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Djoliba Crossing

Djoliba Crossing

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Djoliba Crossing

130 pages
1 hour
Jun 11, 2020


Discover the music and culture of West Africa in this account of an artist's adventures in the Niger River valley.


When artist and musician Dave Kobrenski first set out for Guinea, West Africa, it was simply to learn the djembé music of the Malinké people. What he found instead was a land of ancient traditions where spirits mingle with the living and the souls of ancestors reside in sacred groves of trees. He soon learns that intense poverty and rampant political corruption are a mixture with explosive potential in Conakry's inner-city. When bloody clashes erupt, no traveler is safe. For Kobrenski, the result was a two decade musical adventure that would test his resolve and draw him into a quest of cultural understanding.


Djoliba Crossing is Kobrenski's travel-worn collection of stories, paintings, drawings, and rhythm notations. On the surface, it is a travelogue, adventure story, and a celebration of Mandé music and culture. Looking deeper, Djoliba Crossing is about glimpsing in the everyday dust of existence the potential for diverse ways of being. It is an invitation into ancient traditions still guarded by a culture dancing on the edge of modernity, a culture which understands that who we are is who we were.


Djoliba Crossing is both an adventure memoir and a guidebook for the music traditions of West Africa. Descriptions of ancient music and festivals are enriched by original artwork, historical research, and rhythm notations for the djembé, dununba, sangban, and kenkeni drums. Together, they offer a glimpse into a world hidden off the beaten path, and chronicle an artist's journey deep into realms of the unexpected.


Note about the e-book version: This e-book is intended as a companion to the print edition, which contains over forty full-color paintings, drawings, music transcriptions, photographs, and more. The e-book version does not contain illustrations.

Jun 11, 2020

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Djoliba Crossing - Dave Kobrenski

Part I

Djoliba Crossing

Author’s note: this e-book is intended as a companion to the print edition, which contains dozens of full-color paintings, drawings, music transcriptions, photographs, and more.

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When I embarked on my first trip to West Africa nearly twenty years ago as a budding ethnomusicologist, artist, and performer, I might have told you that I was in search of two things: music and adventure. As for the first of those, landing in Guinea was like striking gold. I arrived in Conakry and ventured east, enchanted by the winding trail of the Niger River and the peoples who lived alongside it. What I found was a land whose diverse population thrives on their musical traditions, and whose history and identity are woven into the fabric of the music that enriches every facet of their daily lives. I had a hunch that I would spend a lot of time amongst these people, exploring their music and traditions, but never did I imagine it would prove to be an ongoing musical journey of two decades and counting.

As for my second interest, I should have been careful when I asked those impish spirits of Africa for adventure—or at least I should have been more specific. Outwardly, I got almost more adventure than I could handle. Africa tested my resolve and fortitude on numerous occasions. Inwardly, however, is where the real adventure took place. I could not have known at that young age what kind of philosophical and spiritual quest would result from my journey into West African music and culture. For here was a land where spirits mingled with the living, the souls of Ancestors resided in sacred groves of trees, and the plants, soil, rocks, rivers, and everything else were infused with a dynamic living energy called nyama. Immersed in this way of seeing, I sought to understand how a culture’s epistemology—their innate manner of understanding the world around them—shapes the kind of society they create. It was easy to see that a culture who regards the rivers and earth as alive and sacred will treat them with respect, while a culture who sees them as mechanistic and soulless will consume and destroy them. And it was clear which culture I came from. What was less clear was the story of how we got this way.

And so what started as a youthful expedition into a new and exciting land turned into a long process of reckoning. My own beliefs about the world around me were cast into the spotlight for examination, and then brought firmly to trial. Deconstructing the worldview I was raised with was akin to pulling apart the life raft upon which I was afloat. Once that raft was disassembled, I had only one choice remaining: learn to swim. I came to Africa for adventure, and I found it in the adventure of learning, and of finding my own way in a world that teeters between brilliant potential and environmental catastrophe.

These two journeys—one outward, a quest for music, and the other inward, a quest for understanding—would take me back to Africa nearly every winter over the course of a decade. During these winter-long excursions, I immersed myself thoroughly in the traditional music of the Malinké people. I experienced this music in the Hamanah region of central Guinea—the birthplace of instruments like the djembe, and according to some anthropologists, the place where some of the world’s earliest musical instruments evolved. With my notebook, tape recorder, and sketchbook, I set out to explore, learn, and document what I experienced there.

My journey would only continue when I arrived back on the shores of my own country. Armed with backpacks full of field recordings, books of hand-scrawled music notations, and stacks of new drawings, I was a peaceful soldier of culture, teaching and sharing what I had gained in Africa. Rhythm became the language I spoke by day and in which I dreamt at night. But the conflict between my ideals of a culture living in sync with the rhythms of nature and the reality of the Western way of life drew me ever deeper in a philosophical quest. The music of West Africa became my ticket into more complex realms of culture and knowing. I’m still riding that train today.

What you will find in this book is how these curious adventures in Africa began. I present this travel-worn collection of drawings, paintings, stories, and musical notations to serve as a celebration of Malinké music as well as an attempt to chronicle just one of the many ways in which humans have created meaning and expressed themselves through culture. On the surface, it is a travelogue, adventure story, and sketchbook. But more significantly, this is a book about glimpsing in the everyday dust of existence the potential for diverse expressions of being. It’s about seeing past the tattered common cloth of life to the veil of mystery which hangs just beyond, and finding that every moment is infused with its own peculiar magic. In the end, perhaps the ultimate goal of undertaking such a voyage is to restore our childlike wonder at it all.

Donning an old pack, passport in hand, and leaving behind the familiar in order to experience another culture is, ultimately, a journey into what it means to be human. If we are open to the experience, it is an excursion into the collective hopes and dreams of countless humans who have come before us. In taking this journey of exploration we may discover that who we are is comprised of who we were—and who we were is a fire still kindled by the old cultures that steadfastly protect the embers of their traditions in the face of a modern world that seeks to sweep the past away like ash.

Herein, then, is my attempt to celebrate the exuberance and richness that the Mandé peoples have brought into the world, and the simple gifts of friendship and open exchange they have extended to an oft-wayward but always receptive world traveler. May future generations continue to praise their ancestors for preserving their great lineage and the story of how they came to be—and may it serve as a beacon for other travelers embarking on that path into unfamiliar territory.

Dave Kobrenski

February 2020

Wading into the River Djoliba

How many piled-up ruins, how much buried splendour! But all the deeds I have spoken of took place long ago and they all had Mali as their background. Kings have succeeded kings, but Mali has always remained the same…Mali is eternal.

d.t. niane, an epic of old mali

Ifirst waded into the Niger River, known to locals of the Hamanah region of Guinea as the Djoliba , on Christmas Day in 2003. An avid student of Mandé drumming styles, I was eager to immerse myself in the experience of a traditional Maninka village, far from the congestion of Conakry, Guinea’s capital city. I hoped the setting would shed some light on the roots of the music I had come to West Africa to learn.

I had seen many organized displays in and around Conakry, as well as numerous performances in the States by the various traveling African ballets, but I had long wanted to experience the music at its source, to understand how the music functioned in its traditional setting. An overland trip from the coast, far inland to the Hamanah region, was possible, but with the presidential elections scheduled for December 21, tensions were high throughout the region. Dozens of military personnel had been jailed, the main opposition parties were boycotting the election, and depending on the outcome, the possibility of violence breaking out was very real. Military presence was heavy, particularly at the borders of the city—meaning, amongst other things, that travel inland could prove to be a challenge.

With the elections approaching, six opposition candidates were rejected on technicalities and only one was left to run against the unpopular and long-standing Guinean president Lansana Conté. The election arrived, with unsurprising results: Conté was re-elected, further extending his twenty-year term. The morning after, the sporadic ringing of gunshots could be heard across the district, but no widespread violence occurred in Conakry…this time.

We made ready to depart on the evening of the 24th. Though military roadblocks might thwart our attempt to travel past the borders of the capital city, leaving before daybreak could increase our chances of getting through—additionally, the resolve of some military officers could often be softened with a few modest bribes. We awoke in the predawn hours on Christmas morning to a city that was eerily quiet. The trance-like drone of morning prayer had not yet begun; the silence was punctuated only by the occasional staccato sounds of a solitary broom whisking a stone courtyard, a rogue rooster, dogs barking in the distance. With a tremendous rumble, the diesel van we had piled into roared off, and we began our trip into the interior. In the darkness of morning we were met with several roadblocks on the route

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