Somali Seafarers in America

New York was always a treasury of recordable persons of various ethnic origins. When I didn't happen to be on a field trip somewhere I often worked with singers, drummers or informants from the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere. Once, for example, when I was working on a book of East African tales I managed to locate a young Somali seaman named Mosa Mahamed who had jumped ship in New York. Not only was he eager to tell Somali stories, he was very pleased to learn that he would be paid for his time. Mosa came to my apartment on West 10th Street twice a week, and I was delighted with the stories he told. Then one day he failed to appear, and I heard nothing from or about him for several weeks. Eventually I received a note from someone on Ellis Island, a letter written at Mosa's request. It seems he was on the Island awaiting deportation, and he wanted to know if I could do anything to help him out of his predicament. I went to the Manhattan office of the Immigration Department and talked to the man in charge of the case. He told me there was really nothing I could do. Many East African seamen had been jumping ship in New York, and orders had come down to find them and send them home. The man briefly described the circumstances surrounding Mosa's apprehension. An inspector had entered a small Brooklyn restaurant patronized by Somalis. He had a list in his hand and called out “Is Mosa Mahamed here?" A melee erupted, with people trampling one another to get out the door or through the windows. It seems that most of them were named Mosa Mahamed, or something close to that, and almost all were illegals. My Mosa was one of those who didn't escape. The immigration officer seemed sympathetic about Mosa, however, and he gave me a pass to visit Ellis Island and spend some time with him. The next day I made the trip. Once there, I was presented with several Mosa Mahameds before I found the right one. I explained that I couldn't do anything to prevent his being sent home, but I gave him some money, which cheered him up. Though I had no recorder, he dragged me to a relatively quiet corner where he insisted on telling me some more Somali tales, which I had to take down with pencil and paper. It was the last time I saw him.

Most of my recording at that time had to do with Caribbean, principally Haitian, traditions. Even in those days there were quite a few Haitians in New York. My friend Wilfred Beauchamp was one of my principal informants. Every now and then he brought new Haitian informants to my apartment, and occasionally an African. One of Beauchamp's African discoveries was a Senegalese named Sobihas Tore. Tore had worked for Ringling Brothers, and had arrived in New York with a consignment of newly-acquired circus animals. The animals debarked in the usual way, in crates, but Tore slid down a mooring rope and merged as quickly as possible into the Harlem scene. When Beauchamp brought Tore to me, this former animal attendant adopted us as his countrymen because we both, in varying degrees, spoke French. The first time Lydia Augustin who was talking no one made a sound. I also remember Alphonse Cimber, who was a promising drummer. Though he was a complete Haitian in most respects, he didn't know some of the Vodoun drum rhythms, and he sometimes came to my place separately from the others so I could help him with what I happened to know. (Later on he became a professional Afro-Haitian drummer and played in a few stage and film productions.) Eventually my supply of acetate blanks gave out. This was critical, because in 1940 and 1941 it was difficult, if not impossible, to acquire recording discs. In desperation I cut out the bottom of a rather heavygauge plastic hat box, trimmed it to size and recorded on that. It seemed to work rather well, but I can't remember anyone ever commenting on this brilliant improvisation.