Welcoming a newborn baby, Djeli style


Baby Sira was born just over one month ago. Her family invited friends and relatives for a celebration at their home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Her father, Habib Saccoh recently befriended balafon player Balla Kouyaté, who in addition to performing with his band, World Vision, carries on his family’s tradition of performing for domestic ceremonies within the local Mandinka community. (The Mandinka are one of the largest ethnic groups found across much of West Africa.) “Even though Habib is from Sierra Leone,” Balla explains to me,  “he is still of the Mandinka people.” For such a momentous occasion, Habib and his wife, who is American, wanted to celebrate like he would, were he home in Sierra Leone.

Dropping by the all-day party was an opportunity for me to witness the role of a djeli (a.k.a. griot) in the context of his own culture. Djelis are the oral historians, praise singers, and musicians who are born into the responsibility of keeping alive and celebrating the history of the Mandinka people. Balla Kouyaté’s family lineage goes back over 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. Indeed, his family is regarded as the original praise-singers of the Mandinka people. To have him present at a celebration such as this, is a way of bringing together a community far from home, reminding them where they came from, holding the culture together.

And what a party it was. Although I had parked my car several houses away, I could hear Balla’s music from the street.



Stepping inside the spacious Victorian foyer, I immediately spotted where the action was. A large parlor room off to the right was alive with colorfully dressed men and women dancing to the music.


The music was cranked up really loud and some little people were not pleased.

Servings of African cuisine, fresh fruit, nuts, and beverages were plentiful in the kitchen.

Occasionally, people would offer cash to the musicians, in appreciation of their dance music and praises being offered, which went on for over six hours.

No question, this is a rich cultural heritage in which to grow up.

All photos by Maggie Holtzberg

Mehndi: From Tradition to Fashion

Freshly applied henna by Manisha Trivedi.

Four hours later . . .

What happens when an ancient traditional practice becomes a mainstream fashion statement? Well, perhaps not mainstream.  But I have noticed a difference since the last time I had henna applied to my hand by a traditional mehndi artist, some 15 years ago. The practice of applying dye from the henna plant to beautify the skin is well known throughout India, where it is most commonly associated with the adornment of a bride, a couple of days before her wedding. But less so here in New England. Or so I thought, until I noticed how many people outside of the Indian community saw the applied design and knew exactly what it was. It was one thing for the wait staff at a local Indian restaurant to say, “I love your mehndi.” But almost everywhere I went, from the pharmacy to the grocery store, the bus stop to the library, people were familiar with the practice of mehndi. We have celebrities such as Madonna to thank for popularizing this art form.

Manisha Trivedi is a skillful artist who first learned mehndi as a youngster in Mumbai. She and her husband relocated to Massachusetts a decade ago. She has many bridal customers. Her clients are both from within the Indian community as well as general public who have discovered the art through popular culture. Traditionally, mehndi has been done as good luck for a bride. A typical session may take four to five hours to apply. Ever since Hollywood celebrities have taken to having mehndi, it is now not uncommon to find henna art available in the local mall or beauty salon. But the cultural traditions surrounding mehndi are probably not part of the service. Manisha tells this story about the use of mehndi in very traditional arranged marriages, when the bride and groom typically have not spent time together before the wedding. Once married, and alone for the first time together, they play a game in which the groom searches for the letters of his name, which have been hidden within the mehndi design. Searching for his name, while handling her arms, is a way of breaking the ice. If he cannot find his name, he has to give his bride a nice gift.