Batch Gueye at WOMAD 2014: Epic Interview of Huge Proportions with Senegal’s Biggest Unsung Hero…Until Now.
Batch Gueye in interview with Melanie Horstead
It’s not often that I’m rendered speechless but Batch Gueye silenced me. During our twenty minute interview, Batch revealed much personal information and private history about himself and his struggles; about fame, about music and dance, about putting the world to rights, about Senegal, about the talibe children, about being Baye Fall, about being a good person at the root of everything, and just when I thought we’d covered all bases and topics, he even goes on to interview me and talk to me personally. He is very intuitive and he looks straight at me, he tells me things about who I am, he talks to me like a friend, gives me advice and uncovers things and there are two points during the interview that I am stunned and I have to search for words and I have to find a path back to the interview.
Batch is such a great unofficial ambassador for Senegal, and the hardships he has faced from his time as a talibe child on the street and as someone who has battled extreme pain make him a great role model. He is a survivor and he is tough but also selflessly kind. He enraptured the crowd so much at this year’s WOMAD that the Senegalese members of the audience burst onto the stage in support. The crowd was enormous and at the end of his energetic set the audience cried out for more and more. I felt honoured to be in conversation with Batch. Read on to find out more!
Batch lives music and dance, he actively says that that’s what he lives for. “Dance and singing inspire me, because it’s the energy, the energy comes from there. It’s just like feeling like a lion, you know? A hungry lion and the people are dancing…Waaw, they get me”. Batch is certainly no stranger to hunger. I ask him how he keeps his energy up for all the dancing, singing and music. I thought he must eat loads, but his reply shocked me. “You see how skinny I am? When I am working with music and dance…I can only eat once a day…until when I finish, only once, because when I am full up I feel asleep. I feel lazy. So the more I get hungry then the more I can do more work, get more energy, as if I had a cup of coffee. I can do it!” I find out later that Batch Gueye used to be a talibe. He was a child that spent long hours on the street begging and for the majority of the time he was hungry. This was something that he must have adapted to, but he remains positive and uses his experiences as positive tools.
About the number of children begging in the street in Senegal: I ask Batch for his view on the situation and whether it is a big problem? “Yeah, it’s a problem because we must help the children. When I was a child, I was sent to the school to learn the Qur’an. I’ve been there for seven years. I know what it’s like. But, to be honest the children now are luckier than us. It was harder before, but, still there’s something bugging me in there, because we have to look after the children and help them: teach them. All over Senegal, what do we need? Free healthcare and food for everybody, that’s all we need. We don’t need anything (else).”
I’ve been wondering myself about whether the heads of the brotherhoods in Senegal and the government could come together to find a solution to the growing number of children on the street and to prevent the dangers they face? Batch is quick to answer “I don’t think so, I don’t think so. People: the Mourides, Cheikh Bamba, Cheikh Ibra…they are not politicians and they are not telling any of their sons or Baye Fall to get into politics. You can be very helpful for the Tidjane, Mouride. They like you, they can do what they want. You can go and ask them for prayers, they will give you prayers but they are never going to get in it (involved in politics). Because to be honest, in Senegal, Islam is more powerful than politics. That’s what I think.”
I urged Batch to expand on this. His views encompassed what he thought would help the whole nation of Senegal too. “The situation is just like: help the Senegalese people who live in Europe, because we are helping…If I want to take things there, it’s not easy for me. And, those things I’m taking there: o.k I’m going to earn money, but I’m also going to help people there too because they are going to get work from me. So, we are thinking the way I think. We have that problem, so, when I go to Africa, I need this land, nobody will listen to me and if they see the white person, wherever they come from asking for that land, they will give it to you. So, we don’t need that, we just need our Africans to do some things there. And most of the people can do it, but they are scared because what they charge you and what they doing to you. And they really like to help. Honestly, me, and my heart, I (can) ask God all the time: everything he is giving to me if I can’t share it with the people, I’m asking God not to give it to me.”
So, does Batch think that part of the solution is to encourage better trade within Senegal, and Africa? “Better trade in Africa, and help the people there and the children and the musicians and the dancers, because there are a lot of talented people there. And they love to do it. It’s just like… I feel like it’s a struggle doing dance for all my life but I haven’t had any help since I won the competition to come to Europe, so it means I do all the hard work for myself to get here. So, I get here and I’m still doing the hard work and I really like to help the children there and when I get bigger, honestly, people will see what I can do for the children because I’ve been through that…”
As someone who has been a talibe child on the street I was really keen to hear about Batch’s experiences and to find out what he thought could be done to help the talibe children of today. What was the experience like? “It’s ….good in one way, but sometimes, it’s not good. Because some of the teachers, they teach you how to write and let you do things right. Some people, they are teachers but they are calling the children, telling the children ‘if you don’t bring money, mille francs, or five hundred cents in the day, we will beat you!’ That’s why a lot of the children, they don’t know. If you teach them ABC… they don’t even know, they think about how they can get the mille francs to give it to the marabout before the marabout beats them. So, before they get to the education, it’s going to be very hard for them, so, that’s the way I see it. We should WATCH the children and ask them. Because I am always giving, even here, I help a lot of people here. I cannot lie, if you ask me for something and I say no. If I have it I will give it to you. When I say no, I cannot, it is because I don’t have it. But it’s just like when I share it with the people I ask the children who come to beg from you…You ask them, ho ‘hang on, what’s your name? They tell you their name. You ask them ‘where are they learning?’ They tell you where it is. ‘What size class are you in?’ They tell you, you say ‘o.k Can you repeat this one for me?’ If they do something else, you can tell they are not learning. Most of the children I have met, I tell them just ‘Bismillah’ can you write that for me? Can you say it for me?’ They cannot do that, because of the begging, the money and the marabouts asking them for the money and it’s not right”.
Batch’s solution seems so simple and the best ideas often are. When asked about how to stop the false marabouts, Batch answers simply “By asking the children! Because when you ask the children they will tell you what they are doing. And when you go there you take a police person who will find out what’s going on down there and why he makes all the children…I’m glad because I was doing it – like going to learn but they didn’t ask me for money, but everywhere you go you can find bad people – I believe that. They let me go…at 12o’clock I went begging for something to eat for myself, I’m not giving it to the marabout, dinner is like that, everything is like that, but it’s not like asking me for money. I did have a teacher who was really bad with me though. All the time asking me, sometimes he said to me ‘you have to bring me your breakfast’ if I don’t bring the breakfast he will beat me so I have to take my breakfast. I just give him the breakfast, make sure he doesn’t beat me…”
Batch still can’t hide the positive and he tells me the good side to being a talibe and to having such a hard upbringing. “Yeah, I think it’s bad but it’s the only way to learn, because it’s like a soldier, training soldier, because they’re gonna break all the things inside you. No one can never make you angry”. Physically he lived on the street for up to two months where he didn’t wash and couldn’t change his clothes.
More hardship was to come for Batch. He eventually came to Europe after twice winning a dance competition called ‘Africa, Africa’ by a German based company. The first time he won in 2005, Batch’s passport wasn’t ready so he had to miss his chance until in 2009 he competed and won again. He went with the company to work in Europe and he tells us about what happened “When I left home I was thinking that Europe was painted with diamonds. Most of the Senegalese people don’t know it but I think the best life is there. Because when you come here, you struggle and everybody needs your help and you cannot get that work. When I worked with ‘Africa Africa’ I had a lot of money. I could do a lot of things but I had a sickness there, my back. I couldn’t work. I had to take 8 painkillers everyday, just to stand up and dance. I did that for 9 months for my family: to look after them. I tried to send them the money and they didn’t know it (how ill I was). But in the end they found out: they said to me ‘you can’t do this anymore’. And I knew it was true. They said, you have to sign it, I say ‘I agree’. I signed the end of my contract. My contract finished I called my family, I said ‘I want to come back because the pain I am feeling: I wouldn’t wish God to give it to any living or breathing thing. Not just humans I mean any living creature, I would not want them to experience the pain I was feeling.”
Batch forced himself to do whatever work he could, doing everything from drumming and teaching dance to a job washing up for six months. He tells me that “I was fed up with it and I picked up the music again and the dance because my mum is a singer and dancer. I just bought a guitar. I started to teach myself and played guitar up to now when I started to get a name for myself: so right now we are here @ WOMAD to play. Hopefully it’s going to get bigger and bigger that’s what I wish. I want to help people: a lot of people in Africa. They need my help and I know it!”
I learn about Batch’s family, his musical roots and how he taught himself to play guitar “Before in Africa I used to sing the Baye Fall’ chant – we were doing the chants. I was singing about music my mum used to sing to the dancers. My grandmother was a dancer. My grandfather was a drummer. All my family were either singers or dancers or drummers, but me, I can do it all. But I was shy to sing but when I got here, it was very hard I said ‘o.k then, now’s the time not to be shy!’
I had my guitar. I started to play to myself. I played along, I was doing it like ‘blind guitar because I didn’t even know where to put my fingers. I just put them there, touched it, felt the tune and sung with it. All of my tracks, I don’t write them down, I never write it down. I never write a song.”
I tell Batch about a time when I was sat with my family in Saint-Louis watching Batch perform on t.v for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Batch often performs back in Senegal as well as all over Europe. Always humble, Batch is keen to point out that he wouldn’t be where he is without the support of the people “When I go to Dakar I play there, I take my music videos but I don’t do it long. I stay for 1 month or 1 month and a half. I put my music there to show people I am here, I have nothing to lose but I need their support and we can’t do anything without people. You must show them respect and I know it. I don’t have anything. I’m learning, I’m still learning. So, that’s what I believe, I need their help and that’s why I am doing it.” Batch has played with a variety of Senegal’s best loved artists and a few other well renowned African artists too, including: Youssou N’Dour, the Assane Thiam dance group, Coumba Gawlo, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Anjelique Kidjo, to name a few! He still sites playing with his Baye Fall group as one of his happiest experiences.
Finally I ask Batch about what it means to be Baye Fall and where that legendary Senegalese teranga (hospitality) comes from? He tells me “I am here for everybody. If you say you are Baye Fall, I think you don’t just care about yourself, you care about the people more than yourself. So I give myself to people…Teranga is related to Serigne Touba and Mame Cheikh Ibra Fall and, Mame Al Hajj Bou Kounta, everyone, all of them they know just teranga they always give it to you, never asking for anything in return to be given back. So that’s why I say, if you are Baye Fall you should give. We are Baye Fall, it’s not easy to get angry. We can forgive you, we are serious about that.”
Batch Gueye treats everybody the same, whoever they are. Teranga is a big part of this. He resents people who have criticized his open and accepting attitude. He doesn’t think that fame should alter his way of being. “Sometimes people think you are silly playing with people…meeting friends or hanging around outside…you are everywhere. People think you don’t respect yourself because you are a musician, everybody knows you, but you are dancing. Everybody knows you. I think it’s wrong… People think you are crazy or you are silly, you don’t have any self respect, but I think they are wrong. Because: time for work and time for yourself. Be who you are when you finish the work, do it, be who you are. When you are working, work. When the work is finished I go back to the way I am. Yeah, I want to be famous, but I don’t want to be famous and have a bodyguard, no. Because it’s not life. No. My music and my dance are famous but me, I’m not. I am human like you. We can meet, have a cup of tea, hang around, let’s do that. That’s what I want. Life, that’s what I want.”
Again, humble as always, Batch’s parting message is considerate. “I am human, I can make a mistake. I can say something that’s not right. If I say anything that’s not right, I’m asking for people’s forgiveness. It’s just what I think: maybe I’m right, maybe I’m not right. I give them love and bless to be strong and healthy.” I salute him, Batch Gueye, ever the true star both on stage and in person.
Words and Pictures by Melanie Horstead
Many thanks to WOMAD 2014.
Batch Gueye Band: cd out now