Sidiki Conde was 14 years old when he lost his legs to polio. In his home country of Guinea in West Africa, a physical disability like that is a sentence for a life of loneliness and isolation. Now 59, Conde now lives in a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village.
“Happiness is about not being defeated, everything that comes, you can figure it out,” he told us. “Just think about how you can be happy, in any situation, even with what is happening now.”
Conde’s path to happiness came to him through a dream, during which he saw himself singing and dancing. He took it as a sign, and through much hard work and persistence taught himself to dance on his hands. Doing so allowed him to participate in his culture’s coming-of-age ceremony, which reconnected him to his community.
“I was so happy that day, I forgot all of my pain, all of my disability,” he said.
Conde began traveling around Guinea performing before becoming something of an international sensation. He settled in New York City about two decades ago.
Conde is among 54 immigrant artists featured in the Center for Traditional Music and Dance’s Beat of the Boroughs initiative, just launched this week. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through March, artists from around the world will be leading performances, workshops, lectures and more on the center’s YouTube and Facebook pages.
“We want to help the general public understand the incredible stories that these artists have and the importance of their presence in New York and the United States,” said Andrew Colwell, project director and staff ethnomusicologist at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.
That includes: inner Mongolian long songs by Suvda Khereid, Haitian traditional songs by George Vilson and Régine Romain and Afro-Colombian songwriter Ronald Polo.
Beyond financial implications, the pandemic also hinders immigrant artists’ ability to ensure their culture lives on.
“One of their main goals is to pass on their music or dance forms and traditions to the next generation, and obviously the pandemic has made that especially difficult,” Colwell said. “There is a range of impacts we can barely understand right now.”
Conde plans to share the story of his ancestral masks — his grandfather and great grandfather were both village chiefs — and perform on the drums this Friday, Nov. 20 at 5 p.m. Expect some words of wisdom on how to deal with hardship and thrive in the face of adversity — something we can all use a little of right now.
The Center for Traditional Music and Dance is accepting donations, so if you enjoy a performance consider making a contribution. It hopes to be able to extend Beat of the Boroughs for the duration of the pandemic. You can check out the lineup of performers here.