Everyone loves a good story

‘We are more similar than we realise,’ says actor-storyteller Usifu Jalloh of people in West Africa and India

“I come from a family of storytellers. As a little boy my evenings were spent listening to stories told by my grandmother and uncles,” smiles Usifu Jalloh. One of the world’s most prolific storytellers, Usifu, an artiste, musician and educator was in Hyderabad to share stage at the finale of Musical Story Tour organised by Story Arts India.

Usifu started formally sharing stories as a professional more than 25 years ago. Having trained as an actor in Sierra Lone, US and UK as well as in traditional African dance, he has worked for theatre and movies and says that all these facets come alive while he is on stage. “Storytelling needs both the knowledge and experience of other arts, from dance to music and visual arts. It helps us imagine and transcend boundaries between a performer and the audience,” he explains.

Usifu Jalloh from West Africa

Usifu Jalloh from West Africa

Storytelling will always be relevant he feels as it is intrinsic to the social fabric of society. “It is more important than ever,” he states emphatically in his rich voice before adding, “The success of an individual, a family and a country are dependent on whether they identify with their past or not. Oral narratives play an important role in helping one understand the importance of one’s history. Storytelling therefore will always play a role in giving one an identity and aligning oneself with their roots.”

Bollywood boom

Feted across the world for his contribution to the field, Usifu says that Indians underestimate the importance of Bollywood around the world. He remarks, “What is Bollywood but stories? It has helped the world understand and appreciate Indian culture and people.” He further adds that no good movie can be made without taking inputs from our traditional folklore and cites the example of Beauty and the Beast and Kuch Kuch Hota Hain.

Laughing at my surprise of a West African storyteller quoting a two-decade old Bollywood movie, he explains, “I’ve long been a Bollywood fan. Look at Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, it’s a typical story from Indian traditional history and is inspired from stories of Krishna and his gopis. Its basis is the universal dilemma of loving a person more than oneself. It worked because it connected with everyone.” There is hardly a street in Sierra Leone where you don’t see a Bollywood movie, he shares, adding that the pulling power of Bollywood is never to be underestimated.

Between Africa and India, he finds many similarities. “We are more similar than we realise,” he muses. “I think that our cultures are simply variants of each other, it’s like looking at the same story from a different angle. Look at our worship of cows. Indians and Africans, both look at cows with the same principle of compassion. It really showcases our similar cultural connect.”

Oral narratives

The biggest challenge for the current generation of storytellers, he says, is the fact that people have forgotten the importance of oral narratives. “Storytelling holds a mirror to the society. So, it’s imperative this art form continues to thrive.” he adds.

Enjoying his visit to India, Usifu is intrigued that the temperature, fruits and vegetables are similar to Africa. “The cuisine here is excellent,” he beams, “Apart from the food, what has touched me was the friendliness and generosity of people here, who have accepted me as one of their own.”

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