The Accidental Expatriate
Last weekend’s snowfall must have sent an extra shiver up the spine of Senegalese musician Morikeba Kouyate, who came here for a month’s sojourn seven winters ago and ended up stranded in a frigid foreign land. “I broke my kora walking down the stairs of my house the first year I was here,” he says. “Sometimes I would fall down on the snow two or three times a day.”
The kora, a 21- to 25-stringed African instrument made from a giant hollowed gourd and cowhide, is Kouyate’s specialty. He’d brought his to Chicago in early 1991 for a tour with the Ballet African Silimbo Badeane, which included one performance at the Cultural Center in honor of Black History Month. But the independent promoter responsible for most of the other midwestern dates didn’t come up with enough gigs, and Kouyate and his 18 cohorts–none of whom spoke English–didn’t earn enough money to get back home.
By the time they’d scraped together enough to return, six months later, he and many others had decided to remain in Chicago. The contract for Kouyate’s weekly radio program, which was his main source of income in Senegal, had been canceled because he’d been away so long. Returning to Senegal would mean starting over, he figured, so he might as well do it here.
Kouyate is a common surname of the jalis, a musician caste in the Mandinka society of western Africa. Until the French ended kingships at the dawn of the 20th century, jalis played exclusively for kings, using song to praise their lineage and prowess in battle and even to arbitrate during disputes. Their gorgeous keening was accompanied by the sweet, percussive tones of the kora.
“During the kingdom time you would stay with your king all your life,” says Kouyate. “Anything you’d need he’d get for you. The only job you had was to play music around him, to sing about him, to try to learn his history. If he dies you’re the one who was going to keep his history alive.” Since then some jalis have been employed by the government as preservers of folklore and hired to perform at weddings and other private ceremonies, but mostly they’ve had to find new ways to earn a living.
Everyone in Kouyate’s immediate family is a musician, including his well-known brother Kausu Kouyate, and from the time he was born, nearly 40 years ago, he had no choice but to be one, too. When he came home from school, where he studied Arabic in hopes of being a teacher, Kouyate would have to practice music before he could do his homework.
“I asked my father, ‘Why do I always have to do two things?'” he says. “‘It’s not two things. It’s one thing. It’s your choice to be a teacher, but the kora is you. You have no choice but to learn. You are a Kouyate, and you have to know yourself.'” He was performing in public at 15, and by the time he was 20 he had given up his teaching ambitions to be a full-time musician. Even then, however, he didn’t arrive at the decision easily. “My parents didn’t have enough money to send me to school in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “And if I wanted to be as good a teacher as I wanted to be, I had to go to that college. I decided to focus only on music.”
Kouyate’s decision to stay in Chicago was a tough one, too. “Life is difficult here,” he says. “It’s very hard to be so far away and I miss my family. It also hurts my music because back home you play with other musicians every day and you always learn new things and get more experience.” But he’s availed himself of plenty of opportunities here: while all but six of the troupe members have returned home, he has taught himself English and performed in 35 states, and plays with a variety of African immigrants in the city as well as various reggae musicians. He had a steady gig for several years at Mama Desta’s Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant on Clark Street. Earlier this year the Rounder-distributed Traditional Crossroads label released his first album, Music of Senegal, which includes both traditional songs and originals, some written in Chicago.
Kouyate says living in Chicago has changed his style. Although it’s hard to discern if you’re not fluent in African music, he says he’s absorbed Western pop styles into his playing. “Audiences here listen to the music differently….They listen for beats, and if you’re playing this instrument unaccompanied they have a hard time finding a beat in the music.” He usually plays with a percussionist for this reason. And lyrically Kouyate’s songs have grown less Africa-specific: the album opener, “Ali Nyo Kano,” for example, is a meditation on universal love. “Not love as sex,” he says, “but love inside your heart for family and friends.”
Kouyate is in the midst of applying for U.S. citizenship, and hopes to make his first visit back to Senegal sometime next year. “I like it here,” he says, “but there’s no place like home.” He performs next Saturday, November 29, at 2 PM in the children’s theater at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
For now the nightclub Crobar has changed its name to the less evocative 1543 N. Kingsbury to comply with a court order to stop using the name. The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Pat Carroll, whose south-side tavern and banquet hall has been called Crowbar since 1951. He says phone calls inquiring about Crobar’s nightly theme had become a major nuisance and that telephone operators routinely gave the nightclub’s info to callers seeking his number. “It was kind of amusing for a while,” he says, “but the club never cooperated. They would always say, ‘It’s your problem, not ours.'” Representatives of 1543 N. Kingsbury declined to comment.
Next Friday’s Tribune will feature the final installment of Homefront, the weekly column that alternately covered local rock, blues, country, and world music. Friday section editor Kevin Moore says he plans more frequent and timely features on live performances and album releases, that Greg Kot’s rock column, Play On, will grow to include more newsy items, and that the rock-oriented Local Heroes column is being revived.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Morikeba Kouyate photo by Dorothy Perry.