On Tuesday, February 26, Head-Royce welcomed Alpha Oumar “Bongo” Sidibe, a musician from Conakry, Guinea in West Africa, along with two of his bandmates. Bongo Sidibe is the Musical Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company, as well as a singer and percussionist with Dogon Lights, “an Afro-Hip hop group where West Oakland meets West Africa.” Sidibe has also performed with Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, Ballet Jah Karlo in Dakar, and many more artists worldwide.
As students entered the Lower School music room, their eyes lit up, eager to see and hear the instruments they’d studied in French class. To prepare for the music-filled day, they’d learned to identify a range of West African instruments, “by sound, sight, and instrumental family. They also reviewed the [French] names for emotions, identifying the various emotions that listening to and playing music can evoke.”
Twenty-four students from the Francophone Charter School Oakland (FCSO) joined the special occasion. Over the past four years, French teacher Sarah Sharp has developed a close relationship with FCSO, bringing her third graders to the school “to connect with other students learning French in the area. Since FCSO is an immersion school, our students are quite challenged and inspired to converse in French with their buddies.”
Bongo Sidibe opened by asking the students if they’d seen The Lion King. Students happily nodded and raised their hands. Sidibe explained that the Disney movie is based on West African history and tells the story of Mansa Sundiata Keita, the first Emperor of the Mali Empire, who was nicknamed the Lion King of Mali. The students were intrigued and leaned in to listen.
Sidibe then introduced his instruments, asking if anyone could identify the stringed instrument his bandmate was holding.
LS students watch Bongo Sidibe (center musician), with French teacher Sarah Sharp (far right)
“C’est le banjo?” suggested one student, sitting in the front row. Bongo smiled and told her she was close, and that hers was a fine observation, as le banjo is in the same family of instruments as this one: le ngoni. He explained there are three types of ngoni, a West African stringed instrument made from the calabash gourd.
Noticing the ngoni’s power cord, a FCSO student asked, “Pourquoi ç'est électrique?” In French, Bongo reflected that the instrument is electric because West Africa is changing and Malian music has been influenced by technology.
After a thoughtful Q&A session, Bongo and his band played a few songs for the students. Bongo then taught a lively drumming lesson.
Back in the classroom, students from both schools “interviewed each other in French about which instruments were their favorites and identified the emotions they felt when listening and playing the instruments,” said Sarah Sharp. “The third graders were especially amazed by the use of calabash in making both the balafon and the ngoni. They remembered that a calabash featured in one of the stories from Ms. Hine's recent class play.”
“I think being able to speak French (Francophone) is a privilege,” said Jordan T. '28.
“I noticed Bongo spoke very fast,” said Kenzo G. '28. “I’ll never forget the sound of the balafon.”
After he said his goodbyes to the Lower School, Bongo Sidibe performed for MS and US students. Sidibe’s engaging, interactive performance is just one example of how “our Lower School World languages program centers around building students' capacity as global citizens.”
HRS students left School in awe of Bongo Sidibe’s music, as well as the impressive French skills and compassion of their FCSO Buddies. In the words of Noelle Y. '28: “Being Francophone means you are kind, you are respectful, and you’re a good friend.”