a day in the life...
The sun is up, as is the neighbor's rooster, and sprinkles down in dappled designs through the raffia mats shading the courtyard at Bagatai. You can hear the soft swish-swish of someone's straw broom as she sweeps the octagonal concrete tiles clean as the compound gently percolates into activity. While guests at Bagatai stretch sleepily over Nescafe laced with viscous sweetened condensed milk, the kitchen has already been bustling for hours, the fresh fruit and eggs and perfectly crusty-soft baguettes purchased from the market nearby long before their waking.
The sparkly morning idyll is suddenly pierced by the authoritative thwap! of drummers tuning up. Anyone still sleeping is soon compelled to rise as the drums call the dancers of Bagatai to attention. The miscellaneous figures who had dotted the courtyard in cheerful conversation or child's game begin coalesce into a formation of brightly colored fabrics and the palpably rising potential energy of bodies in preparation for movement. The drummers play their pulsating call, the teacher takes their place at a central point of focus, and thus, dance class begins.
While we at Nimba were hustling to and fro from the welder to Madina to the roof and back again, the primary regulator of everyone's day was the twice-daily occurrence of the dance classes that make up the backbone of Youssouf Koumbassa's Annual Dance & Drum Workshop, which was held at Bagatai concurrently with Nimba's maiden voyage. Twice a day, for 2 1/2 hours at at a time, the courtyard of Bagatai was transformed into a sweaty mass of rhythmic concentration as 20+ dancers, foreign and local alike, honed their focus towards Youssouf's exquisite brand of Guinea-style West African dance.
watch kakilambe, a mask dance from the baga susu people of boke, here:
It's no wonder that people travel to Conakry from all over the world "just" to dance in Youssouf's workshop. Youssouf has an illustrious background in Guinea West African dance and drum and is a compelling, committed teacher. Throughout the workshop, he seemed to transform his newer students from eager-yet-awkward novices into capable, educated movers and his more advanced level devotees into stunningly expressive, graceful and powerful dancers. Youssouf's workshop is one of the oldest cultural immersion dance intensives in Conakry and this year, 16 dancers came from the United States, Brazil, Holland, Spain and even New Zealand to deepen their technique and knowledge and soak up whatever they could of Youssouf's exquisite grace, deep knowledge and good vibes.
The dancers were dogged in their commitment, practicing at all hours and having class wherever they went, from the courtyard at Bagatai to a giant bamboo grove at the base of a waterfall in Kindia to the sandy beaches of Roume Island.
Youssouf concerned his classes not only with correct technique, tireless repetition and expressivity; but also prioritized knowing the name of the rhythm, the people to whom it is credited, its traditional purpose, and place of its origin. Take Sorsonet, a complexly syncopated rhythm with a rather showy movement vocabulary from the Baga-Susu people of Boke. After breaking down into meticulous detail core movements from his legacy of ballet-style choreography, Youssouf tells the class that the athletic femininity of the dance steps stem from Sorsonet's importance as part of an initiation ritual for younger women and girls into the passed-down knowledge of their female elders. (Sorsonet, by the way, is also known as a dance for Nimba, who is not only a national symbol of Guinea, but a Baga fertility goddess. You can see a depiction of her on the walls of Bagatai behind the drummers in the Kakilambe video above. Adding another layer of meaning and import, the very word "Guinee" means "woman" or "wife" in Susu.)
riding along with "the african cowboy"
Serious as the study of West African dance is, Youssouf is also known for his penchant for fun. He's always impeccably dressed and preferred a particularly charming cowboy hat, purchased in Texas so you know it's the real deal, paired with matching belt buckle and white leather boots.
On breezy evenings (our Guinean friends tended to refer to the 70 degree nights as chilly, remarking "chiin belee" or "il fait froid!) he might walk everybody down to Bar Vietnam, aka The Blue Light Bar, which is essentially a shack of boards on the docks of Nongo with a reliable generator (read: cold beer and Guinean MTV) and a ceiling made of mats somehow stapled together with bottle caps.
There he delighted in buying a round of Cokes or Guiluxe (the Guinean equivalent of Budweiser with a shiny label depicting the flag on each bottle) for everyone, dancing, of course, to all the hits (some of which he recorded himself!)
Throughout the workshop, local artists and students danced alongside the newcomers to create a multi-level dance class that culminated in a magnificent performance on a carefully swept dirt floor stage replete with live drums, red gold and green costumes, and luminous smiles. The men danced with painted faces among interludes of narrative scenes, drum solos and even a fire-eater. Salyea, who was normally our soft-spoken and smiley local master teacher, danced in a headdress and masculine splendor while flames licked across his glistening arms until he swallowed the fire in huge, seemingly palatable, gulps. Two dancers from the workshop swayed across the stage with calabashes of water atop their heads in a dramatic scene of bringing water to a thirsty man, later dancing to a fever pitch in time with with the batterie of drummers. After the show, the sweaty, sun-kissed performers drank cold Fantas and Cokes and danced with their audience and scores of neighborhood kids until it was time to sleep, rise in the morning and start all over again.
Hope you enjoyed the read, and stay tuned for more trip stories from Nimba!