During my apprenticeship in the craft of Jaliyaa, I’ve often come into contact with an issue that, honestly, used to totally confuse me. Whenever I was involved in direct learning with an elder or someone more knowledgeable than me, prior to the session, a peer or someone truly caring would warn me, “Do not say the words, I know.”
Blindly, I’d often follow this advice, not completely understanding. When a certain song that I had learned previously or some part of a genealogy became redundant to me and someone was attempting to teach it to me “again,” I would bite my lower lip to keep the words, “Hey, I know this already,” from escaping my lips.
I did witness one incident that helped me to understand this bit of sage wisdom. A young boy was studying the Koran in a compound in Serrekunda, in The Gambia, when I heard him tell his teacher, “I know this!” The teacher chastised the young boy by asking him if he knew the information already then why was he sitting with him taking up his time.
On another occasion, the lesson came full circle to me here in the United States. I have a young student learning the Kora who, early on, was very aggressive in his approach to learning. I could tell that he was caging much of his innate desires to interrupt me when I was speaking and holding tightly to his opinions and suggestions.
One afternoon, I was teaching him a short kumbengo (repeated passage of a song, somewhat akin to an ostinato) when his eyes grew wide and he blurted out, “I know that! I know that! I can do that!”
I handed him the Kora and instructed him to go ahead and play it then. I retreated to a comfortable chair behind him and resumed reading a book that I had been reading prior to his arrival.
I could see and hear him struggling with the piece I had been trying to teach him. I continued attempting to read a passage of my book, all the while using the pages to hide my excessively wide, “cat that swallowed the canary” grin. I must admit, I don’t think I was able to read a single sentence, but I feigned it well enough.
After about 3 minutes of this charade he turns around in my directions and says, “Baba, can you help me? I don’t think I know it as good as I thought.”
I told him that once I finished reading I might consider trying to help him but that I was sure he already knew how to play this piece. I continued with my mimicking of a man reading a book.
After another 5 minutes or so, I put the book down and asked him if there was a lesson to be learned here.
I was proud to hear him acknowledge the error of his ways. I went back to teach him again but, this time, we started on another song. He asked me if I were going to teach him the last song we were working on. I told him “not today.”
We still haven’t returned to that song yet and it’s been weeks. He will be returning tomorrow for another lesson. I think maybe tomorrow we will return to that song and I will see if he is ready.
If I have any advice for the budding teller of tales it is this: be very wary of the undisciplined words that want to haphazardly fall from your lips. I do not believe we ever truly “know” anything. Even if you have had an experience multiple times or you’ve heard the rendition of some particular tale hundreds of times, they are “never” all the same. The path to mastering your craft is to find the subtle differences. When you speak too quickly about knowing something, you may be cutting your blessings short. There will be many opportunities to tell your tales, but learning to truly listen and remain perceptively silent will probably be the most valued tools you will ever acquire.
“Dooni dooni kononi bè nyaga da.”