My Name is Youssou


My Name Is Youssou


My real name is Youssou, yes, after the famous musician. My skin is so black my Mama lovingly called me her darkest chunk of coal. When the sun dipped down, the earth cooled, and all was dark - we sat outside where family and neighbors could barely make out my hands, their fingers plucking determinedly in practice, more often tripping or tangled between strings. Mama dreamed big for her youngest son as I sat, quiet, in the dirt, dust between my toes, with a stringed gourd so fat Fatima, my youngest sister, could have sat in it. 

 “Fati, Mariama listen!” I flipped the gourd over, my grin widening.  I drummed it fast with my fingertips.

 “It sounds like rain drops; we dance!” My sisters chorused and my fingers tapped and slid along the back side of the gourd in an ever-frenzied rhythm. My mind flew free as Fatima and Mariama held the bottom of their pange-skirts and stomped and rocked, flapping them, and soon other friends joined. Mama must have been hiding for just then she spied down at me, eyes sending out furious sparks in the fire’s dying light. I stopped up short, my forehead clenched, I pinched myself hard and turned my kora, strings facing me, and set to plucking, even that my mind was not there.

 One day, a grand teacher came, elegant in long white robes. He heard my fingers skipping and placed me on his wooden stool, asking my name. Mama answered: My son will be a music star! My wiry body hid in the kora’s shadow. Much later, this teacher bent, his crisp Kufi cap brushing my cropped hair, and asked: Young musician, what is your dream?  Grand teacher’s question emboldened me. Someday, I will beat a djembe’s rhythm - everyone will dance

 However, Mama’s words kept urging, and with this teacher’s patient hands, I learned to speak with the sounds and pulses that came forth from my gourd, its strings; and Mama was pleased. She often reminded me: My son, strings are what angels play. You will sit refined and be a famous kora musician. Mama knows!

 As puberty struck, my fingers were flying and I sang love songs, but the sound of my heart flowed out of the gourd’s hole, and no young lady ever noticed me. Mama tapped on my palm with her long brown finger, telling me: No worries son. Talk with your kora, people will hear your music. They will come for your instrument and celebrate its sound. 

 “Mama, the people hear, but are lost in my plucking fingers. They don’t see the man, I’m Youssou!” However, my voice was lost, a cry inside my head. My fingers plucking sang, and that is what Mama heard. So, I imagined my escape; travel to where money grows on trees, and I could slap and spank and be a percussionist. But, would I dare? It passed that Mama died, and my sisters married, and an uncle, Moussa, living in that land with trees that have money for leaves, said, “Come!” So, I emigrated.

 Moussa met me at his Manhattan office on 5th avenue and 53rd. He looked a twin to my dead father, but everything else was a shock. No elegant robes nor Kufi cap and no office; only bright stretchy sports pants, a grey T-Shirt, and a baseball cap spun backwards on his head. His hand had a firm grasp of a thick rope that I saw webbed out to the four corners of a white sheet. On this sheet, sat three colorful rows of fancy women’s purses. Moussa clapped me on my shoulder, without letting the rope slack, laughed and teased. “So! Here to play that silly African music and survive?”

 I sputtered in shock and was embarrassed for my uncle and his horrid pants. The wide sidewalk flashed with a thousand colored shoes and I held my kora firm. All the people, the vibration in their steps, the humming and honking of vehicles, the slide and scrape of the city; it made my palms itch to slap a rhythm to match it, and I wiped them on my pant leg. The city’s noises vibrated through my body, and I felt alive and then saddened, Mama’s dream in my ears. No money was shaking loose from trees, but I had my kora, my fingers and a little hope.

 A steel, green, bracketed opening going down into darkness. Hundreds of bodies jostled on the stairs. The rush and suck of wind hit me, as I followed the throng. I descended into the subway system, my kora and stool tight against my black robe. Amazing and frightening, I found myself in the humid gut of a long gray vibrating snake. As a train approached, there was a sound like sword fighting, and then all the people surged and flowed. I found a corner of this snake’s belly, against a grate, and out of the direct streams, and this is where I sat my stool.

 My pants were also black, and on my head, no baseball cap. I had a fine Kufi that cost me three meals. I sat, in monk-like stillness, only the whites of my eyes, like thin strips of a moon, lit my coal face. My fingers started to dance and sing across my kora’s strings, filling subway stations, sending sounds echoing down corridors and darkened train tunnels. Colorful blocks of people, fighting upstairs, then others pushing down, all in concert with the subways’ mechanical whine. I sat still, my fingers continued to dance, coins pitched into my cup, and Praise be to Allah, I never wanted.

 There were those that were fascinated, watching my fingers fly, and some threw my kora money, thinking she was hungry, but most just passed; I wasn’t famous, and I missed something which I couldn’t name. Mama hadn’t known what was best.  Another day, the draw, hiss, screech of the trains, bang of mechanic doors and two more coins tinkle-thumped into my cup.  My eyes focused, my forehead nodded, my fingers plucked, and a blond ponytailed bobbed behind a woman’s head. “What a marvelous type of guitar. . .sounds delicate like angels fliting in rain - then an echo so soft.” Her face crinkled, an enchanting smile.

 I barely could whisper. “It’s called a kora.”  My tongue felt thick; my head bowed.  I hoped she heard my thoughts through my gourd, What’s your name? We could have a coffee!

 After that day I saw her often, her eyes concentrated, her smile light, and a quarter or two dropping from her fingertips. She always listened for a minute and my fingers played frantically trying to talk.

 Mama said and pony-tailed woman repeated, a sound like angels! The shame, my inner struggle, was to just flip my kora over on her face and slap a sound that would have god and the devil dancing. I pinched myself hard and bowed my head, starting another song. I made enough and lived an honest life.

  One day, fate turned, and a huge fire with hungry flames leapt through my Brooklyn apartment taking no prisoners. I flailed and fought, and in that instant, wondered why? Was this my chance to run? I thought to, but my feet were trapped in the sand outside Mama’s house. The blazing caught my arm, and in panic I lunged in a sudden adrenaline horror to save my African instrument. In a heat hotter than the Sahara’s, I saw her burn and felt, with her, my body break into invisible pieces, swirling, burning, forever lost without the voice of my calabash gourd. 

             Then a new reality - the sounds from a hospital burn unit are the worst. People understand why the drugs they serve are so potent. Chilling howls heard only in a jungle, rocketed through charred frames. And those came from my throat too, though I was not sure I was even alive and truthfully hoped to be dead, as I lay isolated and mute.

             I’d lost my kora, my way to engage, speak, and earn my life. Throughout my body it either pained or was numb. Serious, medical people spoke, grim-faced, eyes focused, addressing my mummied right arm. Words, discordant and incomprehensible, like necrosis and disarticulation, floated from their mouths. My dead hand never heard them and could not reply. I never saw their eyes, and they left heads bowed. A super, plastic bubble sealed them out and me in. Finally, their fierce stew of narcotics kicked and flowed through my body, slogging my brain, and forcing the organ grinder’s monkey in my head to sleep. 

 And I dreamt.

  My entire body leans into a bubble, I push until it pops, like pink chewing gum. I am free. I cradle an unknown stump. Whose is this? I wonder. 

 Two people with a short-legged dog approach; they don’t see me. They are absorbed, engaged in a silent relay, faces glowing, hands and fingers dancing silently. Everything is still - even the dog walks on hushed paws. They pass and I come upon a turret-tower with a clock face and a copper-colored bell. Both the sun and the clock indicate it would soon strike noon. Then the clock’s big hand slides on top of its partner, but the bell remains quiet, glinting in the sun. 

 A coffee shop on the corner is a relief. I anticipate a tinkling sound as I push open the door, but there’s none. Instead, a young woman, pink cap over ponytailed blond hair, raises her palm to chest height, wiggles her fingers, and smiles. The girl from the subway? I am dying for, “Coffee, black!” My voice is loud in my ears - I can almost taste the liquid before the words come out. She stares, shaking her head, pointing down to the menu, artfully designed with graphics of coffee drinks and food. Her finger taps the first picture and then slides to the second. Her eyes light, amusement and question, and they are beautiful. I’m wondering if this dream is some child’s game where one’s not allowed to speak, and to win, one must use drawings to communicate. I tap the cartooned black coffee, wanting to tell her thanks for all the quarters and…. I just return her smile. 

 “Thank you,” I squeak, gulping the coffee, realizing she can’t hear. I cradle my elbow, feel the fingers move. Then, looking down, I am shocked to see only a fingerless stump wrapped in fresh white linen.

 Around me, everyone sits in pin-drop silence, sipping coffee and communicating in a language I don’t know. I know music, melody, harmony, and base. I’m known by the music I make. Suddenly, a cold feeling creeps over me. I’m alone in this world! Customers’ fingers fly like tiny finches in a private concert, while without my lovely kora, I am lost to communicate. I can’t be heard.  I look up, two men at a table make basset faces, and one points to the remains of my right limb. Do they truly see me? I can’t ask. This is a nightmare.

 I sip my coffee and hear Mama’s voice following even in this worst of horrid dreams, and she scolds: “Still your body, Youssou, use your fingers.”  Outside, I stand before the silent clock tower, and stretching from buttocks to neck I scream: “Mama, look, I have no instrument, I have no hand, no one sees me, no one hears me! Help!”

 Noiselessness and pale tones are the only things I hear as my phantom fingers pluck invisible strings. I long for sound and wander my dream searching. I spy the marquee, a movie theater! Here I will sit and let sounds simply seep in. I take my paper stub between the scissored fingers of my arm that’s supporting my stump, whose gone fingers are busy plucking, or are they reaching in jealousy to hold the movie ticket? 

  In the theater, beautiful couples find seats and connect small LED screens to their chairs. The widescreen opens with a symphony of images, popcorn popping and soda slushing over ice, yet there’s not one sound. I surreptitiously glance at my neighbor’s tiny screen and watch the words, ‘pop pop’ and ‘fizz splash’ interspersed with music notes marching across in LED. The ticket lady hadn’t seen me; certainly, she couldn’t hear me, and I didn’t get one of those magic screens. I watch Doctor Dolittle, like a silent movie and am envious of the happy couples, of their LED screens that communicate, and of perhaps the animal doctor himself.

 I am voiceless in my world. When will this damn dream end? I wonder, can you daydream in your drugged dream?  I feel so alone, tired, unseen. A stark realization comes to me: It will make no difference if I wake or not. I have been carrying my stump like a dead baby around this dream-town. Without my kora, I have no means to communicate. 

 My reality swarms me, eyes tear, sight blurs and my foot whacks into a metal bucket someone left out to catch the rain. It scrapes, then rolls along the base of the clock tower, its handle clanging. It holds a sudden, delicious sound, and I run to trap it, grabbing it up, as my stump dangles free. My heart pounds in my ears, as I plop, lungs heaving, on to the wooden steps.  Just like I was a young boy, my legs spread in a wide V. The metal bucket is firm between my stump and knees. Then, my left-hand taps, then slaps. Its fingers drum pinkie to thumb, testing the bucket’s sides, edge, and bottom. My left hand spanks the metal and my whole body vibrates, feeling my stump alter the bucket’s tone.

 I look up, an African sunset in my eyes and my sisters are smiling. They dance whopping and call: We hear you! That sun fades and another golden one gleams from behind the clock tower as I see the men and their short-legged dog coming close. My whole body is rocking, My left hand flicks and my stump slides, god’s and the devil’s rhythm come forth, and I am finally communicating. I look up and there is a beautiful pair from the movies, the older men from the coffee shop, and the young woman with the ponytail and her smile is fixed on me and many smiles I’ve never seen, and behind them, is a fading glow of my Mama’s eyes. Everyone is swaying, their bodies carried by my bucket beat, and they see, no, they are looking right at me. 

 I am again in sterile plastic. A hospital bed. Consciousness coming slowly. Looking down, I see my fingers are drumming and I lean into the pillow and laugh. 

 My name is Youssou - I am still a musician.   


Dena Linn


Dena Linn raised in a So. California commune and bent to adventure found her passion exploring the world and fragility of human nature. Her experiences give her voice the flavor of many cultures from Shanghai to M’Bour, NYC to Guanajuato and Lillesand. Dena won First-Place for the short, The Problem Is, published by at:  Her short, The Bully, published by Down in the Dirt under ‘writings’ at  and will be printed in their October 2022 issue of Down in the Dirt magazine (v200, released 10/1/22). Four additional short stories have been published in two anthologies produced by Transcendent Authors. Her work can also be found on:                          


  1. "However, Mama’s words kept urging, and with this teacher’s patient hands, I learned to speak with the sounds and pulses that came forth from my gourd, its strings; and Mama was pleased. She often reminded me: My son, strings are what angels play. You will sit refined and be a famous kora musician. Mama knows!" My favorite paragraph from this amazing prose. From Linda

  2. Linda - thanks for reading this story was so important for me to write! Dena

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