Daybo

After years in the Sahel, I am, although neither griot nor poet, one of West Africa's greatest praise-singers.

The Masons of Djenné

Annual plastering of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Photography of a master mason spreading plaster on the wall of the mosque while other masons climb the scaffolding in the background.

  “When an Agama lizard sees you coming, it jumps onto a wall. It doesn’t fall because it has ‘special’ powers. Those powers are the same that we masons use. Those are secret.” ― Master Mason Konbaba Tennepo   The Master Mason The master mason makes his way through the maze of twisting alleyways, staircases, …

Ode to the Kola Nut

Abstract painting of figures gathered around a bowl of red kola nuts, fruits that are cherished throughout West Africa.

“The word friendship in our society comes from this fruit. You must split it in two; one hand cannot clap; it takes two to make a sound. Everything that I do in art, as a visual form of expression, is [inspired] by this fruit. The kola nut, which has ritual and divine representation in the …

Twins

Twin Festival, a vodun cult of twins, in Ouidah, Benin

Whether kicking up red Sahelian dust or the sands of the lower-lying coastal plains, the footsteps of twins throughout West Africa leave an indelible print along a customarily unified, synchronous path. The Temne of Sierra Leone tell of mythological twin brothers miraculously stitching together two diverging roads, forever fusing their destinies. On whatever West African …

The Puppeteer

The heads of two West African puppets articulated at the mouth and adorned with cowrie shells, awaiting the puppeteer.

The West African puppeteer lurches, leans and sways, giving himself over to the demands of his carved creation. He is at once ajogi, a Yoruba dancer of the wooden image, and nyamakala, a Malinke force-handler, as he pulls on the ropes and rods of some of the oldest and richest of Africa’s surviving puppetry traditions. …

The Weaver

Close up of the hands of a Dyula weaver, threading the shuttle though the loom.

Somewhere in the Futa Tooro region of Senegal, a Tukolor weaver, or mabube, reenacts an ancient ritual. He gathers his loom parts — pulley, wheel, shuttle, beater that have been carved for him and him alone — bringing them back, each and every day, to a framework that does not uniquely belong to him. Although he …

Rhythm

Hands creating a rhythm on a djembe drum.

“Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” ― Babatunde Olatunji   The Integral Nature of West African Rhythm So synonymous is rhythm with life and movement, that many sub-Saharan languages, like Igbo, Efik, Hausa and Yoruba, do not have a distinct, disambiguating, …

The Griot

Three paintings of a griot in three different phases of praise-singing, accompanied by his talking drum.

Above the din of everyday culture — from the spontaneous chatter of the marketplace to the polyphonic rhythms of the traditional shuttle loom, anvil or pestle — rises the acoustic poetry of the West African griot. If it is through the beautiful cacophony of the day-to-day that people assert the present, then it is by …