Lamine Sonko describes the country of his birth, Senegal, as a beautiful, peaceful, multicultural place – a melting pot, distinct from other parts of West Africa, or Africa in general – full of music and joy, where people are strongly connected to their roots. Sonko's documentary, Deup (screening at ACMI on Fri 1 Jul), explores what it means to be a 'Guewel' – a role inherited by certain members of traditional communities in Sengal who are tasked with communicating ancient storytelling through dance, rhythms and song.
Deup's production was guided by Sonko’s mother, Oumy Sene, a Guewel elder who helps preserve ancient history and make sense of the world by "internally embodying the cosmos". The film is accompanied by a modernised composition by Sonko, of the chants and rhythms he learnt during the creation of Deup. We spoke to Sonko about his journey back to his hometown in Dakar, and his search for a deeper understanding of how ancient musical traditions are embodied by the Guewel elders.
Emma Sullivan: Why was telling the story of a Guewel important for you?
Lamine Sonko: I come from a family line of Guewels. The word Guewel means 'to bring people together in a circle', and the purpose of a Guewel is to tell the stories of our ancestors with music, dance and so forth. So, having that background from a very early age, I spent a lot of time with my parents who are both artists and from Guewel heritage as well, learning about the customs and rituals of our culture and to also go around and be the communicator of our history in our culture and society. I travel with that belief; I travel with that spirit, and I also try to share that spirit through my artwork and different art forms that I present.
ES: I imagine the process of handing down cultural knowledge and stories is a complicated one. Where does one begin? Is it a process that continues throughout life?
LS: It does. Guewel is also something you have to inherit from your mother's side and that responsibility is passed on from mother to child or father to child. You have to attend most ceremonies from a very early age to receive history, music and stories, orally. That allows every Guewel to embody the history of nature and to tell the dreams of tomorrow to the people at present.
ES: How many people are Guewels in a community?
LS: If we go back to how ancient Africa was governed by its own people, there was some cultural way of governance that was put in place. When you go into villages or suburbs, you will have a Guewel that represents the people over there, who are the eyes and the ears of the community, and who usually invoke this past through music and dance, and they try to preserve history to tell a story. So, if you go all around Senegal, you will find Guewels in every village or town because that's how it was set up. And that's how we still share information.
ES: In Deup, you also talk about untangling hidden knowledge created by ancestors with the use of dance. Many forms of dance are classically structured and rigid, and certain movements represent different messaging – more gestural. Is it similar in Senegalese dance? Or is it more about synergising and feeling the music that you're dancing to?
LS: I guess it's about being connected with the music because a lot of the formations that the dancers do have meaning. To be a dancer you have to learn the history behind the rhythms. So, you can untie the hidden knowledge or the hidden information that is embedded in those rhythms. It’s the dancer's responsibility to try and copy or try and feel the energy of our ancestors and share that through movement. That's why dance is a very important part of our culture. Because it allows one to express themselves, but also to travel between worlds. The metaphysical nature that exists within rhythms and songs that we explore during the production of this documentary helps tell a story of how important dance rhythms and rituals are in ancient African culture.
ES: You’re doing a live performance alongside the film screening. Can you tell me a little bit about the piece that you've produced?
LS: Yes, during the production of this film, I learned lots of songs and chants that are used during ceremonies and those chants are what I converted to classical forms of music composition with the African harp, which has 21 strings. I'll be joined on stage by a string trio; double bass player, cellist and violinist, who are all based in Melbourne. We’ve been collaborating to explore these ancient traditional songs and chants. I converted them into a modern setting to share with the audience.
ES: I imagine keeping traditions intact is a very high priority for you and your community in Senegal. How do you justify modernising elements of your heritage through the music that you create?
LS: I think it provides more space to tell the story for outside of Africa. I see myself as a Guewel who has to adapt with how life is around me – away from our natural environment (of Africa) where we usually do these rituals. So, I try very hard to explain the feeling through music. But I always have to make sure that I stay true to the meaning of the songs and the music, to make sure that I'll always pay respect to the way the elders would like those dances or music to be presented.
ES: And what do the elders in your community think about your music?
LS: They like it! They can see me taking our knowledge to different places, which also helps people. The word ‘deup’ also means 'to return'. So, it's more like a calling to return to ancient African ways of knowing and viewing the world, which is through rhythms, rituals, dance and songs. We learn to connect with different worlds, like the spiritual world, nature and the cosmos. Because most of the cultural elements that I talk about in this film and in my music is about shedding light on how Guewel traditions were informed by the signs of cosmology and the metaphysical nature of rhythms that speak about the true way of living in this universe we’re in.
ES: In your opinion, what's the connection between preserving culture, rhythm and storytelling, and community wellbeing?
LS: I think it's very crucial. It's very important to preserve ancient traditional knowledge because the rhythms people hear or the songs they hear, the movements they see, have some meaning. If we can learn to decode the meanings hidden in rhythms, dance and songs, we can activate how to reach our highest self. That higher self is to see yourself as connected with nature, the cosmos, and the spiritual world. When one can connect those three spheres together, it can help you see how we are interconnected, how rhythms, dance and movement are a universal language. This language can help with wellbeing and help us be healthy in a spiritual and physical manner.
ES: Lastly, what inspires your filmmaking process?
LS: I did a lot of research by watching African films and world cultural films to try and find what has already been said and what is missing. I'm really inspired by filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty who is from Senegal, and Ousmane Sembène. Looking at those and other filmmakers, I feel a responsibility to protect their stories from where they left them. They paved the way or provided some inspiration, and now we are trying to tell a story of our own through our own cultural practice.