by Raul Rothblatt
from Jumbie Journal, February 2005
I went to Guinea for three weeks this winter to study the nyenyeru (Fulani fiddle) and help my old friend Abou Sylla put together a performance combining tap dance and traditional Guinean music and dance. (I'll write about that in a future edition of the Jumbie Journal, but in the mean time, feel free to check out the website of Féraba.)
But besides getting nyenyeru lessons, I also wanted to get a taste of the spirit of Fouta Djallon, a mountainous region in the northern part of Guinea. The nyenyeru is a Fulani instrument, and even though there are many Fulas in Conakry, and the best players are there, it didn't seem right for me to play the instrument without visiting its home.
My first thought was that I'd go with a nephew of my teacher, Sambou Oury Barry. During my first trip, he proved to be a generous soul, and he has never failed to be kind and gracious friend, as well as a great musician. But it was not possible to go with him or his family, and one thing you learn very quickly in West Africa is that it is a waste of time to try to force something to happen that isn't working.
I was at a loss for what to do. I didn't even know where to go in Fouta Djallon. But I did have the phone number of El Hassan Diallo, brother of my buddy from Brooklyn, Alfa Diallo. So I gave him a call, and then the magical side of Conakry took over. It turns out that he lived about 200 yards away from Samba Oury, and so we met, and we quickly found a solution to my problem. El Hassan is a great guy, and he's not only friendly, and articulate, well informed and helpful, he's also a joker. Though the next time he asks if he's better looking than his brother, I'm going to have to say that his grandfather outshines them both combined.
It was decided that would travel to the town Dalaba in Fouta Djallon with El Hadj, a cousin of El Hassan. My two America friends Andy and Lisa also wanted to go, so the four of us rented a car, and headed off. It's supposed to be a 5 hour drive from Conakry to Dalaba, but what is a road trip in West Africa without the car breaking down? You get to look forward to the car breaking down, and we ended up getting help from random strangers who saw our disabled vehicle, and we got to stop in random little villages along the way. But our car was not fated to make the trip, and we had to negotiate a second taxi, with the "help" of the entire town of Linsan.
But we did make it, and soon El Hadj and his family put us up in a house owned by someone living in Europe. El Hadj showed us around Dalaba and then took us to Dunkimanya, the small town nearby where he was from. We got there by taking a shared taxi and then walking for 20 minutes through the countryside. We came across a lovely shaded path with large mango trees that were planted a hundred years ago by the French colonialists (which was about the only good thing they seemed to have done.) We then turned down a rustic path with fences made from woven palm leaves. We finally arrived at his family's cozy compound.
Before leaving for Guinea, my buddy Alfa Diallo back in Brooklyn had borrowed my camcorder. Just by chance, he left a tape in the machine, which ended being tremendously good luck because all of his family got to see his life in the US. So I took a bunch of photos of everyone looking at my camcorder. We then walked over and had the honor of meeting the patriarch of the family.
I was still doing my best to hear as much music as possible. So we went out dancing at the club of the Nyamakalas (traditional musicians, like griots but I don't think it's hereditary), which was a smoky bar with a loud synthesized keyboard, and an earthy, funky fun dance vibe. There were negotiations with the nyamakalas before they agreed to come perform at our place. Then when they saw I was a musician and studying the nyenyeru, we hit it off and the evening ended up being a big party.
After a few days, Andy and Lisa headed on to Kindia, and I stayed. I had a lesson with Wouga, and I got to see more sites of Dalaba, including the Palabres hut and other artifacts of the 1930s when Dalaba was the favorite place for the colonial rulers to vacation.
Dalaba was very relaxed, and a great relief from the craziness of Conakry. But it also had another great advantage: no mosquitoes. It did get cold at night, and don't go there without bringing a sweater.
And if you've read this far, you'll get to know what the title is all about. Next time you meet a Fulani from Fouta Djallon-they are all around New York, and half of them are named Diallo-you can say "Fouta no welli" which means "Fouta is great." And in case you can't remember that, just think of "Fouta no really."
See dozens of photos of Fouta Djallon from Raul's trip