December 2022-January 2023, Guinea Conakry
Famoro Dioubate was born and raised in the griot tradition, or jeli, to a Malinké family in Guinea Conakry. He started playing his instrument, the balafon at seven years old. Very early on, he proved to be a gifted player. By the age of 18, Famoro's expertise on the balafon earned him a position in the Ensemble National de Guinea. A few years later he was taken on tour to Australia, France, Fiji, and the United States, where he finally made his home in 1999.
For many years Famoro tried to get legal papers to stay in the United States, unsuccessfully. It wasn't until his American-born daughter, Sona Dioubate, turned 21 that Famoro's network of American friends and family could support him to get his Green Card.
Meanwhile, while living in the United States, Famoro left behind a large family in Guinea. He left his first born daughter, Fatumata (or Timé) when she was only three years old. While he was abroad, his father, his brother Sourakata, and several other family members past away. His mother and his daughter eagerly awaited his return, along with many family members, some of whom were small children or not yet born when Famoro left. His mom often pleaded that she wanted to see her son before she died. She wasn't sure it would happen.
Guinea is situated in West Africa. The country gained independence from French colonization in 1958. Guinea is among the poorest nations in the world according to the World Bank. Over 80% of the people live on less than $5 per day. Famoro was fortunate to find a good apartment in New York City and an extensive network of American friends and fellow musicians who supported him to stay in America until his legal papers were obtained. He created the band Kakande during this time, and offered his cultural and musical gifts to the American people in prestigious places such as the MET museum, Carnegie Hall, and more. Still, the US government had no category or status in which he could find legality. Famoro struggled, but still he was able to further his music career, and send home $50-$100 a month to feed his extended family.
Despite the distance, Famoro stayed in close touch with his family, speaking with even the youngest children who never met him in person. His return was full of tears, joy, and song.
Lisa Feder, Manding Grooves co-founder and one of Famoro's dear American friends, vowed to return with Famoro and film it for the rest of the world. Below we see her videos and read her commentary.
Famoro took AirFrance from JFK to Paris where I met him in Charles de Gaulle airport. We landed in Guinea Conakry at 9 pm on December 11, 2022. Sekouba Kandia Kouyate, the current director of the Ensemble National of Guinea, was waiting for us. He and Famoro grew up together in Matam, Conakry. Sekouba's father, Sory Kandia Kouyate, is a Guinean legend. He died too young, in 1979 at the age of 45, leaving the couontry in utter shock. Sory Kandia was a griot singer and the first director of the national ensemble under the first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sekou Touré. Famoro's great uncle, El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté, as a balafon legend as well, and played in the first rendition of the Ensemble. Famoro and Sekouba are the new generation, following in their ancestor's wake.
Famoro, Sekouba, and the late Petit Kondé grew up in Matam and attended grammar school together. They developed together into Guinea's finest griot musicians.
The music that accompanies their airport reunion comes from our trip to the island of Sorro where Famoro, Sekouba, and a young bolon player, Aliya, played an acoustic program for me.
Sekouba drove us from the airport to Famoro's family's home where his mother was waiting. Before leaving New York, Famoro told his mother to count 10 days. "Before the ten days is finished, you are going to see me," he promised. But he didn't tell her he was leaving the next day. Only Sekouba knew. When we got our luggage into the car, Sekouba called Hadja, Famoro's mother. It was nearly 10 pm.
It is common for West Africans not to tell anyone of their precise travel plans. They don't want any bad juju to affect their travel. When we pulled up to the family compound, Famoro was almost lifted out of the car by his younger brothers. Among them were Siara and Abdoulaye. Abdoulaye stayed next to us for the following weeks, taking care of our every need. You can see him when Famoro is hugging his mom and a spotlight shines on them. He is in the background. I don't know how we would have survived without Abdoulaye. He is a saint. Anyway, you can see that Hadja, Famoro's mom is just in shock, and Timé, his daughter, as well as his sisters, are just overcome with emotion.