Sabouyouma are ambassadors of West African culture | Musical function | Seven days

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  • Courtesy of Jesse Rosenfield
  • Ousmane Camara

Before the advent of written language, media and technological communication, oral tradition was the only way for people to convey information over time or over great distances. Storytellers roamed their lands, disseminating information about political events and other forms of cultural knowledge. The people responsible for delivering the latest news went by many names, depending on the region and the era. In West Africa, they were – and still are – known as griots.

Warren’s musician Ousmane Camara is part of a multigenerational lineage of these troubadours. The 34-year-old Guinean has studied this ancient practice all his life – and its main instrument, the balafon. Everything he has done is centered on the tradition, which he continues with his Burlington-based funk-fusion polyrhythmic band, Sabouyouma.

The seven-piece ensemble has grown into one of the most popular groups in the state, making appearances at every major club in the Queen City area, as well as at summer music festivals and venues over distant in the Green Mountains. The group even performs at the regional level. Known for his ecstatic performances and world-class musicality, Sabouyouma (pronounced SA-boo-YOU-ma) is a local ambassador of West African rhythms and culture. Beyond that, the group exudes a unity and uplifting spirit that can be attributed to Camara’s core values.

“It’s not easy to bring together people from different families, different education, different ideas,” he says. But, according to the griot, it’s actually quite simple.

“Respect human beings,” he says. “[And the] music is easy to share. ”

Camara is an intense person. Despite his small size, he exudes a powerful and exciting energy – on stage and off. In conversation, he rarely breaks eye contact. You can tell he’s interested in making a real connection.

His instrument, the balafon, is similar to the wooden marimba but is curved instead of flat. And rather than resonating pipes hanging below the bars, dried and sculpted gourds (gourds) hang below to diffuse sound. With mallets in hand, Camara performs patterns of absurd complexity with laser focus. It’s amazing how someone can be so fast and precise at the same time.

But competence is practically in his genes. To borrow a phrase from The Lord of the Rings, we are not satisfied to become a griot ; you have to be born there.

“My grandfather was the grand master of the balafon,” says Camara. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, he left his immediate family at the age of 7 to study the balafon with his teacher.

“People don’t have the money to pay their teacher,” he says. “So you spend your life with your teacher, working for [them]. ”

Originally from Conakry, the capital and largest city of Guinea, the griot has traveled from the coastal metropolis to many other countries in the region, disseminating his art and teaching others. This is how Camara met his American wife, Adina Ford.

After years of studying djembe and African dance, Ford looked for a balafon teacher. Bristol-based dance and drum instructor Simbo Camara (unrelated) guided Ford to Ousmane in Africa. Her future husband was first and foremost her teacher.

Their love story is an integral part of Sabouyouma. The name of the group itself means “to give thanks” in Susu, one of the many languages ​​spoken in West Africa, as well as in the group.

“I sing [Sabouyouma] in songs about the person who [brought] Adina in Africa, ”says Camara. “I have so many blessings in my heart for [Simbo]. ”

Getting Camara located in Vermont was difficult. His 10-year green card was not easy to obtain.

“[At first,] they decided [Ousmane] didn’t speak English well enough for us to have a relationship, ”says Ford. After two unsuccessful attempts to obtain his residency, they requested the defense of the office of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Even though he now holds his green card and is settled in Vermont with his wife, granddaughter and two step-sons, Camara’s family unit is incomplete. His 12-year-old son, Ismael, currently lives at his home with relatives. (The boy’s mother recently passed away.) Camara and Ford are working on solutions to bring Ismael to Warren.

Sabouyouma was born in 2016, shortly after Camara settled in Vermont. One by one, the balafonist assembled an exceptional team of notable local players, including Mame Assane Coly, a Senegalese expatriate known for his work with percussion groups Africa Jamono and Jeh kulu.

Just as many groups in the Burlington area can tell from their own projects, Sabouyouma got together during a residency at the creative incubator Light Club Lamp Shop.

Since Sabouyouma’s music is sung entirely in Susu, Maninka, and other West African dialects, the American members of the group only begin with a general understanding of a song’s meaning.

“Music is complicated for some people,” says Camara.

“He would play what he wanted me to play [on bass] on the balafon, ”explains bassist Daniel Bishop, who also plays in the pop-punk band PREECE and singer-songwriter Ivamae’s backing band. (Bishop replaced Michael Graziadei, a bassist known for his work with Sierra Leone’s All Star Refugees.)

“Ousmane has all the pieces in his head,” said drummer Jesse Rosenfield. “Theoretically, these songs are for several balafons.”

But Sabouyouma has only two balafonists: Camara and Ford. The conductor plays the different parts of a song to the members of his group and their various instruments one note at a time.

“[Learning] much of Western music is based on existing recordings, ”says Rosenfield. “You will have more than one repertoire to draw from. There are recordings of this West African stuff, but [what Sabouyouma play] is so specific to Ousmane’s family and his local approach to folk music. From village to village, people will have their own opinion. ”

Bishop and Rosenfield agree that there is a steep learning curve in Sabouyouma and a need to be sensitive – given that they are both white American males.

“I just try to approach everything with as much respect as I can,” Bishop says. “[I’ve] got very close to Ousmane. [Now,] I think I understand better what he’s looking for in terms of how the music feels authentic and doesn’t sound appropriate or watered down.

“More and more music will be decoded by asking [Ousmane] the right questions, “Bishop continues.” He will start talking about the context of the songs – if it came from a place of royal appreciation, if it was something that was performed for kings. [or] at the end of the harvest season. If it was more of a social song, [he’ll tell us] what specific dances were involved. ”

“Everyone comes with a great deal of energy and a lot of respect for Ousmane,” says Ford. “I have been part of several groups in the region and I have never had such a patient leader.”

A Sabouyouma record is yet to come. The group has just released their first single, “Ikanikase”. The track features steel pedals courtesy of special guest Brett Lanier, giving it a psychedelic, dreamy quality. But the percussive energy of the djembe and the balafon – as well as resplendent bursts of choral singing – give it the impression of being rooted in Camara’s homeland.

And, while you probably won’t understand the words, the band’s music conveys some palpable feelings.

“I have so much love for the people who are with me,” said Camara, “to be able to open my heart to show them what I have.”

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