Meet the Storytellers (2) Usifu Jalloh (The Cowfoot Prince)
Usifu Jalloh (The Cowfoot Prince)
In this article you'll meet the storyteller, dancer and musician, Usifu Jalloh (The Cowfoot Prince), who has designed a unique platform for African storytelling, dance and music in his show: 'Africa's Cowfoot!!! The Magic of Storytelling.'
You will watch Usifu in action at Ronnie Scott's Jazzclub and observe how he performs, particularly the way he builds rapport with his audience.
The aim of the article is to help you become a better storyteller. This can be within your own family and community, or even as a first step to you becoming a professional storyteller yourself.
But even if you don't aspire to this, you can still sit back, watch, and enjoy a great storyteller in action
Usifu was born in Kamakwie, Sierra Leone.
"I go home often to my village and learn again. I still have my uncles and aunties who still tell me stories from old. I would listen and then tell these stories to fit the culture within which I find myself. I do read a lot of other stories too. But I don't perform most of the stories I read. I prefer the ones I was told from my village."
What is the attraction of storytelling for Usifu?
"Imagination. A moment to disappear into another world where possibilities are endless. It has always been fun for me as a young boy listening to my Grandma or uncles or friends. But also I am a very expressive character so storytelling comes naturally. I like the songs and the community participation. I have sweet memories of sitting around the fire at night in my village with the moon shining and listening to stories while eating millet and catfish. We tell stories to remain eternal".
What makes a good story, and why?
"First is the credibility of the teller. Then there should be memorable characters. An audience should go away remembering the story or parts of it. I think humour is another important key to a good story. Tickle them. When their mouth is wide open with laughter you pour in the truth. Yes the truth. Truth is such the crucial element in making a good story. A story is effective when it is both metaphorically and emotionally true.
What advice did he have for anyone wanting to be a storyteller?
"Listen to many storytellers. BE YOURSELF, the best of YOURSELF.Tell stories you feel strongly about and connect them to your truth."
Click on to the link below to see Usifu on stage in performance.
Usiffu Jalloh on stage
Audience participation is a key feature of Usifu's performance and gives it great energy and vitality. In this film extract, he spends the first minute or so in a fairly low key way establishing his identity with them, and we have a glimpse of the serious side of the man.
The importance of his Sierra Leone heritage is emphasised, but this plays an important role too in building a cultural bridge between him and his audience. By learning of the background to the stories, the audience can connect with and share the tradition of African storytelling . The audience realises that their reactions and participation is important, as Usifu informs them the film may be played to the people of Kamakwie at some point in the future. Being a good audience, they want to help Usifu by showing their appreciation of his talents to the village.
After about two minutes into the performance, Usifu steps up the action and gets the audience more closely involved by asking them to remember and repeat words and phrases. This draws them into the stories; they become an integral part of the process, as would the people of Kamakwie if the same stories were told there.
Usifu also checks out if the audience has remembered key words on occasions by encouraging the audience to fill in the 'blank words' in his narrative. This keeps the audience alert, as they do not know when they may be called to supply the missing words, so pay more attention. Usifu uses repetition to reinforce the words and to encourage more people to join in.
You may have noticed how the volume of audience participation gradually increased during his performance. The audience respond to his enthusiasm: his comic gestures, fast delivery, and diversion into music clearly raise the energy levels in the club.
Usifu launches three stories, all with a fantasy element to them that reflect a West African storytelling tradition, where impossible deeds are done through cunning, trickery or magic. But each is on the theme of food or eating.
Usifu has written about the importance of food on his website - not just as a means of sustenance, but as a means of having social encounters with family and community members. The preparation and communal sharing of food would be an important space for storytelling in the village, and we have in the wild competitive exaggeration of the stories told, a sense of storytellers competing with each other too, in their telling of (very) tall tales!
In Usifu's performance the stories are linked inseparably from the storytelling process. Clearly, the telling of the stories here is as important - if not more so - than the tales themselves.
STAGES OF HIS PERFORMANCE
Although your overall impression may have been a high-octane one, there were quieter episodes too in Usifu's performance that were important for keeping the rapport of the audience.
A continual high speed performance can be draining for both performer and audience and so Usifu builds in some quieter moments (you will notice them around the 5 and 7 minute marks), to momentarily calm the audience and allow them, metaphorically speaking, to regain their collective breaths, before he cranks the energy up again.
The rhythm of the drums he plays also brings variety to the storytelling, but reinforces it too, by linking the toe-tapping drumming rhythm to the narrative at those points.
So what have I missed? What did you think of Usifu's performance? I'd love to hear from you. So leave your comments in the space below
Usifu Jalloh - more information
- Usifu Jalloh storyteller
- Settle Storytelling Festival 10th to 12th October 2014 | Settle Stories
Find out more about our storytelling festival in the lovely market town of Settle, North Yorkshire.