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(315) 312-2265
Feb. 13, 2002
CONTACT: David Conrad, 312-3443
OSWEGO -- "Somono" means fisherman in the Maninka language of West Africa, and a SUNY Oswego history professor has just published the first full-scale study of the Somono people and their history.
Dr. David Conrad said the original purpose of his newest book was to set down in print a traditional African tale in its original language, pairing it with an English translation on facing pages. But when he found only scattered published references to the Somono people, he decided to expand the project with chapters on their history and culture.
"Somono Bala of the Upper Niger: River People, Charismatic Bards, and Mischievous Music in a West African Culture" is the inaugural volume of a new series published by Brill Academic Publishers called "African Sources for African History."
"They tell me it's selling very well," Conrad said.
"Somono Bala of the Upper Niger" came out this year, but Conrad's research among the Somono people of Guinea and Mali dates back some 25 years. He made the photo of a fisherman that appears on the cover in 1976 when he was living in Mali, and he collected the tale of Bala in Guinea during his Fulbright research there in 1994.
"It recounts the adventures of Bala of the Somono, who serves among the West African troops of the French army in World War I and then returns home to be appointed chief of the canoemen by the French colonial administrator," Conrad said.
"Bala battles against conspiracies concocted by mysterious enemies and a beautiful femme fatale, climaxed by a deadly whipping contest with a jealous rival, and eventually emerges victorious after death-defying dives to the lair of a monster fish at the bottom of the river," he said.
The story of Bala exists in different versions by various performers. "This is the only lengthy narrative about the Somono," Conrad said.
The Somono make their living off the Niger River fishing and operating ferries and other boats. They come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but their identity has become associated with their river-related occupations, Conrad explained.
The version of the Bala narrative that appears in Conrad's book is from a performance by Laminigbe Bayo recorded in the early 1980s in northeastern Guinea. Bayo was "an itinerate bard who was much in demand because he was just a great entertainer," Conrad said. "He was one of the great singers of his time."
In addition to the narrative of Bala, Conrad wrote chapters on the history and traditions of the Somono, on Bayo's life and on the rare string instrument he played, called a dan. The dan is a calabash harp like other West African harps, Conrad said, but each of its six strings has its own neck. Conrad's translation assistant, Sekou Camara, contributed a chapter as well.
Listed at $29, "Somono Bala of the Upper Niger" is available from for $20.30.

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