His arms were thick and powerful like a pair of tree trunks. His strong fingers were callused as one would expect from a master percussionist. Guinean born musician, dancer and teacher, Sidiki Conde was letting it fly during his warm up at the Bronx Music Heritage Lab, an arts-based community organization and venue located a block away from the Freeman Street stop on the 2 train. His latest project, “Climate Rising” was conceived and created during a monthlong artist residency at Studio in the Woods in the Greater New Orleans area. The residency is organized by the Tulane ByWater Institute, “a research department dedicated to advancing applied, interdisciplinary research and community engagement initiatives around coastal resilience and the urban environment.”
Conde has always woven his music and composing around issues that plagued his home country. He has made musical public service announcements (PSAs) on Ebola, Covid-19 and hurricanes. In Climate Rising, Conde will present four performances with each representing a different facet of his ancestral spirits and the guidance they provide. The first performance that took place on Jan. 11, was dedicated to Cono, a spirit that offers insight into the past, present and future through a human conduit who puts on his mask. Through an elaborate dance accompanied by multiple percussionists, the 400-year-old Conde family mask took center stage.
Conde lost the use of both his legs after being stricken with polio as a child. While this is significant, he says it does not define him or the life he leads.
Conde and his partner, Deborah Ross, sat down with contributor Hari Adivarekar of Epicenter-NYC to speak about Cono, the significance of climate change in Guinea and New York City, where Conde and Ross are currently based and the avenues through which their work can be supported.
Could you tell me a little bit about Cono, the spirit?
Conde: Cono is the big spirit mask from back home and at the end of every year back home, we do a celebration of the Cono dance. The big king comes out and sits down. And then Cono comes out. Everybody sings Cono, Cono ,.. Cono bolo ullawa, mocha duchi cono, Cono cono, which means Cono, cono, cono comes so far away, to come say hello to the king and give the benediction to everybody, who enjoy the festival and traditional dancing. Cono blesses everybody. Today, we are showing you a little bit of the Cono tribal mask and the dance for the end of the year, during the ceremony.
Ross: The Cono mask represents the bird that can fly high and see the future.
Conde: Every time there is a person inside the Cono mask nobody can see him or know what he says but he can see the future as the dancer who embodies the spirit.
Epicenter-NYC: Tell us about your project Climate Rising and how it connects to Cono.
Ross: So Cono is traveling and he sees terrible things happening to the Earth. There’s been droughts, floods. In Africa, the climate crisis is very critical right now because the dust has rid the soil of all its nutrients and the farmers can’t get enough food. The young men go north to Siguire to dig for gold. To mine for the gold. They use mercury as part of the process and that’s a poison, for the miner and the ground itself.
So there’s a lot of problems in Guinea. A lot of birds have disappeared because people are hungry, so they hunt them. And that’s been a big, big crisis with the poverty that’s going on right now and the turmoil. So Sidiki comes from a long line of Sunikilu, the people who know the world and who know the Earth.
His grandfather was Sunikilu and they would gather the herbs and pay very close attention to what was happening on the ground. And so Sidiki has taken on the role as the son, the grandson, and along with Cono, they’re trying to raise consciousness about the change of climates.
He did a song, Climate Rising, which will be broadcast in Guinea to talk about the importance of the dangers that are coming from climate change.
Epicenter-NYC: What does climate change mean to you from two sides, one from the Guinea side and from the New York side. As a New Yorker, as a person who lives here, what does it mean to you?
Conde: First of all, I will go back to my homeland. We have to put information out to everybody, to contribute, to help them lift their lives. To rise again because we’ve lost the river. We’ve lost the land that’s become dusty. We’ve lost animals and the world has become smaller and smaller and there’s no place anymore.
By what? By us! Some people are digging ground but they don’t know what they’re digging for. Some people light a fire (to the Earth) but they don’t know why. But that’s where the problems have come from. The heat gets inside the ground and makes it unusable. Today it’s about the river and the big trees and about the Tsunami. But tomorrow it’s going to be us, because if we have nowhere to go, it’s going to be us. Before that we can spread information and do something so simple to prevent it. If everybody knew what to do and how to contribute, we would not be here (in New York City) so far away (from our home). One month ago I was in Nairobi, Kenya. If you see the animals there, you will cry.
If you see the trees you would ask me why I am here (in NYC) now. All the rivers disappear. There are no more rivers. When you hold a life, it’s not just about breathing. It’s a lot of things that go together to make a wonderful life. That’s why I left the African side and made my life here in New York.
In the beginning it was so good, so easy, but now, everybody is thinking that where they come from is where all the problems exist so they want to come to New York to escape that. Everybody wants to come to New York City and it’s too much right now. We don’t know what to do, where to go and what to make. This is climate change, coming all the way to the big city.
Where I come from there are problems but there are big problems in New York City too. Everybody who comes thinks that they will be safe here. So we must come together and pass information to everybody. We must contribute, because we are all in this world for a reason. We must use that reason to survive.
Epicenter-NYC: You’re an artist who works in different mediums. What part do artists and their art play in this issue of climate change? Why is it important to have artists involved in climate change?
Conde: People think that climate change is all about the scientists. No! Scientists can calculate, they can count. But anybody can spread information even if it’s just to five or six people. That’s why the music is good for this purpose because it’s so easy to put a 100 people or 50 people together for even one minute. In those times we could be smiling and enjoying ourselves but should not forget the troubles and the sadness. That’s why music is so good. Everybody listens to music, everybody pays attention to music. As a musician, it’s easy for us to contribute to the issue of climate change because a lot of people listen to one voice.
Ross: In Guinea, you had your songs about Ebola, how to protect yourself and the songs about how to protect yourself from Covid. And now you’re focusing on climate change. Your climate song is going to be aired on the radio and Guinea. Most people there don’t have TVs, they don’t have newspapers, but everybody has a radio. Radio.
Conde: And if you don’t have one, somebody next door will have one so you can listen there. So the radio is definitely the voice of the people.
Epicenter-NYC: You recently did a residency at Studio in the Woods, where Climate Rising went from an idea to a full project. How was that journey, that process?
Conde: I was in Guinea right after the earthquake and the hurricane. I saw the damage that was done. The flooding sea water was killing the trees.
Ross: It suffocates them.
Conde: In some places where even boats couldn’t reach, people were starving. So for me it was important to use music quickly and put the message out there. Then the videos of the music could be shared with a lot of people.
At the Studio in the Woods, the people were so nice and the place was so quiet. In the morning I would see vultures everywhere. All this gave me sounds. I thought, how about doing something as a contrast between life and death and that’s when I knew I got it. Everybody loved the song I composed and it was recorded by the TV people. Right now we’ve been trying to bring in my guitarist (Wowo Sakouli from Guinea) to come finish the project. We still have to do some workshops in New Orleans and compose more songs and maybe record them for the people.
Ross: And he got to work with New Orleans musicians, Dr. Michael White and all these old time jazz musicians came to join Sidiki. They all wanted to be part of it.
Epicenter-NYC: Did you enjoy playing with them?
Conde: That was so great. And that was something for West African music to come to New Orleans music and collaborate. That was so spiritual. It was like something wise coming out of the ground.
Ross: Michael White said working with Sidiki was like having a spiritual massage. (Both laugh)
Epicenter-NYC: I know you do a lot of work to help so many people in various countries in Africa. You also teach children with cerebral palsy. What can New Yorkers and others who live in this great city do to help you in your work?
Conde: That’s a good one! I’m glad you asked that question. To help me with my work, first of all I need to take care of myself, my group, and my musicians. If we are taken care of we can move and work easily.
Even giving us performance work, to do the job we care about, will make us happy.
Ross: For the Cerebral Palsy work we were funded by the Theresa Foundation for a number of years to work with little kids, including those that have behavior problems. But with Covid, a lot of the funding has dried up. Alan Goldner, a friend of ours, is a filmmaker who made a documentary on Sidiki, called “You Don’t Need Feet To Dance.” He donated and Cerebral Palsy Nassau matched it. At this time of the year, people need to have tax write offs. They can donate to Cerebral Palsy Nassau to allow Sidiki to continue doing this work. That is a really good way to help.
Epicenter-NYC: Are there other ways that people can contribute? Like Sidiki was saying, for his musicians and his traditional musical projects.
Ross: The Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York has been a great supporter. We’re not incorporated, so we can’t take donations. We’re gonna try and do that but there’s only so many things you can do in this life.
Epicenter-NYC: What do you have coming up now? Do you have anything coming up in New York?
Ross: He’s leaving for Guinea tomorrow and then he’s gonna be in New Orleans for two months. But in May, from the beginning of May till about the 14th, there’ll be performances with the Veterans Center. They’re doing a special festival with Sidiki. And then he goes to the Caribbean and he’s gonna be teaching drumming to kids in the island of St. John. After that we just received funding for both Sidiki and I to return to Kenya this summer for three months to continue his workshops with the Masai. We’re also building a tree nursery so primary school kids can raise trees and then give them to other schools to plant them.
And I’m very excited that we will also use that funding to build a science lab for the secondary school. There’s a wonderful chemistry teacher there called Mr. Mongai. This was the poorest school I’ve seen, but it had the best teachers. And this man was wonderful. So we decided to build a science center. So the kids can do testing of soil samples, parasites in their cattle and things that are pastoral since they are cattle rearers. We can bring science to be meaningful in their lives. So it isn’t some abstract table of elements. It’s something that is empowering, to take control of their environment, to train young ecologists, and hopefully we can get some scholarships for them. The African Conservation Center has been supporting us.
Epicenter-NYC: How would people contact you if they want to figure out how to contribute to all these organizations that you’ve mentioned that help you with the work you do?
Ross: They could email us at email@example.com. And that way I can lead them. They can give to the African Conservation Center for the Maasai children and they can give to, you know, Cerebral Palsy Nassau.The work that Sidiki is doing with those people is absolutely wonderful.
Some of them can hardly move but when they see Sidiki, they light up and that’s beautiful.
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