1. Introduction
  2. Between Resonance and The Great Peace
  3. Conclusion

Senegal and Storytelling

By Elissa Lerner

Senegal and Storytelling
By Elissa Lerner

Photo (and Photo Above) Credit: Liayn Parks

Between Resonance and The Great Peace

Last July in Durham, N.C., a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to join her at a Senegalese rock-fusion concert. I love music, so this seemed like a good idea. It turned out the lead singer was a Senegalese man married to my friend’s classmate, and we talked to him for a few minutes during the set break. He and his band of North Carolinian collaborators were playing songs from their first album, Resonance (2012), and were trying out some new tunes they were working on for their second. My friend asked if he and his wife were planning on leading a trip to Senegal that year and if she could join. (The answers were yes and yes.) Since I’d been enjoying the music enormously—more than any other concert I’d been to in recent memory —I asked if I could join, too. And so, this past December, I had the great fortune of joining a small group of Americans going to Senegal. Our itinerary was simple: We’d be taking some African drumming classes, dance classes, and would just generally be somewhere else for a while.

Listen to Senegalese drumming and singing.

How do you introduce, capture, and transmit the richness and intricacy of an entire culture in ten days? How do you convey and exchange cultural values without imposing or appropriating them? How do you learn from history without getting lost in it?

Through music. Through dance. Through stories.

Hilary and Diali Cissokho

Hilary and Diali Cissokho

Photo Credit: Liayn Parks

The trip was led by Hilary Cissokho from Pittsboro, a small town in North Carolina, and her husband, Diali Cissokho from M’Bour,a small but fast-growing town in Senegal. The two had met and fallen in love several years ago, when Hilary had come to Senegal for the first time on a similar trip of cross-cultural immersion. She came for drumming; he was her instructor. She was supposed to be there for a few weeks; she stayed for a few months. They corresponded for years until Diali’s paperwork was in order, and he could join Hilary in the U.S. Once they settled in North Carolina, they pledged to lead small groups back to Senegal in hopes of helping others experience first-hand the country and culture they both loved. For the Cissokhos, sharing Senegalese culture is not a trend; they aren’t trying to jump on what might be the hot new country for exotic vacations. Taking groups to Senegal is about family, tradition, and storytelling.

Stories run deep for the Cissokhos, Diali’s family, and now Hilary’s family, as well. They are one of a handful of historic griot (pronounced gree-oh) families in Senegal—a cast of West African people charged with teaching and perpetuating cultural values through any medium. Forms of instruction and transmission can include music, dance, oral histories, and even conflict mediation. Diali’s family is particularly renowned for playing and building koras, 21-string bridge-harps played in West Africa.

Diali playing the kora.

Diali playing the kora.

Photo Credit: Liayn Parks

Griots are always on the clock and ready to perform. When he’s not bringing small groups to Senegal, Diali plays kora in a Senegalese rock-fusion band, Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba—his way of translating his music and heritage into American life. He teaches classes alongside Hilary on how to play the djembe, a type of West African drum, and has started bringing music therapy to at-risk children and teenagers in North Carolina. Music-as-therapy has long been a focus for him, as back in Senegal, he played with a troupe of physically disabled dancers. Throughout his work runs a theme of jaam rek, which means “only peace” in Wolof, the most common of some seven or eight languages spoken among the many ethnic groups of Senegal. Jaam rek is central to Senegalese culture and the particular versions of the Sufi branch of Islam practiced in West Africa. Peace, music, faith, community service, and culture are all interwoven in Diali’s work as a griot. Kaira Ba’s newest album is called The Great Peace, and this title captures a hint of the encompassing, outward reach of Diali’s storytelling through music. He views his work as less of a job and more of a calling. Above all, it’s part of his family.

Diali teaches a drumming class.

Diali teaches a drumming class.

Photo Credit: Elissa Lerner

Our guides in Senegal were largely members of Diali’s family. His sisters cooked traditional Senegalese meals for us, and his brothers drummed and traveled with us. Through broken English and French, we began to pick up some Wolof. The casual nature of our classes and excursions around M’Bour were ideal for the more intuitive type of cultural exchange that people often dream about when they think of traveling and living abroad. Movement wasn’t taught so much as absorbed: in our hands as we practiced djembe rhythms, in our feet as we learned the first few steps of a dance. Much to our initial Western frustration, we learned that Senegalese music is not necessarily composed, and dance is not necessarily choreographed. Instead, each has vocabularies of movements and patterns that blend and riff off of one another.

Our hearty welcome into Diali’s family was nearly overwhelming, but it also made sense, given that our group included Hilary’s mother, father, uncle, two brothers, and sister-in-law. Here were in-laws from across an ocean and their friends, bringing toys and gifts that would be difficult to acquire in M’Bour. A hula-hoop and a ball kept many nieces and nephews occupied for days. Without TVs and smartphones or WiFi, our evenings were spent pleasantly sitting together, practicing Wolof, listening to the kora and drums, and reviewing photos and videos from the day’s activities.

Listen to Diali's drum class.

For all the joy we felt banging on our drums, learning new dance steps, and trying to learn Wolof with our new friends, a sense of sorrow underlined it all, too. Sure, there were there the daily markers of poverty: the stench of fish rotting away at the fish market on the beach in 90-degree heat, the goats running alongside the horse-drawn carts running alongside the beat-up cars that plodded down sand roads, as paved roads were scarce. But the irony of our visit was inescapable: Here were a bunch of Americans, and Southerners at that, confronting the worst of their own history by embracing the best of Senegal’s. On a visit to Gorée Island, a launching point for Senegal’s slave trade for centuries and now an artist’s colony, the eldest member of our group broke down and cried. At 71, it was no secret to her that her ancestors kept slaves that may have come from the land on which we were standing.

Hilary talks about race, family, and adjusting to life in N.C.
Statue commemorating the end of slave trade, Gorée Island

Statue commemorating the end of slave trade, Gorée Island

Photo Credit: Elissa Lerner

There were other tears though, too, such as the kind that comes from laughing too hard. At least once each day, Diali and his brothers ended up on the floor with laughter (literally, rolling on the floor). Sometimes, they would even excuse themselves from the company so they could continue laughing and leave the rest of the group in peace. At what, it was impossible to say, but it didn’t matter. We toubabs (white folks, in Wolof) were starting to catch on, too. After all, when language fails and dancers stumble and drummers miss a beat, why not find it funny? If the choice is between finding life’s rhythms to be full of peace or full of strife, Senegalese culture weighs in loud and clear: jaam rek.


Elissa Lerner is a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She was previously the Clay Felker Fellow at Duke Magazine, and her work has been published in the literary blog of The New Yorker, The New Inquiry, and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Her full-length play, Abraham's Daughters, was produced in the New York International Fringe Festival. For more of her work, visit  elissalerner.com.

Photo Credit: Liayn Parks