Ethnolyrical

making music, writing culture

Waking up in the Field

There’s this kind of magical moment that arises at the seam of my everyday life in graduate school and the start of a new phase of fieldwork. I can hear everything.

Now immersed not only in a new space, but different rhythms of sound and movement, my senses are really heightened at those vulnerable moments in between: waking and falling asleep. This is especially true for my sense of sound, and I am doing my best to attend to, think about, and document this busy sonic landscape before it fades back into the dusty foundation of my everyday life in Dakar.

Last night, I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. My tiny neighborhood of Fass Batiment (“a concrete building in the neighborhood of horses”) borders directly on Dakar’s most populated and musical neighborhood of Medina. While the sounds of the streets below and the stories across and the movements above and beyond were technically loud, it was their thickness and personality that kept me hanging on every beep, drum roll and throaty greeting. A neighborhood of sound, impossibly dense, populated by so many. I want to know every one.

In fact, I don’t think I ever reached the depths of sleep; rather, my restlessness rolled with the changes in the night’s registers, beginning with the great meeting of the muzzeins (who call the faithful to prayer here five times a day) at Timis, the special evening prayertime. At Timis, Medina breathes from the bottom of its lungs, reaching its calls into other  neighborhoods. The muzzein’s voices, each spread a few blocks from the next and broadcast by massive steel cone-shaped loudspeakers, meet at the cusp of prayer, while robed men and draped women shuffle toward their places of prayer or roll out their richly-dyed prayer rugs. I have strained to count twelve of these voices before, but it’s so hard to tell where one begins and others end, it seems more likely to think of these voices as an atmosphere of sound rather than a chorus. It’s time to pray when the only breath in the evening air is being pushed by a world of self-styled calls, all with the same message:

Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God (Allah).

The “ah” sound here is the sound of Senegal to me, as the muzzeins linger on its textures for hours a day as the faithful greet each other:

Asalaam Maalekum/Malekuum Salaam/Ana waa ker ga?/Nun ga faa, Alxamdoulilah.

After, the perfectly round, yellow Dakar sun sets with a flash as the prayerful exit the mosque.

Later, the women night fruit merchants with their sell-sale banter, and the  boys downstairs bragging football and debating the personalities of passerby. Bleating goats excited by dinner leftovers and so many kids playing hilariously. The nighttime Sufi prayer meetings of praise-singing faithful, their exact location marked by fires and holy drums, not-so-holy drum circles throughout the area animated by women dancing, the latest mbalax pop hit blaring from the car stereo of a local event promoter. Janglings and calls that rise and fall, hisses across the yard. Eventually, the kids are in bed while young adults cook mint tea and people-watch on corners as the more stylish come and go from the discotheques. And as the quieter  sounds of air whooshing through long hallways and underfoot sand replace those voices, Dakar’s fashionable emerge from their taxis home, banging pointedly on their locked steel apartment doors with nickel coins. They get inside just as the muzzeins rev their throats for daybreak’s prayer, slowly, until the morning is fully lit.

My friends in Senegal rarely sleep a full 7-hour night, but take naps of varying sizes (small ones are called noppaliku in Wolof while REM-type sleep would be nelaw) throughout the day and night. Like many things in Senegal, these rest times are flexible and contingent. I am learning these rhythms.

I try to be careful about what music I listen to during these times. I want to stay grounded in the music I know and love while stretching my ability to hear. I’ve been easing into Dakar with John Coltrane’s album of the same name, which says it all.

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