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In With The Old, In With The New

Air Date: Week of
Firooze Dumas. (Photo: Stephanie Raussr)

As Living on Earth’s storytelling special continues, Iranian-American humorist Firoozeh Dumas remembers her discovery of vending machines as a child new to the United States, and her rediscovery of Iranian food as an adult. And Mamadou Ndiaye, a musician steeped in the West African griot storytelling culture, performs his tale of how he struggled to blend hip-hop with his ancestor’s oral tradition.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to our winter-season storytelling special. This year we feature American storytellers from the Middle East and Africa. We’ll here the sounds of the evolving Senegalese tradition of griots in just a little bit, but first we turn back to Firoozeh Dumas, a writer who moved to the United States from Iran when she was a child.

Firoozeh, let’s pick up where we left off talking about one of my favorite subjects—food. I understand you have a story about what happened when you and your family starting eating like Americans.

DUMAS: Exactly, so when I lived in Iran, my mother and I used to go to the markets and they were open air markets, very similar to farmers markets in America, it was all very straight forward, everything was just out there. Nothing was in boxes and cans.

And, if you wanted to buy fish, it was just right there on a pile of fish. So, we used to go and we’d buy ingredients. We’d come back and my mother spent every single day of her life cooking. She would start making lunch, which was for us, the main meal of the day, in the morning.

It would always start with onions being fried, and then from there it would be all the herbs, you know, all the parsley and the scallion and the cilantro being cleaned and chopped and fried, and then the meats, so there was this symphony of smells that used to always come out of our kitchen and by the time it was lunchtime, our house was just filled with these wonderful smells. And, my father would come home from work and we would all have lunch together.

When we moved to America, we all of a sudden discovered that there were all of these foods here that were already prepared. So, in Iran, if you opened our pantry or our refrigerator, all you found was basically raw rice or lentils, or in our refrigerator, it would be raw meat and limes. And, in America, we used to go to the grocery store and we would just buy these boxes and cans not quite sure what’s in them, and try them. You know, a lot of times people go to other countries and they discover the new culture through museums, well, we were not cultivated people, so we just ate our way through America.

Firoozeh Dumas. (Photo: Stephanie Rausser)

We used to go to Baskin Robbins and we couldn’t believe there were 31 flavors, and we tried every single one. I mean, back home, we were used to having either vanilla, chocolate or Persian ice cream, which is made with rose water and saffron and cardamom, it’s very good but I mean, all of a sudden we were here and we were having like blueberry cheesecake, you know, pumpkin pie ice cream. Our favorite American food was Kentucky Fried Chicken.


DUMAS: We used to go there three times a week and my dad would come home with two buckets and we’d basically fight for all of the chicken skin at the bottom. And, my God we ate and we ate and we ate. Needless to say, by the time I was in third grade, and mind you I’d come here in second grade, so it was one year later, there was a lot more of me than when we had initially come to this country.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] I’ll bet!

DUMAS: We used to have relatives that would come and visit us and after a while they would say, ‘My goodness! Firoozeh has just exploded, there’s about three times more of her than there used to be!’ So, finally, my parents decided that I needed to lose weight. The idea that they came up with was this: at the YMCA, everyday from three to four was free swim hour.

Which meant that you could just go to the pool and do laps, the only problem was I didn’t know how to swim. So, my parents decided that I would go to the swimming pool for one hour and I would hold my hands to the side and I would just kick for one hour. Now, I was eight years old. Anybody can tell you that this is a really bad idea. But, my parents, God bless them, they really thought that this would really cure me of all of this extra weight.

So, everyday my father would take me to the YMCA, and I of course was very angry about this whole plan of theirs to go to the YMCA five days a week, so I would just sit in that pool and when it was about ten to four, I would make sure that I would go into the pool just enough so that I would be wet up to my neck. And, then I would get out and my dad would pick me up and I would be, of course, all wet, and so he’d say, ‘oh, how was the kicking today?’ And, I’d say, ‘I’m so exhausted,’ and he was so happy for me and every day he’d say, ‘wow, I can already tell you look so good and you’re getting stronger.’

God bless him, he was so happy for me and so excited, I felt horrible that I was lying to him everyday. But, I didn’t know what to do because I hated this whole kicking idea. So, one day, when my father dropped me off at the YMCA, I was in the locker room and I noticed that there were people coming from around the corner and they were all eating candy. So, I went and I noticed that there was this huge box with glass and there was all these candy bars in it. And, people were putting in coins and candy bars were coming out. So, this was my first introduction into the world of vending machines. So, from that day on, I would go to my mother’s coin purse after school and I would steal a dime and a nickel every single day.

And, I would go into the YMCA, I would go into their gym, and I would put a dime and a nickel into the vending machine and buy a Babe Ruth bar. And then I would sit there and I would eat it at my leisure, and then I would go in the pool to make sure that I was wet enough to be convincing to my father. And, then my dad would pick me up, he would once again go into his speech of, ‘wow, you look stronger, you look so good, I’m so proud of you,’ and, of course, I felt even more guilty.

So about two months of this goes by, and lo and behold my parents notice that, my clothes are actually getting tighter, and by then I was already wearing Sears size 14 pretty plus. They said, well, wow, how could this be happening? And my father said, ‘well, maybe it’s muscle. You know, muscles are bigger than…’

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: So, they gave up on the YMCA kicking idea, and at that point they actually took me to a weight doctor. But, you know, I never told them the truth about this until, literally, about thirty years later, when I one day said to my father, ‘you know when you used to send me to the ‘Y’ to kick for an hour?’ and he said, ‘yes,’ and I said, ‘well, I have to admit that I don’t think I even kicked once.’ And he was so surprised he said, ‘I can’t believe you’d lie to me,’ and I said, ‘yeah, Dad, I did.’ And, you know, God bless him, I felt bad all over again. [Laughs]

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Ah, yes. America…food in a box, in a can…and a machine.

DUMAS: I think they should have a sign in the airports that says, you know, ‘welcome to America, switch to elastic waistbands.’

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: I just want to add I do have a small waistline now. This is radio, but if people are visualizing what I look like….

CURWOOD: Hey, I still have my elastic waistband. Firoozeh Dumas on the humorous side of growing up Iranian-American. This is living on Earth’s winter holiday season storytelling special. And let’s hear from Gokh-bi System, the musical group pioneered by Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye.

Now Mamadou, you guys play a mixture of hip-hop with the music of Senegal’s griots, and as I understand griots are the keepers of West African oral tradition. Tell me more about it—what exactly is a griot?

MAMADOU: A griot is a storyteller. They used to follow the kings and the queens and get like the whole story of their lifetimes. That’s the reason why we didn’t lose our whole story because the stories were transmit from generation to generation.

You know, each generation had a griot that was taking care of knowing exactly what was going on. Because those griots were, they had a place that they could like the place the village. They call it the tree of talk.

CURWOOD: The talking tree?

MAMADOU: Yeah, everybody will come there and the king will come and transmit his message and stuff, so everybody knows what’s going on. So griots, in our culture are really important. Even though we didn’t write before, those stories were transmitted from generations. So, there’s a writer that you say that the griots were the ‘bag of words,’ without them stories will be lost forever.

CURWOOD: Now, you come from a griot family.


CURWOOD: And this is something you have to be born into?

MAMADOU: Yeah, basically like you’re born in a griot family. So, you basically grow up in the music of ragman. You see your sisters dancing, your father is playing drums, your mom is like telling stories and stuff. So, you’re kind of like born in that and grow up in it.

CURWOOD: So, you must know a lot of stories then!

MAMADOU: I know some! You know, I will say that we are like, we are the 21st century griots, you know? Which means like, it’s not like the way it was before how people were really concentrating on that and respecting the whole griot tradition, because in the past, griot people didn’t have to work, you know, they don’t go to school. So, it’s sort of like the village itself, people in the village, they would take care of them--you know, provide them with food, money, clothing and stuff.

CURWOOD: So, you’re a modern griot, though.


CURWOOD: So, I guess you’ve found a way…I understand you’ve found a way to balance the old and the new and it has resulted in your musical group the Gokh-bi System, which is what--part traditional Senegalese griot music and hip-hop?

MAMADOU: Yup. It’s called ancient-meets-urban.

CURWOOD: Ah. So, tell us your story of how you got to be where you are now.


Mamadou Ndiaye performing with Gokh-bi System. (Gokh-bi System)


MAMADOU: My name is Mamadou. [Sana sings in Senegalese in the background] Son of Mata and Fatuguay. I was born in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. And I went to the village, to visit my uncle and his four wives. I stay with one of them who was a big deal in the griot community. And she, and four friends, they would go to village and village, town to town, telling stories, singing, dancing for money, materials, and something to support the family.

Those days was good. There’s always something going on from dancing, singing, telling stories, I didn’t want to go back to the city. And, I had to stay there for seven years, but after I had to go back to the city to pursue high school. Life was tough there. Because I’m from in a neighborhood called Guinea-Ray: means other side of the track.

And, when you say other side of the track, you can have an idea of the life we are talking about--poverty, no clean water. My parents had to struggle everyday to bring something on the table. So it was really tough, and in the same period, my father was laid-off in his job. So it was really, really tough.

And I had to live with eight brothers and sisters. And, at the same time, one day in the 90’s, I discovered hip-hop, I was just listening to the radio, and I heard it like that. I was so touched, so blown away by the message itself, because it was talking about the life we were living at that time, the same stories that I was going through. But, mostly, the connection that hip-hop had with Tassou, which is like the way that griot people was communicating with each other. Something like this: [Speaking in another language and clapping]. Just like that.

So it was a big connection, between griot people and rappers. So I think that’s why I think we call ourselves the 21st century griot. And, at that time, I wanted to drop out of school, because knowing, like, all the things that I was going through in my life, so from there I had to go to the open market, buy women’s clothes, had to prepare them, iron it, and sell it back. And I had another job and making drums and stuff--that job was a hard one, because you had to cut the tree in the forest, bring it in the city and dig a hole in it so it can have the sound of the drum.

And, after awhile, just, you know, rehearsing, doing stuff with my friends to develop that musical style that I always wanted to be, because since I was living in the city to the village, I always had a feeling like, ‘wow, I want to do this and share my stories with the rest of the world.’ And when we start, like, doing our stuff, we wanted to have our own music, have our own sound. And, the only way we could get that is to bring our traditional instruments in it because we understood that hip-hop is about reality, like what you’re living in.

And, the only way to show that was to bring our own tashina, so I met Sana, playing this beautiful instrument called a konting, and after we worked for a little bit, we had to present it to our friends- they were so disappointed of us, they was like, ‘wow, you guys think you can make it with this old instrument and these drums? I don’t think so.’ But, we didn’t say anything, we decided to keep doing what we do because we believe in that, we believe that we could do something special with it. And, after four years of working, we record a song called “sibore”


MAMADOU: Which means like, ‘lets go back to the roots.’


MAMADOU: And, at that same time, we meet a producer called Tony Vacca he’s from the U.S. And, we present him with our CD and he falls in love with it. Six months after that, we had our first invitation in the US. And, a lot of people wanted us to just come here and just stay--do something--because as they always think we will never make it with the music business, but we stick to our story and keep doing what we do.

And, we do that too, and we went back home, and we got invited again and again so many times. So this day, we decided to live part time here, part time in Senegal. And it does work for us, and we’re doing our thing, touring the world, and thank God, we stick to our story.

CURWOOD: And that’s Mamadou and Ndiaye’s story of how a modern griot came from Dakar, Senegal to Massachusetts, USA. Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye from the Musical group Gokh-bi System. Any comments from you other storytellers who are online here? Firoozeh?

DUMAS: Well, I just want to say I love the fact that there is so much music involved with the storytelling. Had I known, I would have maybe brought, like the theme song to a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial or something.

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: But, I’m enjoying this! I love hearing this!

CURWOOD: Yassir?

CHADLY: Yes, I felt like I wanted to play the oud with that instrument to keep them company. I wanted to play the bass of my oud, because that has high notes, I wanted to play lower notes and join them--they were so on a roll--it was wonderful!

CURWOOD: Let’s give this a try. Sana, you want to lay down the line that you were playing, and Yassir, see what you can do with this. Go ahead Sana.




Firoozeh Dumas

Gokh-Bi System

Yassir Chadly


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