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New York Dispatch: Reggae behind the Wheel, West Africa in Harlem

“I wrote this song about my wife,” he said, turning down the jazz on 88.3, stuffing a CD into the player and fast forwarding to track #3, “It’s about love and hate and how love turns to hate. I still love her.”

We were speeding down Park Avenue when the cab driver’s voice ripped through the speakers in a reggae lament.

The pain in the music was real – and so was the regret in Demba Sacko Dit Dembson Bahama‘s eyes as he told me about the end of his marriage.

“She left. Just like that,” he said, “Went to California. She was really jealous. She didn’t want me to be in music. She didn’t want all the people around me. But it was true love.”

“But music is your other love,” I said, “And you can’t give that up, right?”

We’d known each other for less than 10 minutes, but I figured the cab driver would be open to my two cents.

“No. I can’t give it up,” Demba said, “But I still love her.”

Demba Sacko Dit Dembson Bahama’s second self-released CD is called ‘Refoulement.’

I have no doubt the cabbie is still in love with his ex. But if his decisions are a fair indicator of where his heart lies, Demba loves singing and playing guitar even more. Every year, he goes to home to Mali for three months and “it’s only music. Because that’s what I want to do.”

In New York, Demba Sacko Dit Dembson Bahama drives a taxi six days a week, rehearses on his day off, and cuts his shifts short to practice with his band when they’ve got a gig coming up.

Since his band is in New York, he explained, moving back to Mali (where he fled the dictatorship in the early 1990s and was granted political asylum in the US) or to California (where his ex-wife would like him to be) isn’t an option.

Demba left the CD in the player after we finished listening to ‘Human Right,’ the love-hate song he wrote for his ex (You can listen to a sample of this – and all the songs on Refoulement, his second self-released CD – here).

Before we hit Union Square, the conversation shifted from love to food.

Salimata restaurant, at 2132 Frederick Douglass Blvd. near 116th St., is popular with cabbies and West African expats.

Now that his ex is in California, Demba does most of his own cooking. But he still spends a lot of time eating and hanging out with other West African expats and fellow cabbies in his favorite New York neighborhood: Little Senegal in Harlem.

At Salimata, where the owners and the food are from Guinea, Demba usually orders lamb debee (grilled, sliced lamb chops) and acheke (steamed ground cassava root that’s popular all over West Africa).

When he’s craving flavors from Mali, Demba goes to a restaurant he couldn’t name that’s “across the street from Africa Kine on 116th St. closer to 7th Avenue.”

The day after my ride with Demba, I went to Harlem to search for his Malian mystery spot, where he hadn’t recommended any dishes beyond the daily special.

I walked up and down both sides of West 116th St., and the only place that fit the cabbie’s description was Cafe La Case:

Men were tearing into platters of stew and couscous, shouting over each other in a mixture of French and what I hoped was Bambara (the Malian dialect that Demba speaks in addition to French and English) when I wandered inside. AC Milan and Real Madrid were just kicking off a match on the 40-inch flat screen.

Fufu (left) and fish soup

There was no menu. I asked the girl behind the counter, who busy was aerating coffee between two paper cups, what there was to eat. She yelled for an English speaker. A lady in a hair net stepped out of the kitchen and told me there was fish soup, okra, couscous, rice and fufu.

A few minutes later, face to face with fish soup and fufu, I still wondered if I was in the right place. I worked up the courage to ask the man sitting across from me who was inhaling a bowl of goat stew whether our food was from Mali.

“No,” he said, “Ivory Coast.”

Knowing I was in the wrong place, I didn’t feel so bad about not being in love with my dinner – it was hard to get past the palm oil to make sense of the flavors in my fish soup, and the sweet fufu (made with cassava and plantains) didn’t taste quite right dipped in fish broth. (Had I been eating peanut sauce, I think fufu would have been a great foil.)

I tried to focus on the soccer game and enjoy the bracing bottle of house-made ginger juice (with vanilla, sugar and spring water) that turned out to be my favorite part of my dinner.

I left Cafe la Case after Real Madrid scored their first goal. I watched two yellow taxis pull up in front of the restaurant, still trying to figure out where Demba’s Malian food might be.

Cafe la CaseMap it
219B W. 116th St (between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd) – Harlem
Tel. 646-726-4440
Open: 24/7
Recommended: House-made ginger juice, fufu

Dessert Note: Cafe la Case is down the block from Make My Cake, on the corner of W.116th and St. Nicholas Ave/Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, where they make very good banana pudding and other treats from the South.

Musical Note: You can buy and/or listen to samples of Demba Sacko Dit Dembson Bahama’s music on iTunes and Amazon.

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