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Chalil’s Prayer



He pushes us through crowded walkways, past shouting vendors, ducking through soccer games, and across constant flows of traffic. Bushwhacking rush-hour, 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 cars in the process. We cross into an even more densely populated part of town. Elbow to elbow, he seems to know everyone, but he cannot stop to chat. We choose to unleash the ever popular “salam-malecume” greeting, which we say dispassionately before zooming by, not waiting for the “malecume salam” response. I follow as he goes through back allies, and into a dark apartment building. I spiral through darkly lit uneven stairs, up and up and up until we reach the fresh, open aired roof. Out in the distance is a fractal of couched families and drying clothing compactly arranged on top of bare, half completed cement houses; classic Senegalese architecture.

I had asked if knew where to find an isolated rooftop — high enough off the ground to insulate our Djembe Drum. The request had come after I had heard him singing sweetly to himself the day before. Sunk into the meditation of his song, his eyes glazed and emptied. I paused a long glance on his crazy frizzled curls and gentle face structure. When he was done, I asked if I could record him. Lingering on a calming silence, his eyes faded back to the outside world and Chalil finally admitted that no one had ever asked to capture his sound. That soft side of him that poked out of his quiet lulling melodies was not as apparent today. After just a hello, we had started our race against the coming of nightfall; drum in one hand, and the pull of my shirt in his other hand.

To him I am a professional by the sheer fact that I am holding a real microphone, working laptop, and have a program with an overwhelming number of buttons. But I look back at him with my own mismatched fantasy. I see an indigenous local inviting me into a genuine cultural experience. Too close to the front of my thoughts are the ideas of a raw West African mp3 and an adventure tied down into a journal entry. I watch the glow on his face as he holds my cheap microphone. We work through our linguistic barrier. We parse out “I love music, I need music” as he readies his body in his chair. It is a miracle we can communicate. Often through hand gestures or smiles, we speak in broken Pulaar, which spills into quick French before splintering off into English sounding utterances. Still, the microphone is a universal object to a musician, and his hand’s grip shows his obvious awareness of its power.

“Me Bifal,” he explains. He does not know that I have heard of the Bifal — an offshoot of Islam known for Rasta haircuts and eclectic requilted clothing. I often found them loitering. Technically he fits that description, but it isn’t how I’d choose to describe him.

The vivid reds and dark blues from the unraveling sunset absorbs into the corners of my eye as we record. The undivided attention of my microphone harmonizes with his sharp concentration and creates a magnetic moment, frozen in time.

The drum part we work on is sounding shockingly random and disconnected to me, but his simultaneous lightness and confidence on the drums is captivating. He laughs out loud as he plays the drum, intermittently singing in his drumming recordings even after I insist it will affect the quality. The idea of playing and not singing is absurd. And when he sings, he is singing from the soul, each word comes out with love and intention. It’s the kind of pronunciation of someone you know is smiling without looking up. Later he explained that all Bifal songs were prayers and psalms, thus weaving his religion even deeper into the music.

Suddenly he stops singing, lowers his brow, and scrunches his face with an intensity that tells me not to stop the take. He stares at the microphone, as his head keeps bobbing. Then, out of nowhere, he starts talking, no, rapping it seems. He gains more confidence in his voice as he goes. He starts repeating words, but with the utmost purpose. In a musical bliss he spits words increasingly faster until he’s talking himself dizzy. Even spitfire, he keeps a grace to his tone.

In the following days, I found a translator to help me make meaning of the sound.

“My marabou is a prophet 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 these words represented an interesting, if not bizarre window into the Bifal mind. I looked up the links between ocean, music, and god, thinking there must be an implication.

However, searching for an anthropological implication actually missed the point. In such an exotic place, a moment romantically played out in a foreign language surrounded by a sunset city, it seemed quite default to objectify the situation through a culturally critical lens. Instead, with his free-spirited song, Chalil reminded me to let go. I think he felt such a strong sense of being in the moment, his mind buckled, and the filter broke, and both drumming and words started coming out freely formed. The exact words he used no longer mattered, because he meant it. The moment was holy to him, so he spoke from his soul instead of from his brain, hitting the drum meaningfully, without any tie to steady beat. By trying to make a quality recording of an orderly song, or analyze the “ethnic experience,” I had missed the pure joy of the moment. Instead of fantasizing this western-produced exotic or “other,” I was reminded to look past the monumental contextual difference, and embrace the common humanity in the great ritual of living.

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