Conakry, Guinea / February 2007.
The heat in the tiny room was stifling. The thick iron door, hinged securely to the frame that formed the doorway to the tiny mud and brick house where we sat, was firmly closed. Thick curtains were pulled tight over the barred windows. Any chance of what little breeze there was outside reaching us in the tiny room had been obliterated by our efforts to shut out the sounds of busy everyday life in the courtyard just outside our door. Not that the temperature outside was much cooler; it was the midst of the dry season here in West Africa, and by midday, with the sun at its relentless peak, the heat was soaring to 100 degrees. With sweat running freely down my brow, stinging my eyes, shirt quickly becoming soaked, I hoped that today’s recording session in our makeshift studio in a friend’s one-room home in the suburbs of Conakry would go smoothly. I had an ominous feeling that the opportunity to record this music wouldn’t present itself again soon.
Lanciné was ready. Sitting in a wooden chair across from me, his flutes, the traditional tambin he had constructed himself from the woody vine that grows along the banks of the Niger River, were laid out before him. My recorder and microphone were set on a chair next to us, and I hoped they would not fail me – the last few months of heat, sand, dust and abuse from traveling through the countryside and villages of Guinea, making field recordings of the traditional music here, had taken its toll on the devices; buttons and gears that were once silent and smooth were now tired and strained. We waited another moment before starting, as a short staccato burst of gunfire, this time from far off, rang out. Our recording session, I feared, would have to be done in small sections, hoping that a musical moment would not be interrupted by the increasingly frequent sounds of gun shots that had characterized a country in turmoil as of late. Luck would have to be on our side today, just as it would have to be for the people of Guinea as they strived to gain freedom from the tyranny of an aging dictator unwilling to relinquish his grip on a country that ever spilled into poverty and hunger.
This day had been relatively quiet though. For the last several weeks, we had been confined to our compound at Famoudou Konate’s house in Simbaya, on the outskirts of Conakry, while the nationwide strikes continued. Violence had erupted in Conakry and nearby Coza as the military had split into opposing factions, and whatever semblance of police control that remained were attempting to control the rioting and looting that was now commonplace. Nightly radio addresses, streaming out from small radios as groups of people crowded around them expectantly in the darkness, reported on the state of the country and progress of diplomatic negotiations that were still ongoing. Talks were scheduled for today, and it was the fading but hopeful optimism in the diplomacy of the country’s leaders that had brought about the relative calm that had briefly fallen over the peninsula — affording us this opportunity to record Lanciné’s music. We had but a small window of time.
In the faint light of our small room, I armed my recorder and hoped for the best. Lanciné began to play. As his music flowed forth, our surroundings quickly became irrelevant. Beautiful and intricate phrases streaming effortlessly from his flutes, it seemed the very walls of the small house would dissipate. With the rise and fall of his notes, at times slow and tranquil, at others agitated and impassioned, this humble and kind man transported us: eyes closed, we now sat on the banks of the Djoliba, the wide and winding Niger River, beneath the shade of a great baobab tree, the breeze cool and clear. The troubles of the world were now far away, lost in the sandstorm of time that only music could transcend. In the great open expanse of the river that had unfolded before us in melody and time, stories were told, ages recounted, great leaders of old were praised, and the hopes and sorrows of a people were put to music.
I do not know how long this went on. It didn’t matter. When we were finished, we left the small room and walked together in the open air, silently and unhurried, sharing a bottle of water as the sun sank lower in the sky, bathing the landscape in an orange glow.
That was now many years ago. Life progressed as it does, mine and his, and I do not remember how these recordings became lost, or why they resurfaced when they did. But I am happy. May you also be transported; I will look for you sitting quietly across the banks of that river and know.