The ISB community welcomed a very special guest at the end of this October: Baba the Storyteller, one of the few recognized U.S-born practitioners of Jaliyaa, an ancient West African storytelling craft. Having received numerous awards as a folklorist, traditional harpist, storyteller, community activist, and volunteer, Baba has visited thousands of schools and institutions around the world, sharing his insightful stories that stem from his own experiences.
The Break was lucky enough to schedule an interview with Baba during his busy time here.
How were you introduced to Jaliyaa?
Back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, I was working with youth in Southern California in the US: Compton, Long Beach, Lynwood, South Los Angeles, etc. and many of us were employing what we considered “culturally based methods of instruction.” I’ve always been culturally-aware, but at that time a series of performance groups out of Africa toured regularly through Southern California. One in particular out of Guinea, “Ballet Africain,” would come to perform at the universities and major theaters. A part of their mission was to get into the local and surrounding communities that could not afford to attend their performances and host workshops and mini-performances. One of the griots (traditional oral historians) named Koka Sali got word of my work with teens and wanted to observe. He approached me afterward and called me a griot, explaining that my ancestors who had come to the Americas in slave ships must have been griots. He is the one who initially opened the door for me to begin practicing the craft.
What motivated you to become a story-teller, and what particular steps or initiatives did you have to take in order to become one?
I feel as though my life experiences prepared me to recognize the true depth of storytelling, not as an item of entertainment, but as a transformative tool for human beings. The steps toward actualizing this career as a storyteller were not as smooth or methodical as one might think. There were times when I tried to impose my Western thought processes of organization or compartmentalization onto the craft with disastrous results. That’s what my book, Road of Ash and Dust, details. It covers a small piece of that journey or steps I took in order to become a storyteller.
Your memoir is about your (first) visit to Africa. What meaning did this visit have to you and your story-telling career?
The memoir is simply a snapshot in time of a transformative moment for me. I wanted to share that moment in hopes that someone else could learn from my errors and ignorance. It was difficult to write because I don’t feel like I came out at the end of it looking like a hero, but definitely a flawed individual. It was necessary both personally and professionally to portray the truth of that journey and not compromise its integrity. The visit forced me to reconcile with my own identity. It also propelled me into a world of storytelling that functioned with such a deep understanding of our world that I wanted to be able to share what I was learning.
Was there a particular reason you decided that you wanted to learn how to play the harp? What effect does it have on your storytelling?
The harp that I play is a traditional instrument used by the griots of West Africa and has been for centuries. It is called a Kora, spelled with a “K” in English, but a “C” in French. I specify that because if you are going to do any research to learn more about the instrument, it is necessary to understand that many in West Africa speak French, a cultural remnant of colonization. The Kora allows me to use the blending of narrative and music in the very same way griots do traditionally, but more for contemporary audiences. Playing the harp and combining that with storytelling has the added benefit of touching on different modes of communication. Some people resonate more with the music than the narrative and vice versa. I generally find that storytelling alone is an effective means of transference of knowledge and information, but when combined with music, it is a highly potent elixir promoting positive psychological and spiritual transformation.
Would you mind sharing some of the future goals you want to achieve?
I want to live a long, healthy life and be able to do this work until I breathe my final breath. Each time I travel, I am changed in some way by the people I encounter. It is difficult to put into words, but it feels to me as though these exchanges feed my soul in a way that nothing else can. There are things I am working on back in the US (films, documentaries, another book, touring, etc.) but they are all the surface of the work for me. The depth occurs after the performance with the human beings who choose to engage, the ones I gain deeper understandings from, regardless of age.
Do you have any advice to the ISB students and the third-culture children in many international communities?
I’m usually skittish about offering advice when I am not in a position to also receive it myself. Children of this age are born into a unique era of history. We are at a crossroads of sorts as human beings. I honestly believe that many of the children coming of age today will find answers to very complex questions that have plagued us for centuries. I see a shift in thought processes when I look in the eyes of our youth, that I have never seen before. I know how ambiguous this sounds, but it is difficult sometimes to articulate the language of the heart. Technology, mass media and the human desire for experience are altering the world we live in, making it much smaller in comparison to previous generations. This will have some sort of effect. My desire is that the effect is positive.
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