Before I get going with the subject of this month’s column, a little background:
When I was a 6-year-old, back in Brooklyn, my mother decided to go against the grain. Instead of sending me to a public school, she enrolled me in a private school founded by pan-Africanists and black revolutionaries.
The goal of this institution was simple, though far from easy: the decolonization of young African-American minds by systematically dismantling and removing all the oppressive ideas planted there by their former enslavers, in order to elevate self-esteem, deepen spirituality, broaden cultural references, shape social values and heighten political awareness.
To that end, we were taught less about figures like Abraham Lincoln, and more about the man who had his ear, Frederick Douglass; less George Washington and more Booker T. Washington; less Chopin and Mozart and more Coltrane and Miles. You get the gist.
The school uniform was dashikis, kufis and combat boots, and instead of being force-fed European languages like French and Spanish, we studied Swahili. And, naturally, the “slave names” we were branded with by people who’d exploited and raped our ancestors wouldn’t do, no more than a name like Roosevelt or Truman would suit a Japanese person. So we took names to match our African-American lifestyle. The name I chose is Baye (pronounced ba-ye — not bei), a Senegalese name meaning “straight forward.”
Let’s fast-forward to this past summer, when I attended a open-mic poetry function in Tokyo. It was being hosted by a couple of friends of mine, so I came out in support. Even dusted off a poem I’d written years back and joined in.
Throughout the event — providing the musical accompaniment to a few of the poems being read, even — was this drummer unleashing rhythms that conversed with something within me of my early days of dashikis and kufis, of ancient times when drums were the cellphones communicating ideas over great distances. They were being played by a Senegalese gentleman by the name of Abdou Baye Fall.
Senegal. Baye. I had to meet this brother, my namesake. And once we did talk, I found the story of how he’d made his way to Japan enlightening.
Abdou Baye Fall was born Abdou Sylla in Fatick, Senegal, east of Dakar, the capital of the West African country. His family are Mouride Muslims and he was raised according to Islamic customs.
“It was a typical Muslim childhood,” Abdou, now 40, says.
I reminded him that I came from a Christian-dominated country, and so I had no idea what a typical Muslim life was like. He laughs.
“That’s right. Well, Senegal is 95 percent Muslim, so it was all normal to me,” he says. “Pray five times a day, lots of Quran reading, no alcohol, no pork, be kind to people, respect your elders, work hard — stuff like that. There are also some Senegalese Christians, but we all get along. There’s no animosity between us and the Christians. Senegalese are very peaceful people.”
His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse, but they separated when he was very young. His parents lived in Dakar but Abdou lived in Fatick with his grandmother.
“Fatick is a very famous place in Senegal,” Abdou says. “The city has a rich heritage and culture. It’s the home of the Serer people, and the birthplace of Njom (Senegalese wrestling). Many Njom champions come from Fatick, my brother.”
When he was 10, Abdou moved to Dakar to live with his mother. As he came of age, his mother, a health care professional, strongly encouraged her son to also go into medicine, but the teenage Abdou had other plans.
First, he joined an offshoot of the Mouride brotherhood known as the Baye Fall, a Muslim sect whose members show their dedication to God primarily through manual labor. They could be identified easily in the streets of Dakar by their generally colorful patchwork robes and dreadlocks. (Abdou would later take on the group’s name as his stage name.)
I was a bit stunned. I hadn’t known my name, Baye, was an Islamic name till that moment. All these years …
Anyway, the second plan was conceived upon discovering what would ultimately be his calling.
There were often festivals held in the streets of Dakar, with dancers and musicians coming from all over Senegal. Abdou found himself mesmerized by their movements. And he knew immediately what he wanted to do with his life: learn to master his mind and body as a dancer.
He knew it would be the hardest thing he had ever attempted, but that’s what Baye Fall were all about: praising god through arduous labor. But first he had to learn how, so he set his sights on a music school in Dakar called the Centre Culturel Blaise Senghor.
His passion, particularly for dance, was irrepressible, but his mother forbade him from pursuing it. However, since the school was free, Abdou went ahead and attended in secret. When his mother learned what he’d been up to, she charged into the school and forced them to kick Abdou out.
“Far as Mama was concerned, dancing was a dream and medicine is reality. But I really wanted to dance, my brother,” he says. “It was the most important thing to me. Most important! So I got this man to pretend to be my father and he helped me get back into the school.”
Soon his mother acquiesced to her son’s passion and persistence.
This was in 1991, and Abdou would remain at the cultural center for the next 10 years, studying African ballet and the dances of tribes throughout Senegal — and there were many. He also studied various musical instruments, including the sabar (a Senegalese traditional drum), the shekere, the junjung, the talking drum and the djembe.
But dance remained his true love. Even in his free time, Abdou and his friends would go to the beach in Dakar and dance for the fishermen, who’d pay them in fish for the performance.
“When I dance I forget everything else,” he says. “Even if I have a fight, once I start dancing, I forgive the other guy.”
Abdou’s big break coincided with his graduation from the cultural center. Open auditions were being held to find 11 new dancers to join the National Ballet of Senegal.
“One-thousand-five-hundred people auditioned for these positions. They only needed three male dancers and eight female dancers,” says Abdou. “But people came from all over the country, every town and village. Because if you became a part of the National Ballet, you can get great pay and many opportunities. And only through the National Ballet can you get a license to teach African dance anywhere in the world.”
The judges chose Abdou as one of the three males. It was a very big deal in Senegal. The winners were in all the newspapers and became household names.
As part of the National Ballet, in 2000 he toured Europe as a cultural representative of Senegal, performing in Italy, France, Germany and Portugal. And, in 2002, it was the National Ballet that brought Abdou to Japan.
This was during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the first to be held in Asia, split between Japan and South Korea. The National Ballet came to Japan to perform in support of the Senegalese soccer team. For a month, Abdou got to bounce around the country with the team and experience the hospitality of a Japan in full-on yōkoso (welcome) mode. The experience made a lasting impression.
“At the time I felt like Japanese people are very polite, really kind and very hard workers,” he says, his Baye Fall belief that hard work was next to godliness appreciating that quality a great deal. “But that’s just Japanese people on the outside, my brother,” he adds with a laugh.
Around that time, he met up with a Senegalese friend, a djembe drum player, living here in Japan. He informed Abdou that there were many opportunities to teach Japanese about Senegalese culture and dance because at the time Senegalese culture was relatively unknown. And with his freshly minted teaching license, courtesy of his service with the National Ballet, he’d be official.
“At first I was resistant because at that time the National Ballet had a contract to go to the U.S.,” says Abdou. “So I decided to stay in Japan for the full 90 days of the visa I was traveling on and see what happens.”
Following the World Cup, some of the Japanese friends he’d made generously arranged a dance class for him to teach, and the response was tremendous. He taught the 40 to 50 students three times a week for a month. It worked out very well for him, particularly financially.
Then, just before his 90-day visa was to expire, he got an offer from Asante Plan, a company founded by a gentleman named Tony Yamamoto with the goal of expanding the consciousness of Japanese people by introducing schoolchildren to various musicians and dancers from around the world. Abdou signed up with Asante and, since 2003, has been traveling from Okinawa to Hokkaido, sharing Senegal’s rich cultural heritage and traditional dance.
“I am a permanent resident here now, but I get back to Senegal at least once a year,” he says. “I do an annual Senegalese tour every December. I take Japanese people, mostly my students, back to Senegal and personally introduce them to Senegalese culture. I show them around Dakar and take them to the cultural center where I studied so they can have cultural exchanges with current students there.”
Everything sounded so wonderful, I was curious what kind of challenges he faced living here. He mentioned a few, but they mostly centered around communication.
“The most difficult thing, I think, is trying to understand Japanese people,” Abdou says. “Not the language, the people — I’m fluent in the language. But if you speak to people, you cannot know what is exactly inside them. They never show you the reality. So I’m always confused. To really understand Japanese people is a difficult thing for me. So I’m not trying anymore.
“That’s why I keep my nationality,” he says. “Because I’m an African, my brother. My job is teaching about African culture. The people who really want to learn about Africans, they respect me and really love what I do. Otherwise, I don’t pay it much mind. People here don’t disturb you, and even if they don’t like you they don’t say so. It’s safe, and it’s easy to find work.
“Life here is not perfect, but it’s good,” he says with a warm grin. “You know what I’m saying, my brother?”
Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.