The celebrated Brazilian writer and author of the famous The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, himself questioned one of the most cliché-ridden starts up of narrating the traditional story: ‘once upon a time’ – a popular and predictable dominant narrative that has since then been consigned to the dustbins of tariko (history). In this first installment, I want to break away from the rules and spirit of Poe’s ‘philosophy of composition’, not overtly admitted in most occasions there is a feeling of guilt and lack of confidence in writing or understanding why the masters intimidated us – it beats our imaginative minds – why then are we afraid to write? Sometimes it does not matter how the story begins, ‘once upon a time… ‘once upon a generation…’ I think, the art of writing is unique to every writer –sometimes, the urge to release words and the beauty of getting all the appropriate words one needs is magical. Isn’t it amazing that the narrators and interpreters of narrations can sometimes be jolted by a sweet epic of the yesteryears? Who’s the writer? Where’s the writer?
A poorly-paid job, which is at best, a mad person’s vocation, how can one in this era hibernate when the glitz and glamour of the universe is knocking on your door, telling you, you are the un-expected guest at a special programme? Edgar Allan Poe and many others philosophised and popularised review and criticisms of literature, several decades later, everyone is trying not only to write but endeavour to be structurally sound and semantically excellent at the highest level.
In some occasions, this book will be with you, or take you to space, the unknown world, and some earthly paradise, or musings on hell, things that may not have names. And things that we may never understand and realise while on the face of the earth, puzzling or mind-boggling aren’t it?
Once upon a time, the inspirational writer, Robin Sharma wrote “Who will cry when I die?” It was based on a long and elaborate plot that is at best a thriller, at worst, a testament to condescending to something that will happen, yet the worried face of the mind will not allow the living soul to rest without engaging it with innocuous issues of life and death. That was, still is, a tale.
If you go by what Poe and company, theorised, I am afraid, this will have huge toll on talent and prodigious pursuits for the new writer yet to be unplugged. Once upon a time, Poe said the short story should be read in one sitting; whether you are in space, online, in your house, or wherever you are. But I am taking you on a long journey, which will require several sittings – although this run parallel with Poe’s old-age one-sitting dictum. Who cares? For me, every story has to have a voice and a rhythm, and this one I was warned; should be told according to the way it was first narrated. As a result, it requires more than one-sitting, and it requires several contour lines seethed in a forest of serenity.
Once upon a time, there lived a Fajala and Moussa, the former, a ruthless jinneh while the latter was a normal yet daring hunter, who has a reputation for doing extraordinary things.
This story took place during the epic era of the Mali Empire when men and women gifted with spiritually-infused incantations danced and chanted songs after drinking all-white hot milk and performed magic and wizardry. And children sit down on logs to harvest the stories that fall like mangoes during a minor windstorm – the power lies in the old women who weave cotton at the dead of night. On dark moon nights, the embers usually do not die, occasionally when the wind blows, the fire rekindles and lights up the faces of the listeners and the narrator. Others revel in night hunting to kill and bring home the sweet and hard-to-get deer meat. Men who brought deer in the village are usually adored by the newly-hatched doves of the village; they only appear once a week at the stream laundering clothes and performing all the rituals that is cinema in the eyes of the men.
There were men who lived to struggle and died in silence, not attempting to defy the elders’ edict, some of the lucky ones from time to time invested heavily in architecture; all this was meant to be counted – when you are a man and lived like one. At that time, a family head has to have a gun, a hunting knife and a hirrkay (where arms and ammunitions are kept). The king of Mali had predicted one day the kingdom’s faith would be tested when men from the east take it upon themselves to wrestle the region from the domination of humans. These men, the king said are not just ordinary men, they are people from the other world, but they will not succeed, and it will eventually lead to the annexing of their prime land to a mysterious family – uumh, this is a dangerous bend.
The region was known as Bullah, named after the Queen of Bullah, a distinct castle that was ensconced between two rivers adjacent an indigenous forest locally known as ‘ Temkinnam’ (leave me alone). The magic and charm offensive of the inhabitants have lured all the animals of the nearby estuary to stray into the lush garden of the trees namely dadel bori, samba sinjang, mamko mamko – these were the freshest of all the trees in the forest that have magical properties. Even for the tiger and the lion, who hesitated before taking a deep dive into the forest to explore the opportunity, said that it was only the fool that will not savour the beautiful paradise – they stayed.
With his kora, a young Malian of Bambara and Sarahule extract stormed into an old settlement which was formerly known as Dimbata Chekay – it is one of the villages that changes its name after every generation. It is only the spirit that can tell you the real name of the village. In those days, legendary tales are usually narrated by an individual with more than two eyes, that person also must choose the audience and where to narrate the story. The question of place is perhaps more significant than mere performance, for the audience does not matter since the kora is the property of some people, therefore, the narrator is not permitted to engage small boys and a place that hold no historical or spiritual significance. In other words, the narrator has to draw a wedge between sanity and insanity. However, you still have to wait patiently until I untie the big bag and tell you the tail of a tale that is there to be narrated. This is how I recaptured it, after it evaporated the first time I heard it:
In the second week of April, I received shocking news – the death of one of my aunts in my ancestral kraal Fula Bantang and Sinchu Bora community (there is a thin line to draw from where the other starts and where the other ends. These two communities are not totally bonded yet they are not totally separated). Sometimes, I don’t just know what strength and energy some of us possess to make what I call instant magic, barely three hours after the funeral engagement, I ran into one Bubacarr Kamara in an amphibian territory. It was dark; I did not recognise him. I doubt whether I ever saw him in the flesh or even knew him. However, my first encounter with him inked a word in my heart. Here, it is not only an anecdote but an antidote to the sombre mood of the hot and searing afternoon hangover – at this tiny village comprising a ‘big extended-family state’ another loved one has gone, while one chances on meeting relations from far-flung villages within and outside, everyone is here to commiserate – perhaps a rare chance for collective and symbolic family reflections and introspections.
Usually, at night, everyone retires or reclines, the married go goto-goto (one by one) – the little kids play hide and seek, while the elderly try to appease the younger ones with stories, wisdom and oratory. Still now, is that the tale? No, things have ch anged, and have changed dramatically. Things are no longer the same, the civilisation that had been filtering through barbed wires at the behest of the white strangers in the name of religion is firmly entrenched.
For me, it was a normal meeting, yet what happened afterwards was something I did not expect, especially for the young Malian man, especially when I know where he came from Timbucktu, the fabled Islamic city of invaluable academic materials.
I was now in the midst of a man who despite his age did what is expected of a traditional kora player, the repository of customs and cultures. His hands and fingers were small, he was fairly slim and throughout the performance, the narrator did not stare, even though, it was dark. He did not ask the host to provide light. He gently strums the strings, emitting melodious sounds after withdrawing his hands to soften his fingers. Suddenly, he sang: ‘Hey, Bala, hey Bala, Balaa, Balla, gey g Bala!
The sweet rhythm of the kora, the barking of a small dog, the passing of night revellers, the constant giggling of white doves, the barada vous, the silence of the dark night, all coming as of different dispensations. I was steeped in the island of imagination, but conscious of the place I was; it was the compound of a famed and fearless man, who left a trace whose tracks cannot be easily wiped away. In those days, whenever someone dies at night, children of the deceased are usually taken to another compound, lest an unwelcomed visitor return in an attempt to take them away.
But I was a grown up now, I, no longer that child who was afraid of the inevitabilities of life – conscious of the fact that at least for that fateful night, I needed to stick to myself together and paddle the boat all myself into the river of thinking and sobriety – outside the prism of family and friends.
This kora player, who bastardised the new tongues he’s trying to master, applied the music to douse the flames in my lonely heart and all those needed solace and serenity.
As the narrator sipped ataaya to wet his tongue, he would occasionally intersperse the session with riddles and proverbs as if he was addressing a bigger audience. But who knows? Well, as far as my naked eyes were concerned; there were as many as three people in the gallery. By now, the sweet sounds of that 21-string musical instrument that resonated within the surrounding compounds was not a choreographed hero. However, deep in my mind, it was a constant reminder of the spirits of our forbearer’s ominous lurking in the background.
BK, as the narrator was known, had an inclination for regurgitating tales of yesteryears, of the men who did unbelievable things and of records that were broken centuries back. As a stranger in the village, he knew he was not, for this was all part of the land that was known in those days as Fajala’s territory. He had come to the village and was hosted by the sons and daughters of a family that were embodiment of bravery and initiators.
After excusing his ignorance with his new-found skills in the hosts’ language, the lubricants were already installed, and there was nothing but for the guest to empty the music from the kora and clothe it with fairy tales of envy and diabolical undertakings of a chequered generation. And he resumed, albeit, some people have come to ‘see’, we were still determined to hear the epic tale of Fajala and Moussa. Oh, the kora is quiet again, another man has come, and the narrator paused and placed the kora beside the wooden stool to ‘see’ his sick guests.
Moussa, the great hunter, BK, continued, did not give up even after he was warned by Fajala, never to go near the forest – in fact; Fajala had threatened Moussa with death that evening if he returned after sun set.
That evening, BK cleared his throat, and continued ‘Moussa summoned all his lieutenants and prevailed on them to help him fight the dreaded jinn. There was a long silence, the symphony had pierced through the ears and the hearts of the listeners were glued to the story, even though a new day had beckoned.
Suddenly, the story sprang up; Fajala is a dangerous being, said one of Moussa’s trusted sages, ‘it’s better you forget about fighting a supernatural being whose firepower cannot be extinguish by mere mortals like us’.
Suddenly, the howling of the dog grew louder, BK, laughed heartily and told the dog that you may lose your voice if you attempt to stop all these people from listening or coming to sit.
I was dumbfounded. Who was this narrator? What did he know that we did not know?
Who are the people? Somehow, I was not surprised about the character of the man, for this compound was predominantly the place of a man among men – the compound of a man who made boys men. God knows, even in our native tongue – the son of a rat is expected to have a tail’. That’s why since at the beginning, I had declared that this is just the tail of the tale, therefore, if a man who knows how to tell epic tales comes to the family or a family of a great legend like Ba Bora Mballow of blessed memory… this would be an epic encounter!
On resumption, the kora player-cum-epic narrator wailed again, saying ‘Hey Moussa, don’t dare the jinn! Please Moussa let this case rest, and allow the villagers to live in peace. Please, Moussa do not try to incur the wrath of Fajala, he’s never done good things’.
As the story continues to be told, the narrator knew the audience was dying, slowly, the embers were developing into ice blocks but suddenly he found a way of rekindling us. And he paused: “It is said that anyone who listen to the epic story of Fajala’s dramatic fall, the mother of the jinn will reward you with innate mystical powers”. So we started the session again. He told us: “If you are not tired, I will not be tired. So we changed our batteries again with vigour and sharpness we waited for the next tune. (Read the final part in my next piece entitled: ‘The head of the tail HEAD Friday 13th June). Ebrima Baldeh is a career journalist at GRTS-TV. He is reading history at the University of The Gambia.
With Ebrima Baldeh]]>