestige. And then you go back to Bamako and promote your album and show how you have done the world tour.  You have been abroad.

B.E.:  Some of the artists I’ve spoken to who can go back and forth, talk about the fact that when they are in America they miss Mali, but that now, when they’re in Mali, they also miss America.  They are now starting to feel attached to New York.  Did you encounter that?  How has specifically the New York context perfected these musicians, and particularly, hasn’t had any effect on their stewardship of tradition?

R.S.:  I was first struck by a comment that Balla Kouyaté made to me early in our relationship.  We had just finished a performance that I believe was at NYU.  I was observing and following them around, and they had just finished up.  He got up and was really satisfied with the performance and he said, “You know, I am so glad to be a New Yorker.”  It struck me at that moment, and here I was trying to theorize these ideas about Diaspora and what it meant to be a Mande person in New York, and he comes right out and says, “I’m a New Yorker.”  In English.  Our relationship kind of echoed in three languages, but that statement was made in English.  That struck me as very significant.  In Balla’s life in particular, but something that, if not articulated as directly, I sensed in many musicians’ lives as well.  There is something about the New York scene that bring one into the fold of the city’s life in ways that other cities don’t seem to do.  And I say this from the perspective of a Minnesotan who came to New York.  I kind of got what he meant.

B.E.:  That’s great.  One thing I’ve been really struck by and watching this community over the years is the way it has come into the open.  When I first met these guys 12 or so years ago, nobody outside the community seemed to know that they were here.  They played in the community, but they did not do concerts.  They were not heard on the radio.  Their shows were not listed in the newspapers.  It seemed poignant, but also a bit tragic, that they were so hidden.  This is much less true now.  There are four or five groups that play at the Zinc Bar, Zebulon or Barbes in Brooklyn, even SOB’s and Joe’s Pub.  All these different collaborations.  Some more traditional, some less so.  These artists have become much more visible.

R.S.:  Well, these collaborative moves were very present when I was doing my research, but hadn’t really created this great number of groups that you are describing.  But it was underway.  The process was underway, and I was very struck by how there were these, what I called “uptown itineraries” where artists were orienting themselves self-consciously towards their community to service a need as griots, but also that these very same artists would, sometimes the same day, go down to a venue downtown and perform for an audience that in some ways possessed a different kind of cultural capital, but nonetheless recognized his music for what it was.  This is what I called “downtown itineraries.” They had been listening to jeliya for years, had been listening to Afropop for years, had come to the concert with the knowledge that there was some sort of reciprocity between the audience and the artists, that money was being given to artists for praises that were being offered.  And I saw these spaces—uptown and downtown—as being equally important, and that they were being kind of sewn together by the lives of these artists, and to the extent to which we now have downtown artists that still seem to have audiences that remain separate from their uptown counterparts, that’s maybe the next focus, to see how we can bring the African community closer to the broader urban community.  And I think, as we have already said in parts of this interview, the jeliw would seem to have a very strong role to play in that broader effort to affirm the place of African Diasporic communities in the broader New York and American community more generally.

B.E.:  Thanks so much, Ryan.  You’ve taught us plenty.


LINKS  Mande 2

Ryan Skinner’s children’s book, Sidiki’s Kora

Ryan Skinner’s Two Rivers CD project:

Fula Flute website:

Fula Flute MySpace page:

Oran Etkin, website and My Space page:

Brewed by Noon MySpace page:

Jumbie Records (home of Kakande):

Alhaji Papa Susso’s website:

Mamadou Diabate’s website:

Balla Kouyate’s website:

Cora Connection website:






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