Another sad day for Mali

Image courtesy of Janet Goldner’s Facebook Page

In the first few months of my time in Mali, I was blessed to meet ad fellowship with some people that have made my trip here all the more pleasurable Kandioura Coulibaly, was one of those people. Coulibaly passed away last night. Coulibaly was one of the founding members of Groupe Bogolan Kasobané, which is an artist collective who focus is to preserve the textile and craft traditions of Mali.

While visiting his home he showed me some of the amazing jewelry, textile pieces and some of the amazing contemporary bogolan work he (and his collective) are doing. Coulibaly also showed me some really amazing Malian antique sculptures, beads and other items that his collective have been stewards of for many years. Some of the marking and inscriptions on these items only Coulibaly, his collective and other initiates know the meaning of; they are vital to the preservation and promotion of Mali art and culture.

I left his home that day inspired not only by what I saw, but also because of what I learned and conversation we had. Although Bamako is a large city that sometimes it feels very much like a small village, I would randomly run him at different art events and the like. The last time I saw him was a few weeks ago at the RENCONTRES DE BAMAKO and everything seemed fine, but we did not get a chance to talk at length, beyond greeting each other. Now I wish I had made the time to speak to him a little longer.

As Mali attempts to weather the winds of some tough times ahead, the loss of an artist of this caliber is really a horrific blow, one that unfortunately the politicians will not feel. The worst part of this lack of recognition of Mali’s cultural treasures and social fabric are some of the most powerful tools that  Mali has to combat the current realities here on the ground.

Click here for Janet Goldner’s essay from Poetics of Cloth, which talks a little bit about Groupe Bogolan Kasobané.

I will be adding more links as I dig stay tuned…

Full Circle: cool art stuff in Bamako

If you have been following this or my other blog, you know that I was honored to have my poem selected as the winner of The Divine Comedy Poetry contest at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The contest is one the events connected to the new exhibition,  The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.  
Well, about a week before we left to make our way to the States (with a nice stopover in Paris, my first visit to the City of Lights!), I had the honor of meeting, Abdoulaye Konate whose work inspired my poem, Below as Above, at an opening that he at the Musee National Du Mali for  an exhibition of his that would be traveling to Brazil.

Here are some images from that event:

And while we were in DC Melanie snuck a picture of Naomi and I standing next to Konate’s work:

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Below as Above (cross-posted from

A few days ago I found out my poem was chosen as the winner for The Divine Comedy Poetry contest at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The contest is one the events connected to the new exhibition,  The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.  

Abdoulaye Konaté b. 1953, Mali Dance of Kayes from La Danse series 2008 Textile, each: approx. 246.4 x 170.2 cm (97 x 67 in.). Collection of Saro León

Abdoulaye Konaté
b. 1953, Mali
Dance of Kayes from La Danse series
Textile, each: approx. 246.4 x 170.2 cm
(97 x 67 in.).
Collection of Saro León

My poem was in response to Malian textile artist, Abdoulaye Konate’s 2008  Dance of Kayes from La Danse series, as seen above. Read the poem here.

I choose Konate’s work not only because he is Malian, but because his exhibition at the Institut Francais of Mali , was the one of the only art of a Malian artist I had seen other than Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita, Alioune Bâ and a few others – all photographers.  Painter, Amadou Sanogo, was the other Malian artist’s work that I had seen, aside of the famous Malian photographers.

I also chose Konate’s piece because of the cool colors he chose to represent Kayes are not what I expected given that the Kayes region is one of the hottest places on the planet, so the contrast was quite striking.

I was asked to read the poem at the Museum’s Divine Poetour this summer on July 2. Split This Rock’s DC Youth Slam Team and NMAfA’s Teen Ambassadors, will be reading their works that engage the The Divine Comedy exhibition.  So come out and support the DC Youth Slam Team and NMAfA’s Teen Ambassadors. Peep the flyer below…

The Divine Poetour, July 2nd @NMAfA

The Divine Poetour, July 2nd @NMAfA

I am excited to be a part of The Divine Poetour, it looks like it will be similar to a project that I did afew years back as a collaboration between The American Poetry Museum and The Phillips Collection.


A Late Ellingtonian in Bamako: An Ellington Birthday Meditation…


This map shows where Boola, Guinea is in relationship to Bamako, Mali

I came to Ellington late in life. Despite the fact that my Pops worked with him and Mercer. It was like that with most jazz music, I was late.

When I did catch on I had a whole library of music at my disposal to really get down with, but I can say without a doubt the 2 albums that really caught my attention and held it for quite some some time. One was, an IMPULSE! release,  Duke Ellington & John Coltrane  and the other was Money Jungle with Mingus and Max (United Artists 1963, Blue Note 1987 and 2002). If you are not familiar with these recordings…do yourself a favor…

Pops told me about Duke and told me how he had traveled the world as musician with the US Government. I later came to find out it was with the US Department of the State’s Jazz Ambassadors. In this program Ellington and his band traveled throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

While listening to a segment of Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source, Lydon’s guest Harvey Cohen author of  Duke Ellington’s America. In the segment Cohen talks at length about Ellington’s  Black, Brown and Beige, which was first envisioned by Ellington as an opera. The opera’s main character was a timeless African American man named Boola and the music of Ellington’s band was written as a companion to Boola’s 39-page narrative in verse, where he talks about his life from the belly of a ship to the present (Ellington’s day). This really piqued my interest so I do some Google searches. What I found further piqued my interest and set off more questions. Turns out that Boola is the name of a region in Guinea. This made think that perhaps Ellington in his travels met someone from Boola, or maybe someone told him about the region, whatever the case; I don’ think it was coincidence that he named this character Boola, nor that Boola’s experiences became the basis for Black, Brown and Beige and many of those compositions are meant as “tone parallels” to the Boola’s monologues.

A few days ago as I was preparing this post, I found that in addition to Black, Brown and Beige, Ellington made other albums that expressed his interests and gaze toward Africa, The Togo Brava Suite is one such recording. Ellington may not have articulated it as such, but it appears that he was creating work that was pan-African. I wonder how far Ellington would have taken his pan-African efforts and how would that have affected our understanding of African music as classical music (not Classical music)?  Was Boola’s verse narrative the first perform-a-form?

Over the 3 years that I will be here in Africa, if I get a chance to visit Boola I will report back on what I find…


The Power of Language

The English language has power, plain and simple. I have been observing this more and more in my efforts to re-learn French and to learn Bamanakan ( and hopefully Fulbe and Wolof too).

Almost everyday I meet people who speak or want to learn English, sometimes at the expense of losing their mothertongues. As someone whose family has close ties to the Gullah language, I am particularly sensitive to people losing or giving up their mothertongues; because once we give them up they tend to disappear forever.

While I am living and traveling in West Africa, I am determined to learning as much about the languages here as I possibly can, not in an effort to “save” or “preserve” these languages, but in an effort to gain more understanding about where the richness of the art and culture come from.

Over the past 7 months that I have lived here in Bamako I have been blessed with the opportunity to conduct a few writing workshops at both The American School of Bamako and  Lycee Francais Libertie. Both workshops were great fun and I feel like I really connected with the students with the  material I covered.

The last of these workshops I had the privilege of working with some students who had just returned from a trip to New York City, visiting Harlem and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their teacher had been teaching them about the Civil Rights Movement and she asked me as a writer and a African American to come to her class and to help them with their presentations and to share some poems with them.

Although the bulk of my library is back in DC, I do have a little stash that I brought with me. In that stash was Joseph Ross’ Gospel of Dust and Dr. Jeffrey Lamar Coleman. It was a pleasure to share the work of people that were not only friends of mine, but have produced and edited collected work that engages the world of ideas that illuminates a very important period of American History.

This is the second time (the first was in Northern Ireland) while traveling internationally I have been told and witnessed how important the Civil Rights Movement was to people outside of the United States.

Gospel of Dust by Joseph Ross



On Civilization

On Civilization

Living abroad and trying to learn all that there is to learn about your new environment is already quite a challenge, but trying to relay that experience to someone who has never been to the part of the world you are living in, or to someone who is misinformed is another experience entirely.


About a week or so ago (around the time of the Michael Dunn verdict), I was on a phone call with the customer service department of the company that provides my support for the alarm system in a property I own back in DC, the conversation went something like this:

Me: I apologize if my voice is breaking up, I am calling you on Skype from West Africa.

Customer Service Rep: Wow, that’s quite a ways from DC! What area of the countr… I mean continent…I always for Africa is a continent. What country  do you live in?

Me: I live Mali, in a city called Bamako.

Customer Service Rep: I know Nigeria, South Africa…Now where you are is it civilized?


Civilized (sĭv’ ǝ – līzd’) adj. 1.

This question gave me pause, because I had to really think hard about what he was asking…I had think about what his understanding and assumptions about what “civilization”is.

I paused for what seemed like an eternity, but to be totally honest I did not feel rage that I thought I would feel at such a badly worded and ignorant question…I answered with a very short, but polite “Yes, quite civilized.”

The call did not last much longer, the rep was able to pull up the necessary screen to update my account and the call was over.

Later I could not help but re-visit that question of whether or not where I was was indeed “civilized”, this obviously made me think about the idea of civilization in general and what it means to be a civilization. How does a civilization care for all of its citizens? How do those citizens experience justice? Does the body of the civilization do what the mouth says? And what of a civilization’s imagination is the civilization who they think they are?

Civilized…I thought…if I had not been so stunned or once I recovered from being stunned and if I had the courage…I would have said something like, “Oh mean like having enough wealth to care for the homeless and uninsured but just choosing not to do it , like stop and frisk and end up dead, civilized like being found guilty attempting murder, but not committing murder, civilized like pretending your skin color means you are pure?

To be quite honest since being here in Mali, I have witnessed some of the best examples of civilization that I have experienced anywhere I have been so far.

On the night I arrived in Bamako, my driver drops me off at my apartment building and the security guards would not let me carry any of my bags, they insisted that I was too tired to carry anything. Before I could really get through threshold of the door, the other security guards called out to Naa Yaa dumunike (come to eat with us!)…these people have never seen me before and here they are offering me to come and literally from the same bowl they are all eating from – this is not to mention the fact that the little bit off food they had was barely enough for them.

Other examples are the culture of salutations and greetings. A typical greeting here consists taking the time to ask someone not only how they are doing, but their parents, their children, their work or crops, etc. Greetings for some can take up a long time depending on how long you have known the person, how long you it has been you had seen the person last or how many blessings you give them. These greetings are expected even in normal business transactions like going to buy something at the store.

Here is a typical morning conversation greeting

Ee nee sogoma. Good morning.

Mbah. Ee nee sogoma. Male response. Good morning.

Hair-ray serra wah? Did you have a peaceful night?

Hair-ray. Peaceful.

Somogo bedi? How is your home?

Tor-ro-teh. No problems.

I musso ka ken-nay? Is your wife well?

Tor-ro-teh. No problem.s

Denmisino ka ken-nay? Are the children well?

Tor-ro-teh. No problems.

Nsay. Female response.

Mbah. Male response.

To hear to Bamanakan speakers greet one another sounds like an old song that everyone knows and sing together whenever they meet… 

I hope that those who think we in “the West” are the most “civilized” get a chance, at least once in their lives, to experience the type of civilization, authenticity and care from a unknown place, from a person or apeople that don’t like like them or don’t live exactly like them. I hope that they get to sing a song with with strangers that starts with hello.

“Every line means something”

“Every line means something” – Jean-Michel Basquiat

There must be something in the Harmattan , over the past few months as I have been thinking about written language, mark  marking , “vernacular architecture” and various aspects of how peoples make and communicate meaning from the material they have their environment.  Not only have I been thinking about these things, but something in the Harmattan wind and dust that blows over West Africa this time of year, kept blowing things my way.

Around that same time, I had been reintroduced to Ron Eglash’s work on fractals, which involved some of the complex mathematical principles at work in numerous aspects of West African life and culture. Seeing Eglash’s articulate so many things that  we have become so used to seeing, but never quite saw the complexity in it really made me think hard about other things that we take for granted yet are highly complex and involve complex thinking and being. See Eglash’s work here  , here  , here  and here 

Another string of thoughts that blew on the Harmattan’s winds came by way of a blog named Renegade Futurism run by Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, a post from a website called Another Africa ( a piece on African Writing Systems, highlighting the work of Zimbabwean typographer Saki Mafundikwa, peep his work here , here , here and here) and an online conversation I was having with another poet about the Cursive Hebrew and Kongo Cosmograms (see here and here ) in the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Ga (where my grandma was from).

This all came to head for me when my wife and I were in Segou, Mali, for Festival Sur Le Niger, a music and art festival along the banks of the Niger River in Segou, Mali, 3 hours north of Bamako.


Segou , was the capital of the Bambara Empire. My introduction to Segou was from Marsye Conde’s  novel of historical fiction Segu, which I first got hip to working at the late Karibu Books. Although I never got through the whole book (I just started reading it again when I moved to Bamako), from the little bit that I did read I have been able to envision what that world might have looked like.

In addition to the obviously awesome people and music we experienced while in Segou, we had the opportunity to meet the ladies of the Sinignessigi Atelier & Boutique. These ladies specialize making eco-friendly Bògòlanfini (mud cloth) and other handmade textile items. While browsing their workshop and boutique I saw these signs that explained what the lines meant, they were translated in French, English and Bamanakan (Bambara); “every line meant something.” Although these lines made beautiful designs, it was nice clear that all the lines and patterns on these textiles had specific meanings and were a language that communicated something to the viewer and owner of the cloth. In a way I have always known that these designs had deeper and more intentional meanings, but I cannot quite explain the feeling that came over me to see it spelled out, made plain.

It was similar to the feeling I experience way back when I found out the significance of quilts as communication objects in the in the African American resistance to enslavement; every stitch meant something.

I wish I had taken pictures of the text and some of the cloths inside the boutique, but I was trying not to be so intrusive, as well as soak in the somewhat sacred moment when your receive a breakthrough, a new revelation, or when the pieces of things you have been thinking about for a long time come together in such a serendipitous manner. All in due time.

I have only been in Mali since early October 2013 and so far the experience has already been an enlightening and humbling experience…I am looking forward to the journey forward, onward and upward.

PowerShot 071
photo by my wife, Melanie Spence Joiner

Some other references:
Nettrice R. Gaskins: check out her whole blog but here are some recent highlights
 Africa in The Matrix: STEAM, African Futurism & Myth
Techno-Vernacular Creativity: Shotgun Homes & Porches
High-Tech Textiles & the Syncopated Rhythms of the African Diaspora


for Clemson

12:00am Christmas Eve, my Uncle Clemson Russell Joiner passed away…Uncle Russell was a Vietnam Vet, who returned with an able body, but whose mind never quite returned. The smile that was one of the things he was most famous for was dimmed and he would oscillate between fighting the voices in his head, the demons attacking him and the long silences in between.
When I was a young boy, he was much more vibrant than he would later become in his older age.  I would go on walks with him around the neighborhood, him dressed in jeans or slacks, superclean , starched, with a razor sharp crease and the both legs rolled out about an inch or two. Then there was was the North Philly bop of a walk that probably would have looked like George Jefferson swagger if my uncle was not so slim and cool. I really valued those walks around the neighborhood because it made me cool be association at a time when i did not feel so cool.

My father always talks about my Uncle Russell with a type sorrow in his voice, which, as I have gotten older and learned more about my Dad and my uncle and the choices they both made, I have begun to understand this sorrow quite a bit more. I think my Dad felt sorrow for the way my Uncle’s life turned out. To hear my father tell it, mu Uncle Russell was the best musician in the family. He played trumpet. I wish I had known this as a younger person, I would have asked him to play. It seems that in my fathers family music is like a second religion, everybody something or sang. In talking about my uncle i think my father always felt like he never really got a chance to live a full life. In some regard I agree, because for the past 30 years leading up to my uncle’s death, it seemed like he was more silent, more distant everyday. He mostly would stare out the window onto my aunts lonely street or out into the backyard. He never quite got a chance to live up the electricity in smile and i think my Dad thought about every time Uncle Russell’s name came up.

So what does all this have to do with Bamako? In no small measure my Uncle Russell is probably one of the biggest reasons why I would be be open to living in Africa. Because on many of those long walks he would tell me in very simple 8 year old terms about how great Africa was. He was the first person to show and explain to me how the United States could fit into the Sahara Desert, he told me about the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and the Kingdom of Mali. My uncle was also a gifted artist (or at least the 8 year old me remembers him that way), he draw the most amazing sculptures similar to the variety that I have been seeing since being here in Mali. I am not quite sure how my Uncle knew about all these things, but they appeared to be so vivid in his mind to the extent that he filled any scrap of paper he could find with these drawings- he gave me a few of them, I pray that I still have them buried somewhere.

But I do find comfort in having made my way here to Africa, I find comfort in the effort I am making to live as an artist and family man here and I find comfort in knowing that my Uncle Russell is with me here and that in some small way I am making a dream of his come true.

I am sure poems will come of this, but right now I prefer to live the poetry instead.