G train.

Brooklyn-bound toward Church Ave.

Opposite direction of Williamsburg,

thank God.

I exit at 7th Ave for a short but familiar walk down Ninth Street in South Slope and pause in front of my Wednesday night mecca. Looking down at my feet, a pleasant awareness settles over me that I'm wearing shoes about to be danced in for the first time. In all its inconspicuous glory, standing on a corner a few blocks from Prospect Park, is my favorite bar and performance space in the city, Barbès.

Every Wednesday night for the past 15 years, Guinean guitarist Mamady Kouyaté and his band, the Mandingo Ambassadors, have poured sonorous ancestral remembrance of late 20th century West African jazz orchestras, 1980s Afro-Cuban brass melodies, and hypnotic foreign vocals into Barbès’s snug backroom. Having once played with the legendary Bembeya Jazz National, Mamady is a craftsman comfortably situated among the gods. After Guinea gained its independence in 1958, to help further flower cultural pride in the new country, President Sékou Touré formed several state subsidized bands. Most prized in popularity across the region was Bembeya Jazz National.

Mamady playing instrument
Mamady Kouyaté, image courtesy of Mamady Kouyaté

To hear Mamady play is to have sound strummed into one's imaginary. What he offers are glimpses into the temporal amber of a Malick Sidibé photograph allowing us two hours to cavort alongside those dancers celebrating a post-colonial future.[1] His practice preserves. It also deifies. Since happening upon this anomalous recurring performance, I ​​have brought readers, writers, lovers, friends, curators, elders, and other musicians to witness this coalescence of Black spatiotemporal realities. This will be my 26th time watching the band perform. I’m late to arrive today, so pocketing the memories I acquiesce to the familiar polyphony tugging me through the door, order a glass of Diavolo red wine and a shot of ouzo at the bar—a felicitous libation of flint and steel to set myself ablaze as I make my way to the dance floor.

The music started an hour ago. As I ease past the curtain that separates the bar from the backroom, I find myself at the Museum of Modern Art for Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition Spirit Movers staring deep into the brush strokes of a Bill Traylor watercolor. Fortunately, I’ve got a moment, for Mamady has just declared intermission with a broad sweep of his arm. Tucked into the street level galleries is the museum’s 16th installment of its Artist’s Choice series, which invites an artist to curate a show from its vast collection spanning thousands of works (on view until April 7, 2024).

Bill Traylor. c. 1939-1942. Watercolor and pencil on board, 14 x 13 3/4". Gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This exhibition unfurls from an investigation of Black cultural and aesthetic practices inspired by the styles, experiences, forms, and sounds of the African diaspora. Weaving artists like Terry Adkins, Moustapha Dimé, Betye Saar, and Edgar Arceneaux into a patterned lineage, she asks their practices to breathe long and articulated life into the conceptual premise of a spirit mover. Assembled are items that betray the still and instead embody a gesture, items that signify devotion toward a rhythmic way of making. With this exhibition, Wales Bonner is thinking about what histories become embedded into an artwork as a result of labor, environment, and the passing of time. Naturally then, in the penciled depths of Arched Drinker (1939-52) by Bill Traylor, I am nothing short of transfixed and feel the sinews in my body contort toward the memory of total freefall that the figure is undergoing. This is not a jump, rather the figure has been flung by something unknown. Controlled by this mysterious and unseen presence, our character tosses a drink back into its widespread mouth, very ok with succumbing to the ineffable. Now it is my turn.


Elongated strokes of the electric guitar eclipse the hushed conversation alerting the Brooklynites around me that the intermission is now a thing of the past. Wading through a thicket of sweaty arms and legs I push to the front of the scene and wind up face-to-face with the bell-end of a trumpet. Three electric guitarists, a man on the acoustic drums, and another on the congas read from left to right. The trumpeter stands slightly in front of them. Each one is Barkley L. Hendricks painting cool. Large black speakers stack up high behind the band ascending toward the sky in monument to their music. A gray sign reading Hotel D’Orsay watches over us all from the top right. As we veer into the latter half of this musical jaunt the tempo quickens. Barbés’s signature soft red lighting cascades from its fixtures coating every facet of the wooden interior from ceiling to the floor all the while throwing shadows full of narrative. I glance to the right side of a grand piano lying dormant behind the conga player and lay eyes on a horizon line that looks familiar.

Many Wednesdays ago, I invited a woman I was seeing that I wanted to experience this sonic excursion with. We stood side by side enraptured by Mamady for many moments until no longer being able to resist the urge, I grabbed her hand, pulled her close, and crotch-to-crotch we danced round and round like I’ve watched my Cape Verdean uncles do. She buried her head deep into the safety of my shoulder and I allowed the aromas coming off her hair to intoxicate me. We spun and we spun, our momentum rendering the crowd faceless. I let out a booming laugh in delight and she responded with one in kind. The band snatched them from the air and sewed them into a song. “This one is for the lovers,” Mamady announced before walking us through a ballad.

Man playing instrument
W. Eugene Smith. Rahsaan Roland Kirk. 1964. Gelatin silver print, 11 1/2 × 7 1/4″. Gift of Richard L. Sandor. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 1964, 2023 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.

That night the electric guitar carried more soul than I knew an instrument could, the trumpet spit venom, and the saxophonist spoke in tongues. Chasing a riff, I spun out on my own letting my feet carry me wayward through a forest of bodies and blindly stuck out my right hand behind me. She caught it, and we continued the preservation of the story presented to us on the dance floor. Reluctantly I departed to relieve myself in the bathroom. Dashing back, I stopped in the doorway to watch her, entranced and desperate to entomb these seconds. She twirled in solitude, swaying—for herself. Her feet did not touch the ground. Her Audre Lorde “uses of the erotic”[2] tattoo emblazoned down the length of her forearm glistened like those dancing lights in the skies up north. There were many people packed into the backroom that night but glancing to my right in that horizon line next to the piano where the red fades into the black, she was the only one to cast a shadow. I watched the shape of her dance for many more seconds, begging them to remain with me for a lifetime. Oh, how a shadow holds.

Further proof of the profundity of a shadow lies in Synapse (1992) by Terry Adkins which situates itself as the apex of Spirit Movers. Made up of drum skin, metal, and enamel, the skin has been stretched to meet the demands of the circle that holds it, speaking to Black musical traditions and to bind reference with abstract interpretation. Adkins, known for his dedication to immortalizing African-American heritage through a sculptural practice of placing found objects imbued with social and historical significance in impact with each other once said: “My quest has been to find a way to make music as physical as sculpture might be, and sculpture as ethereal as music is... to make both of those pursuits do what they are normally not able to do.”[3] In Synapse resides a musical performance. The frame of the sculpture takes up the role of philharmonic conductor and the two very large ovalesque shadows it casts are the ensemble. I see the shadows as an orchestra, as dancers, they are lovers, they are neurons in communion with one another.

Art gallery room
Installation view of Artist’s Choice: Grace Wales Bonner—Spirit Movers, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from November 18, 2023 through April 7, 2024. Photo: Emile Askey.

Pulling objects and narratives that hold periods of time very still into a room together is a practice on display both in Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition and in the back room of Barbès. 

Cue: An uproarious round of applause. Mamady and the Mandingo Ambassadors have finished playing, but no one leaves. The music has stopped but the residue lingers in the air. Embedded in the wake of their recital is a spiritual presence of the past. To understand Spirit Movers is to live by the strum of Mamady Kouyaté’s electric guitar.  

[1] Jon Henley, “Interview: Malick Sidibé photographs: One nation under a groove. The Guardian, February 26, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/
artanddesign /2010/feb/27/

[2] Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.

[3] Terry Adkins, Rahr-West Art Museum, 2020.