Perhaps because of the break last week, or perhaps just because, our week has been CRAZY busy. We’ve had some sort of special meeting or trip everyday. As always, these encounters are both enlightening and exciting, but it was a little frustrating and exhausting for us. For me, I’ve been out until after 7 every night this week, so when I finally make it home, I’m utterly exhausted and crash. Last night was especially bad on that count. Cherif told us we’d be leaving town to go visit…somewhere. None of us were really sure where we were going. The journey was frustrating. Cherif predicted it would only take 40 minutes, so he rented a sotrama for the lot of us. So, 20 of us squeezed in the back of it and we set out. Now, sotrama’s aren’t renowned for their comfort, and we were pushing the maximum capacity. Everyone was squeezed so tightly together that sweating started almost immediately. Then the traffic ended up being really bad, and what was supposed to take less than an hour, ended up taking almost two. Suffice to say people were hot, bothered, dehydrated (in my case), and very frustrated by the time we stopped. The place turned out to be pretty interesting though. It was a large plantation where they grew millet and turn the oil into biodiesel which they sell here. Naturally (pun unintended), this is much more eco-friendly than importing fossil fuels for the cars, and it costs Malians a lot less as well. It was a quick, but interesting tour, led by a very attractive young man who we’ll meet again in Segou. Not that I was just shallowly focusing on physical appearances…it really was interesting, but that was nice too. Certainly made the overwhelming, long drive more worth it.
This week I also visited the tailor a few times. I have to say, of all the people I’ve met here, he’s one of my favorites. It turns out he DOES speak French, so I can go and chat with him and design outfits. All the people who work and hang out there are also nice. One, upon hearing that I sing, insisted that the next time I visit I sing for the lot of them. Moreover, if you go around 3, you get a free cup of tea out of it! Anyways, I visited him several times this week with friends, and we’re quickly becoming buddies, which makes me really happy.
My biggest source of busy-ness this week, however, has been the quest for kora lessons. I thought for a long time that learning the kora could be really cool. I play the harp, and the kora is kinda like the harp’s great great great African grandfather. It’s even called the African harp. Thus, I’ve always thought it could be interesting to return to the origins of my instrument. Not to mention a kora is a much cheaper and more portable instrument than the harp. Anyway, actually getting the lessons and instrument has proven to be much more of an ordeal than I thought. I talked to Cherif about it, then didn’t hear anything for weeks. In the end a friend reminded him of it and he called someone. Next thing I knew, I was supposed to call and set up an appointment. Everything was a-go. So, I plucked up my courage, and dialed the number he gave me. The guy who picked up (it turns out) was NOT the guy who was supposed to teach me…it was his nephew. After a confusing conversation, I finally talked to the instructor, who agreed to give me lessons and told me to make an appointment with his nephew. We settled on Thursday. Unfortunately, as you recall, I was unable to leave on Thursday and was obliged to cancel my lesson.
After a few days, we settled that I would have a lesson on Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, when Tuesday came, it turned out Abdama (my instructor’s nephew who was supposed to pick me up) had forgotten how to get to my house. I ran all around the house and up and down the neighborhood, trying to find SOMEONE to give him directions…no such luck. So, we settled that we would meet at the CCF (French cultural center). So I ran out and found a taxi driver to take me there. That turned out to be a weird ride. He was nice enough, chatted with me, invited me to share his lunch, etc. He also asked me to marry him, though, so after I definitively refused (told him I couldn’t till after my studies and that I had a fiancé) it was kinda awkward. I then had to wait on the corner of the CCF for a while. It wasn’t awful, I chatted with a nice guy who was sitting nearby and watched a lot of hippy toubabous come and go. It was a bit stressful though and I was happy when Abdama finally arrived. Abdama, it turns out, is in his third year at the university. We are about the same age and got along really well, talking about music, school, travel, etc. When we got to his house, he showed me into the courtyard where we’d have the lesson. This was the busiest courtyard I’ve visited – private lessons would be impossible. One corner had a tv around which men gathered to watch football and the news, the other was occupied by women cooking and doing laundry, and another houses a horse in its stall. So everyone was busy.
Abdama showed me the room where they kept koras and kora parts (they make the instrument themselves) and introduced me to the guy I’d be buying a kora from. He was nice, but freaked me out when he named an astronomical price. It was still less than most instruments in the US though, so maybe it was fair? Anyways, we discussed and I told them I’d think about it and get back to them soon.
As we waited for Abdama’s uncle, he took a kora and played a piece for me. He told me that you typically learn a piece, and then improvise, adding in parts. At one point he even played some chords to imitate a harp for me – it was really cool. Then he passed the instrument to me. Of course I had no idea what to do with it, but he showed me how my fingers should rest and let me play around with it.
In the end, my instructor never showed up. Apparently his wife was sick and they were at the hospital. I was forgiving, but a little frustrated and troubled. I mean, I’m ok with Africa time, and don’t really count on things running according to scheduled times, but I do expect them to happen on scheduled days. Combine that with the price of a kora and I began to wonder if lessons were worth it. So, I talked to Cherif the next morning, and things started to make sense. First of all, it turned out these guys doubled the price of the kora, so it really was too high (as I suspected). He was also disappointed by the fact that I still hadn’t met my teacher, so right then and there, he called a friend and arranged for us to meet after dance class. This guy is going to make my kora, and is offering it for a good price. I will also get to be present when he builds it, which I think is SUPER cool. I feel like I will respect and love the instrument so much more after that experience. Moreover, he’s giving me lessons! I am scheduled to have one this morning! And I know he will be a great teacher as he already started with me on Wednesday. As we waited for Cherif, he played me a piece which he said was pretty easy. After he finished he said, “Il faut voir,” – you need to see it, and passed the kora to me. He then proceeded to show me different strings, told me what notes they were and which other strings corresponded. Then he taught me the accompaniment, and seemed pleased with my playing.
This experience was truly wonderful for me. I missed my music class, and learning a new instrument is always exciting. Moreover, learning from such a patient and excellent teacher is great, and after the headache I had on Tuesday, I started to feel really good about learning this instrument. So, although it took a while to get started, I am so excited to learn kora, and hopefully bring one home with me.
We leave for Djoliba this weekend! I am sure I will have LOTS to say when we get back, from what I’ve heard, this is going to be a great visit with a really interesting twist. But that’s enough for now! Don’t want to spoil the surprise!