In the music and culture of the Mande peoples I have found so much as to occupy my thoughts and invigorate my imagination for over a decade now. My travels in the Mande homeland of West Africa have opened my eyes not only to what the human imagination is capable of, but to the extremes of what the human spirit is able to endure. In the face of outright plundering and enslavement, of oppression and extreme poverty, these peoples have, through their music and dance, produced and sustained a means of collectively expressing the simple joy of living, with each other and within their place.
Between 2001 and 2007, I returned to Guinea, West Africa, a half-dozen times for winter-long excursions, immersing myself in the traditional music of the Malinké people. In the Hamana region of central Guinea, I sought to experience the music in the land that was the birthplace of instruments like the djembe, and according to some anthropologists, the place where some of the world’s earliest musical instruments had evolved. With my notebook, tape recorder and sketchbook, I set out to explore, learn, and document what I experienced there.
I present this travel-worn collection of drawings, paintings, writings, and musical notations here both as a celebration of Malinké music as well as an attempt at chronicling just one of the many ways in which humans have created meaning and expressed themselves through culture. Part travelogue, part sketchbook, this is a book about glimpsing in the everyday dust of existence the potential for rich and meaningful expressions of being in the world; of seeing that beyond the tattered common cloth of life hangs a veil of mystery infused with magic and wonder. Donning an old pack, passport in hand, leaving behind what was known and comfortable to experience another culture was, ultimately, a journey into what it means to be human. I had no real idea of what I might find, neither about the culture I was visiting, nor about myself. In the end, I learned many unexpected things on both fronts.
We hear a great deal today about the devastation of our earth’s natural resources — the sharp blade of progress, wielded hastily and often carelessly, resulting in the loss of both species and habitat — but we hear less about the disappearance of cultures and whole languages from the planet. This latter “great extinction” is in fact occurring at an astonishing rate, more rapidly than even the biological extinction at hand. It is estimated that in the past 500 years alone, the world has lost more than half of its languages — and along with them the stories, wisdom, and knowledge of the natural world contained therein. It is expected that this rate will only increase: by the end of this century, it is believed that fully half of the planet’s remaining 7000 languages could also disappear forever, at an estimated rate of one language every 2-3 months.
Needless to say, humanity finds itself at a delicate crossroads. Advancing the goals of progress blindly without regard to what is at stake is to risk severing our line to a great ancestral heritage filled with knowledge and wisdom. That doesn’t mean that progress itself is bad (or even that all traditions are good) — but a society that can move itself forward technologically while still maintaining its diversity of language and culture can create a future that is healthy and sustainable for all its people.
Preserving the cultural diversity of our species, then, is not merely a fanciful exercise, nor even strictly an academic one. It also means making accessible the collective wisdom, intelligence, and imagination that has enabled us to survive on this planet thus far — a legacy that is embodied in the songs, dances, art, and stories of the many peoples that still practice their native traditions today and that still speak their native tongue. To survive the challenges that we will face in the future, collectively as a global community, we will most certainly require not only this diversity of critical thought and imagination, but the vast repository of knowledge and history kept alive in the traditions of indigenous peoples around the globe. Just as nature succeeds by diversifying infinitely, so too must human society today consciously seek to defend, nurture, and celebrate the diverse array of expression embodied by the old cultures still present in the world today.
The survival of our world's cultural diversity into tomorrow, though, relies on the imagination and vision each of us puts forth into the world today. The kind of world our children will create will depend in large part on how well we equip them with a true knowledge of the past, and a sense of all the cultural brilliance that has flourished here since antiquity. Moving forward, we in the Western world must shed any notion that it is our own modern society that represents the pinnacle of human existence and the one “right” way of being in the world. We must reexamine our notions of primitive and evolved, and to do so, look closely at what is required of a society to live both sustainably and meaningfully on planet Earth — and while sustainability is a feature that proves itself over time, true meaning cannot be defined by one for another.
To embrace the concept of a global village where the world's cultural diversity flourishes is to embark on a journey into the collective hopes and dreams of countless generations of humans who have come before us, who strove for a meaningful existence for themselves and their descendants, drawing always on the wisdom of their ancestors. In taking this journey of exploration we may discover something about ourselves: that who we are is comprised of who we were — and who we were is a fire still kindled by the old cultures, steadfastly protecting the embers of their traditions in the face of a modern world that seeks to envelop them and sweep away the past like dust. Once gone, gone forever.
Herein, then, is my attempt at celebrating the exuberance and richness that the Mande peoples have brought into the world, and the simple gifts of friendship and open exchange they have extended to an oft-wayward, but always searching, world traveler. May future generations continue to praise their ancestors for preserving their great lineage, the story of how they came to be — and may it serve as a beacon for other travelers embarking on that path into unfamiliar territory.
[This is an excerpt from the book, Djoliba Crossing, by Dave Kobrenski, and is copyrighted material. May not be reproduced without permission.]