Extract from a play by
Reginald Edmund and Ronnie Malley
Laila (Mamadou’s Mother)
Mr Daniel Smith
Mrs Clara Smith
Mrs Emma Taylor
Ibrahim (Awa’s Father)
Ali (Awa’s Betrothed)
Gaolo Moussa Kouyate
Mid–late eighteenth century/early twentieth century
Mali/Guinea Region, Africa
Natchez, Mississippi, North America
Mamadou, a learned griot from Futa Jallon, Guinea/Mali region of Africa, is enslaved and taken to America in the late eighteenth century. His enslavement was a consequence of being in love with Awa, a woman betrothed to another. His story is one of heritage, dignity, and the power of music. The story is set to the backdrop of Mamadou’s Africa and slavery in Mississippi from the perspective of an African who was one of many with Muslim backgrounds.
The narrative weaves in elements that formed the roots of what we came to call the blues. The call and response of verse, musical instruments, and soulful expression are a continuation of musical culture from Africa, which is influenced by spiritual beliefs including Islam and traditional African faiths. Throughout the narration of Mamadou’s story, anecdotes become apparent highlighting the relationship between instruments, song styles, rhythms, and melodic approaches found in early African American music, and later the blues.
SCENE 1 – Robert Meets Scratch
<Live Instruments: Guitar & Diddley Bow>
A singular guitar chord strikes out and light rise on a lone man wandering down a road. Travel-wearied. He drops to his knees, takes his guitar and begins to pluck a guitar. His name is Robert. He waits quietly.
He plucks at the guitar again. In the distance, he hears the same tune played in response. It hangs in the wind.
He plays the tune again.
Again it is heard in response. This time closer, there’s a complexity to it this time.
Hello… Who out there?
Silence. Lonely silence.
He plays again.
The response is closer, in the opposite direction heard last time.
Who out there? I’m serious now. Who out there? Come on out!
A man appears from out of the darkness sitting playing a one-stringed instrument (*diddley bow), he uses a knife as a slide for the instrument.
He appears from the shadow.
Do you know why you play those five notes?
Those notes that you’re playin’, do you know why you play them, child?
Who are you?
Name doesn’t matter,
What does though is the music.
That’s what brought you to these crossroads.
Heard if I stood here I’d meet a man named Scratch and he’d give me the answers I was looking for?
You him ain’t ya?
Scratch? You mean the devil? Ain’t no devil here. Just me…In order for a man to give the answer, he’s got to know the question.
What is it that you are looking for child?
I want to be the greatest musician alive. Only the devil can give me that?
Can’t or won’t…
Can’t help to make you the greatest if you don’t have a know-how of where it came from, now can I?
I travelled miles, hopped trains, slept in the heat and the damn cold. Journeyed til my boots worn down, and my feet turn raw and bled, walked til I reach the furthest crossroad so I could come to find you. And now you standin’ here telling me you ain’t going to help me?
Not sayin’ I won’t… just asking if you can help yourself.
Help myself out how?
Look child, in order to know where you going you got to know where you’ve been. There’s an order to every story a beginning and an end. Even before your story began. Stories before your story… Now there was a man… maybe this is my story, maybe it’s not. You’ll do well to listen. There was once a griot, a musician storyteller from a long line of griots, and a Muslim from Futa Jallon in West Africa.
What does this have to do with playin’ the guitar?
History. Child, History… all things are created by history. Listen…
Mamadou strums the diddley bow and the world starts to melt away. As the world melts into another time and place so does his age, his attire. He’s younger. The Griot Song begins.
SCENE 2 – Awa and Laila
It is early evening and we are in a public space somewhere in Futa Jallon. As people gather and bustle, Mamadou sings of his ancestry in griot fashion accompanied by two musicians and others who join the chorus.
Mamadou (as Griot) / Chorus Ensemble
Gaolo, Gaolo, Djeli, Djeli
I am a griot, Gaolo, Gaewal, Djeli
Gaolo Mamadou Abdel Rahman is my name
In tradition with my father Ibn Said,
A student of Islam in Timbuktu, Mali,
Where ruled the Keita African dynasty
Descendants of Bilal, the first muezzin of Islam
History can hold no mystery for the Gaolo
We are the memory of mankind
Vessels of culture, languages, and time
Of our people and our religions
Fula, Songhai, Mandé, Arabic
In hard times, we must still know ourselves
And know the hardest life lived is without love (gestures to Awa)
Awa enters singing part of the chorus from the song. Crowd begins to disperse. Awa makes her way home.
SCENE 3 – Awa and Mamadou
Mamadou serenades Awa under her balcony with poetry, and musical interlude (n’goni)
Mamadou (recites the poetry of Antar Ibn Shaddad)
Like a straight leafy branch
A lover can only feast his eyes
On such beauty, (but not touch)
I am ever anxious to see my love
That is why I so often stop by her camp,
Water my camel then depart
After being so close to her
I can never content myself
With only a word about her
Awa enters she carries with her an ordinate lantern, she looks around to see if anyone sees them and then embraces him.
Oh, Modou, what are you doing here? Father will have you killed if he sees you here.
I don’t fear your father and I don’t fear death.
I’m promised to another.
And I don’t care. Let’s leave this place.
And go where?
Anywhere our hearts desire.
Just me and you off on a great adventure. Travelling the unknown together. I am your Antar Ibn Sheddad and you are my Abla. Picture it, my love.
Awa pulls away
I can’t. I’d shame my family, your position as a scholar would be compromised…we’d be outcasts… what would the people say?
Do you love me?
You know I do.
Then come away with me.
You are speaking fitnah (temptation). This is not the way of the Koran… you learned in Timbuktu and are a man of faith. You know this.
Awa, I love you. Always have, since the first time I ever laid eyes upon you. I had prayed to Allah to guide me and grant me happiness. I had prayed for him to bring me a wife. And there you were… at your sister’s wedding, singing waka.
I was so nervous, I had never performed for anyone outside of my family before. My hands were shaking. I was hiding in the garden trying to calm myself. Your mother was encouraging me to sing when you approached me and said…
Awa / Mamadou
Music is Allah’s greatest gift. Just like love.
I treasure those words.
SCENE 4 – Awa Is Discovered
Awa is packing a bag. Her father watches discreetly and confronts her as she is about to leave.
Ibrahim (Awa’s Father)
Awa, where are you going? You’re carrying a lot of things with you for an early morning walk.
Nowhere Baba (anxiously surprised)! I…uh…was just taking some things to give away now that I’m to be married and have no use for them.
Awa’s father sees that she’s packed in her bag some jewellery from her dowry.
Why are you taking your jewellery with you?!
I don’t know how that got in there.
Don’t lie to me! You were going to meet the griot boy, weren’t you! Well, you can keep your meeting… only you will have me and Ali, your rightfully betrothed, with you. It’s only fitting to meet the boy who thinks he will take you from both of us.
SCENE 5 – Mamadou, Father, Betrothed Confrontation
Mamadou awaits Awa, when a short fight erupts. They take Mamadou’s knife and hold him down. An elder man appears, picks up the knife, and holds it against his throat.
Are you trying to shame me? Did you try to steal my daughter away from me?!!
Mamadou winces in pain.
So what do we do with him? He must be punished.
Well then, we must let your bride decide his fate.
No father. Don’t ask me to do this.
Pick one: his hands, his tongue, or his freedom.
Please father no!
Since he’s a thief, let it be his hands then!
They grab Mamadou and position him to lose his hands
His freedom! Take his freedom.
Take his freedom so that he never sees my face again.
Awa? What did you do?!! What did you do?!!!
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
(Across the Atlantic)
SCENE 10 – The Walk Home
Mamadou (To Robert)
They sold me. I looked to the heavy metal shackles that bonded me, and felt my heart shatter like glass. I thought the horror of the slave ship was the end of me but, no… this was… this sealed my fate.
I, once a great judge of men and descendant of kings was now nothing more than a slave.
That word cut me.
Cut me deeper than the loss of my love.
It further confirmed that all that I once held dear was gone from me.
I was sold to a married couple named the Smiths.
You paid how much for this one dear?
They say he’s a smart one and can speak a multitude of languages dear.
You can teach a parrot to speak French, doesn’t mean it’s worth $800.
Mamadou (To Robert)
I, tied and still shackled, walked behind them.
Walked behind them for miles upon miles.
And when they finally reached their home.
A great house supported by pillars and arches.
My feet were blistered and bloodied.
Sweat dripped down my brow.
Chains bit into my flesh.
SCENE 17 – Mamadou / Mr Smith’s Office
Sit… please… I said, SIT! Well now, you’ve been a great asset to my family and to my business. I don’t believe I’ve told you that. You have a knack for cultivating the fields. Is that something you did back from where you came from?
Yes, Mr Smith
I also saw you teaching the others how to properly tend the herd. Indeed, you have a multitude of skills, even with languages, is this true?
The world is filled with infinite possibilities. That is if the decisions you make bring you on the right side of matters. You have very nice teeth by the way… very nice teeth. Where was I?
I believe something regarding being on the right side.
Ah yes. You also seem to have a skill in keeping your fellow slaves in line.
Now, these nightly gatherings I hear about are dangerous. Stirring up trouble all across these lands. I need to ensure that they come to a close.
Is that not the purpose of Mr Tanner?
Mr Tanner can only see so much, I need a second pair of eyes. Eyes that I can depend on and trust… can I trust you? Can you be those eyes for me?
Another thing… I had a slave tell me that you were once a musician in your native lands.
I have two tasks for you. One, I have distinguished guests coming in a few weeks’ time. I’d like for you to learn some civilised music and perform it for our guests.
Gladly. May I have some of the others accompany me? We’ll make sure it’s an affair to remember.
I suppose if you think it’ll make it better, but no funny business boy. Only two others, and none of that drumming mess.
Might we have some instruments? I mean, we’d need to practise to make it the best event we can.
I’ll think on it. I’m puttin’ trust in you, against the usual better judgement of my wife. Don’t disappoint me, it could mean your life.
And oh yes, the second task. It’s really regarding the simple matter of keeping an eye on my property and informing me of any mischief there might be. And perhaps in return I will ensure that you are well taken care of… better yet, I’ll make sure that you get to keep all of your teeth. And they are very nice teeth.
Mr Smith (cont’d.)
I knew you’d see reason.
SCENE 20 – Mamadou’s Entrancement
Mamadou wakes up in his bed and finds a banjo sitting there waiting for him. He picks it up and starts to pluck it.
N’goni, xalam, akonting
Our instruments are as colourful as our cultures
The string and skin give voice to the sacred
The sounds that move us cause our words to move people
Our history is in our blood, we are keepers of time and culture
Could I betray them for a kinder servitude?
For my own survival could I leave the rest to suffer?
Destroy that which was sacred?
Take away the only reminder for these people bound and chained that their souls are free?
I asked what kind of man I was
In this moment as I sit running my hands upon these strings, I play,
These words I offered up over and over again.
Allah ya rahman (God, oh merciful one)
His prayer turns into a camp holler. It roars out.
SCENE 8 – The Dinner Performance
Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests, I thank you for joining me at my beautiful home. Now I have a fantastic evening in store for you. I’ve recently acquired a talented slave who has an aptitude for music. I understand he’s been learning some of our civilised songs. Please enjoy the music as you mingle.
<Music scene and the big get away>
Mamadou and group begin playing. The first piece is a simple instrumental. The second is a traditional dance piece for the guests. The third piece is the field holler cue to escape.
Mamadou and musicians
Field Holler Song 1
I be so glad when the sun goes down
There’s a rainbow on my shoulder ain’t gonna rain on me
Modou addresses the audience.
Mamadou (disrupts a mingling crowd)
Good evenin’ ladies and gentlemen,
Bonsoir mesdames et messieurs
I’d like to start by thanking our gracious hosts Mr and Mrs Smith for giving me the chance to attempt to be… civilised.
I am Mamadou Abdel Rahman Ibn Said
I am Muslim, griot, gaolo, djeli
A vessel of culture, languages, and time
Griots preserve the history of mankind
My people come from a long line
Of kings and queens and the dawn of civilisation
Here we stand before you,
Barely human in your eyes
On land stolen from others
As you have stolen our lives
There will one day come a reckoning
You wait and see
One day soon
My people will be free
Mr and Mrs Smith are livid. The guests are in shock and mostly speechless. The third piece begins and slaves escape in the distance.
SCENE 10 – Robert’s Role
Woo, I bet that man was roarin’ mad.
Oh, he was. Believe me, he was.
But we played that night as our brothers and sisters escaped into the darkness. No one had heard that kind of sound before. I had given them what they had wanted. The sound of this place called America. Little did they know that sound was African.
After we played, they pulled us from the stage, bound our hands, brought us to a tree that stood before them. And then hung us til’ we died. They believed that if they destroyed the things that gave us beauty, that gave us hope, that liberated us, that it would destroy us. How wrong they were.
The people who we freed spread that sound wherever they journeyed. Passed it onto their brothers and sisters. Passed it on one generation to the next. Though our bodies were broken, we found that our spirits lived on in the music.
The next sequence can be done through Mamadou narration and projection or sound.
From the griot tradition <play griot praise tune>,
to the blues <crossfade to blues tune>,
to jazz <crossfade to jazz tune>,
to something that you, Robert, will inspire called rock and roll <crossfade to rock tune>.
Eventually, the voices of our people will be heard the world around. But it’ll all find its way back home to our motherland <crossfade to Ali Farka Touré style or similar>.
Some things just can’t be separated from the soul.
So you ain’t no devil…you the spirit of the American griot.
Yes. And now I’m handing this role to you. When the time comes, you shall stand at the crossroads spreading the gift to those that seek it, a vessel of our culture and history through song and time.