He pushes us through crowded streets, past shouting vendors, ducking through soccer games, and across a constant flow of traffic. I follow him into the middle of the road and absorb the moment—a bus almost hits me as it tries to change lanes, dipping into the incoming traffic in the process. We cross into a denser populated part of town. Suddenly he knows everyone, but he cannot stop to say hello. We choose to unleash the ever popular “salam-malecume,” not waiting for the required “malecume salam” before continuing on. I follow as he goes through back allies, and into a dark apartment building. We spiral through uneven stairs in dark light, up and up and up until we reach the fresh lighted, open aired roof. The whole village is visually opened up to us: the patched roof skyline is colored by clothing lines and couched families.
The journey is made impetuous by our need for an isolated rooftop—high enough off the ground to insulate our Djembe Drum. This is the first time in Chalil’s life that anyone has requested to capture his sound. We look at each other. To him I am a professional by the sheer fact that I am holding a working laptop, real microphone, and a program with an overwhelming number of buttons. I watch the glow in his eyes as he holds my cheap microphone. “I love music, I need music” he says as he readies his body in his chair. This is a paragraph of English for him, he knows neither English nor French, and I can only communicate with him in broken Pulaar, which quickly spills into French and English attempts at vocabulary when communication breaks down. Still, the microphone is a universal object to a musician, and his hand’s grip shows his awareness of its power.
“I am Byfall,” he explains, which I know is an offshoot of Islam known for Rasta haircuts, straggled, torn, and requilted clothing, “all Senegalese listens to our music.” Now I was to see firsthand the passion he had for God and Touba and music. He laughed out loud as he played the drum and singing. I was later to find out the songs were all prayers and psalms, thus weaving his religion deeper into the music.
Each word is pronounced with love and intention as he bobs his head, sways his hand upward, and looks passionately at the sky. I realize that culturally, he has never been given individual spotlight attention before – to not have to share, or compromise his bottled up energy. I follow his facial expressions, as they are akin to watching the colorful pallet of emotion a little kid would show when discovering a foreign toy.
Suddenly he stops singing, but his low eyebrows and scrunched face makes me know not to stop the take. He stares at the microphone, as his head keeps bobbing. He tilts his head to listen in closer, keeping silent. Then, out of nowhere, he starts rapping, no, talking it seems. He gains more confidence in his voice as he goes. He starts repeating words, but with the utmost intention. He is at home, speaking his natural casual Pulaar, so I do not know what he is saying. What he says clearly brings him joy. It’s the way of pronouncing words where you know someone is smiling without looking up.
The following days I was quite antsy to get a translation, what words exited my friend so much he stopped singing? What language did he say it in? I came there to make music with him, and he ran free with his unsuppressed freedom of speech and attention. Days later, I found out what he was saying.
“My marabou is a profit of Islam, he is great. He goes to the ocean, he goes to the ocean, he goes to the ocean, he goes to the ocean. He is clean, he is clean. Islam is great. Music is great. He goes to the ocean, he goes to the Ocean. God is great. Let’s go to the ocean.”
At first I only saw these words as eclectic and bizarre at best, and overall totally meaningless. But, as I have let this story sit with me, I think he felt a strong sense of being in the moment, his mind buckled, and the filter broke, and words started coming out free-formed. The exact words he used no longer mattered, because he meant what he was saying. The moment was holy to him, so he spoke from his soul instead of from his brain. His intention came through in his words, when his words didn’t quite come through. So afterwards, when I let him hear the sound track– very random drum beats being played over each-other, on top of offbeat and eclectic words– he heard a prayer to god, and he loved it.