Guest storyteller presents oral and musical history of Guinea

Famoro Dioubate, a Guinean musician, conveys cultural stories through music.
Famoro Dioubate, a Guinean musician, conveys cultural stories through music.

A collection of five students crowd in a tightly-packed semicircle, a variety of African hand drums placed loosely between their legs. Their eyes gaze intently forward. In front of the students sits West African musician Famoro Dioubate with his personal balafon, an instrument that resembles a xylophone, positioned beside him.

“Alright, whoever forgets their part owes me $20,” Dioubate jokes to the students, all members of World Music class taught by Spanish teacher Kenny Kozol and performing arts teacher Carolyn Castellano. The group breaks out into a traditional African song, and when a few students lose track of their part, Dioubate says laughing, “I am a very rich man.”

With the help of French teachers Dean Putnam and Laura Gurry, Koz0l obtained PTO grants called “The French-African connection” and “Música y Cultura” to bring Dioubate to work with French and music classes.

Although Dioubate was unable to perform in the schoolwide C-block assembly on Friday, Feb. 7 because of the snow day, he worked with 13 classes over the course of the week.

Dioubate is originally from Guinea, a country formerly colonized by the French. Referred to as a djeli, or in French terms, a griot, Dioubate is a storyteller, musician and singer.

Kozol said the djeli have existed for centuries, passing down tales from generation to generation. This tradition, Kozol said, is multifaceted, involving music and family stories. According to Dioubate, a critical part of storytelling is the process of identifying oneself with the past.

“We hold the stories in our generation,” he said. “Before I was born, things passed. From people in my family, my grandfather, my grandmother, we learned, ‘It’s like this, we came like this.’ You have to know what you come from, who you are.”

Kozol said he believes oral history is just as genuine as written history.

“I feel we tend to believe things are true because we read them in a book,” Kozol said. “We often tend to look and say, ‘That’s just an oral tradition, and one person passing it on to another. Things could have gotten mixed up along the way, and how can we believe that as true history.’ But, what has be proven over time is that people disprove history. I think this tradition of oral history is very powerful and no more or less powerful than when an author sits down to write their interpretation of it.”

While Dioubate plays several instruments including the drums, he specializes in the balafon, which is comprised of wood, bamboo and dried-out gourds. According to Dioubate, he learned to play the balafon, an instrument that he crafts himself, with his family.

From a very early age, Dioubate’s skill was recognized by the community, not unlike other musical prodigies, according to Kozol. This prompted one very significant person to extend his tutelage to Dioubate.

“His grandfather was known as the pinnacle of this instrument, the balafon,” Kozol said. “Dioubate was showing talent, so his grandfather took him under his wing and taught him everything he knew.”

Putnam, who teaches a unit on Africa in his French III class, said bringing Dioubate to the school was an enriching experience for his students.

“It’s kind of cool to bring it to life like that,” he said. “We go to the Language Lab and there’s a great site, the French TV station, called TV5Monde. But their site has a great series on African history and African countries.”

Putnam also said that, because he places an emphasis on writing in his classes, having Dioubate visit and demonstrate storytelling skills was beneficial for students.

Junior Sam Friedman, who rehearsed a couple of songs with Dioubate in his jazz band class, said he considers exposure to foreign music critical.

“We sort of live in a bubble,” Friedman said. “There’s a lot of music that we don’t listen and don’t know about just because it’s not in our culture. So when we get someone to come and show us new music, it gives us a different perspective.”

Engaging with students in select environments, Dioubate said he was happy to come to the high school and share his passion for, among others things, music.

“God made me a griot. That’s what I know people love. People work a lot, and they need something to make them move their body. What I am doing, it’s not commercial. That’s not why I’m doing it. What I say, I want it to make sense for people,” Dioubate said. “Everything I sing, I do to make people say, ‘Why not love each other?’”

Matthias Muendel can be contacted at [email protected]