Mali Journal: In Search of the Griot
by Judith Eissenberg, Music – Brandeis University
Trio da Kali, PHOTO: ©MOUSTAPHA DIALLO
It was mid-October, and I was having another email exchange with Lucy Durán, who is curator for Trio Da Kali, a trio of griots (hereditary musician/historian/story-teller/poet/praise-singers from Southern Mali of Mande ethnicity) that MusicUnitesUS is bringing over in February for a week-long residency. Lucy is formidable – a musician, musicologist, record producer and radio presenter for the BBC. She produced records featuring African musicians including kora player Toumani Diabaté first six albums, singer Kasse Mady Diabaté, ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and Sephardic singer Yasmin Levy, to mention a few. She is working on a project that aims to rescue older styles and repertoires that have been rarely heard since the 1980’s – when the tradition went electric. In the middle of this exchange, she said, “Look, Judy, I’m going over there to work with the trio…I’ll be working with Toumani as well…you’ll learn more in 10 days than you’d learn in a year, just come! We’ll be able to work out their residency at Brandeis; I’ll get your visa, I’ll take you everywhere, you’ll meet all these griots, we’ll go to their homes, weddings where they’ll sing…just come!” Ten minutes later, contrary to all the voices in my head telling me I shouldn’t, it was done, the tickets bought. This research trip, generously funded by the Theodore and Jane Norman Fund, will extend my knowledge in Malian music (which I teach about as part of the African module in MUS 3b – Intro to World Music), and will be enormously beneficial in curating the upcoming MusicUnitesUS residency.
I’ve taught about the griot tradition in my World Musics class; we always listen to a kora piece…and I’d gone to two concerts of Malian musicians in Boston this fall: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, and Vieux Farka Touré –wonderful concerts. (That alone says a lot about the contemporary global reach of Malian music). But nothing prepared me for the experience of a great griot vocalist standing two feet away, singing to me, personally. Every single time Hawa sang to me, I cried. Her voice is so dense and rich – there’s a way it drives right to your heart, speaking some sort of truth that, if you know what’s good for you, you will not ignore. This is a griot…and each time I hear her, I think, “this is what we all need.”
Thursday, Oct. 31 – Nov.1
All smooth…I meet up with Lucy in the Paris airport and we make the six-hour flight to Bamako together. The Aga Khan Development Network driver is there to take us to the Hotel Mande. It’s hot…the city is busy. We drive by miles of low storefronts – very, very basic buildings, peeling paint, run down, red dirt everywhere. I’m struck with the contrast between the poor conditions - trash mounds and raw sewage in the background – and the beautifully elegant, gracious, and colorful way the women dress as they walk around the city. Dinner at the Mande, a sunset to die for, and bed.
Sunset at the Mande
Saturday, Nov. 2
Out by the pool and waiting for an eclipse that never happened (at least not here). The Malian phrase for eclipse is “The cat stole the sun.” We get the news that two French radio journalists were killed by gunmen in northern Mali shortly after being being abducted in the town of Kidal. Everyone’s talking with shock about this. What does it mean for Bamako, and the people going about their own lives here? In the afternoon we visit the homes of several griots that Lucy knows and has worked with. There are a number of Mali griot families – Kouyaté, Diabaté, Sissoko, Dagnon, etc.…all griots come from these families. You are born a griot…you may not turn out to be a musician, but you are a griot. Griots are revered for their historical and cultural knowledge, and their poetic/musical art. Lucy speaks Bambara (I think she may speak a total of seven languages), plays kora, and knows many of the griot songs. Time after time, I watch the faces of people here break into smiles when she speaks with them in their language. It’s so important to make the effort. As I’ll learn throughout my time here, she knows much more than the language. She tells me a story of being stopped by the police and getting out of a tight spot by singing a praise song to the officer. She asked his name, then sang his family’s song. He is stunned to hear this from a white Westerner, then waves her on. She has many stories like this.
Sunday, Nov. 3
In the morning, we watch a bride and groom get photos taken out by the pool, with the Niger River in the background. She is dressed in a white gown, a symbol not so much of the West, but of modernity.
Wedding photo at the Mande
A bit later French soldiers walk in. Apparently they are just here for a swim. I begin to notice soldiers here and there…they have taken over four of the biggest, fanciest hotels in Bamako. On our drive through Bamako, Lucy points out the French Embassy. The last time she was here, the high walls with barbed wire were not there; things have changed.
We’re invited to a traditional wedding party (called a sumu) at which Hawa Diabaté (of Trio Da Kali) will be singing. It’s in the street, in an open area between low, concrete block housing…we walk through the dirt to where the colorful tarps are set up.
Watching the Sumu – a traditional wedding party
There are several hundred gorgeously dressed women with the most elegant wrap around dresses, headdresses. I am welcomed by Hawa, with a traditional praise song. This is my first personal experience with a griot; her voice penetrates my heart as she sings to me a few feet away, her eyes on mine, her arms spread wide.
Hawa at the sumu
We stay for about an hour, as Hawa takes charge of the party, singing and accompanied by the djembes. She will go for twelve hours this way. The women seated at the head - about twenty of them - are all griots, Lucy tells me. Apparently, if you are a griot, you can show up to any of theses sumus, and whether or not you are related to the couple, you are recognized and can accept money along with the other griots who are there. There is a lot of dancing…women come up in line dances to give money. Sometimes they approach the djembes to take a short solo, and occasionally a drummer will walk up to a woman and call her to dance. When they come to me, I know I must dance! There is, of course, laughter, but warmth as well. I’m so glad I was asked.
We visit internationally renowned kora player, Toumani Diabate at his grin in a small neighborhood in Bamako. A grin is a sort of meeting place/informal social club. Men get together in the evening, outside, and discuss things. This grin is in the half-finished compound Toumani is building as a guesthouse – one of his many houses in Bamako. At the moment, it’s really just the shell of a concrete structure, two floors with a florescent tube hanging on one wall. There are a few fold-up chairs there to sit on. A man brings sweetened tea, pouring it into small glasses throughout the night. One drinks quickly, and hands it back so someone else can follow. Toumani tells us his side of the story of what’s going on politically in Mali. Not the north, but what is happening here, in Bamako. Everyone agrees things seem much worse than before the coup.
We’ve joined up with World Music producer Nick Gold of the World Circuit record label. Nick is the producer of the sensational Buena Vista Social Club (Cuban musicians) and Ali Farka Touré albums. He’s here to work with Lucy on a new album with Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki. In the days ahead, I want to ask him about how he sees his role as Western producer of local world traditions – cultural production.
Monday, Nov. 4
Lucy and I go to the offices of the Aga Khan Development Network to meet with Zahida Virani, Management Program Liaison Officer. Zahida is a lawyer – before she came to Mali, she was working for the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). She found that work interesting and fulfilling, but wanted to - in her words - look forward, not backward. She wants to help build, so she’s now doing development work and feels she is involved in some projects that are really changing people’s lives, such as those of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. After the meeting, we lunch at the French Institute. Soldiers inspect our bags and we enter through a metal detector.
This afternoon is the first rehearsal with the trio, in the top floor of the hotel. It is in a conference room with florescent lighting, folding tables, plastic chairs, and a sound system that is adequate for this purpose. Lassana Diabaté sets up two balafons on some chairs, and Mamadou Kouyaté pulls his ngoni onto his lap and starts plucking out a bass line. They start to work on a song and Lucy listens, offering ideas on some of the cycling ostinatos Lassana plays under Hawa’s breathtaking lines. I’m surprised at all the changes Lucy suggests. Later I ask her about it, wondering how on earth that can be right for her to tell them how to play their own music.
Trio Da Kali in rehearsal at the Mande
Turns out, she knows songs they don’t know; older songs that she has researched, listened to, and played, herself, on her kora. They are excited that she is sharing this part of the repertoire to which they don’t have access. This cross-cultural collaboration will become even more apparent when she works with Toumani and his son. World Music offers an interesting lens to the complex and sometimes surprisingly intimate processes of globalization.
We’re supposed to go to hear Toumani and his son tonight, but what was to be a 9 pm session still hadn’t started at 11. So instead, Lucy, Nick, Paul, an American who has a recording studio in Bamako, and I meet with Ousmane. Ousmane is a local man (married to international singer Oumou Singaré) with a demo recording he wants produced; this turns out to lead to an interesting discussion. The recording is of a very distinctive pair of instruments…the rarely heard 6-string doson n’goni (hunter’s harp from the Wassalu region in the south) and a Senufo balafon. The criticism he’s gotten from Western ears (including the record producer he is courting) is that the potential album needs more variation, and that something about the music itself won’t hold the ears of people who aren’t steeped in the tradition. I found it dark, velvety, and intriguing…but after a few songs – to my Western ears - it sounded like a landscape waiting for a subject. Ousmane’s argument is that people in Mali would know this distinctive music, and wouldn’t need anything more. He wants it produced just the way it is. But he is asking a Western producer to get it out. This is such a classic ‘world music’ discussion. How much will a local musician change the music to appeal to the tastes of people who know little if anything about the music? What happens to the music when changes like this are made? Can one just insert a vocalist to fill the space? Throw in a drumbeat to keep interest? How does it feel to be asked to change it by an outsider? Nick, Lucy and I have a conversation about this…Nick points out that this happens with Western popular music all the time, it isn’t necessarily a case of imposing the West on the Other…the record producer makes changes to artists’ work in order to be successful. Some artists refuse and become independent, others are enormously grateful. I wonder what the final result for this album will be; will I hear it someday in an arranged version, altered to suit the Western ear? Is that necessarily a bad thing? Before I came here, I would have said yes, but I see how complicated things are. The Trio is interested in developing a range of style; they are very open to working with Lucy; Ousmane is less willing to change – but more than that, doesn’t have an understanding of this musical barrier across culture.
Just as I am going to bed, I read this on the GOV.UK website: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to Bamako and against all travel to the rest of Mali.
Tuesday, Nov. 5
Today was Trio Da Kali’s first rehearsal in preparation for their project with the Kronos Quartet, who they will meet up with in a month. The Kronos has done some wonderful collaborations with local world traditions – I have to say, I’m quite envious. I can’t wait to hear the results of this project.
The collaboration and the Western-style staging of this music presents unique challenges. For example, in the traditional setting, a wedding party that could go on for 12 hours, everyone would be involved, dancing, clapping…the question here is, how to put this musical tradition in a Western concert hall, where the performance is not participatory, but presentational? What do we ask of the performers, what do we ask of the audience? Hawa is an amazing griot singer, with a beautiful stage presence. It begins to take shape before our eyes.
Dinner with Zahida and Lucy at the Mande. It is a stunning evening, the sun red and full over the Niger. Zahida tells us about the destruction of some of the mosques and other buildings the Aga Khan Development Network restored in Timbuktu and elsewhere in the north. When/how will it end? Meanwhile, I think about Paul Chandler – the American who has a small recording studio here - who will soon give up his teaching job at the American School here in Bamako to manage twenty local music festivals in the north, in partnership with an NGO who will be coordinating parallel reconciliation efforts. Later, I meet Manny Nasar, who directs the Festival in the Desert project (http://www.festival-au-desert.org/). As the website says, “Following the evolution of the political and social situation in Mali and the challenges for peace and the reconciliation of people in Mali and in the whole region, the Festival au Désert is now playing a role that goes far beyond a mere cultural and musical event.” Pairing music with cultural work like this is so powerful.
From Festival au Désert’s website
After dinner, we are off to spend the evening at chez Michell. Michel is an elegant older French man – with a spicy sense of humor – a patron of young Malian artists. He loves this music, the arts, and Mali. We arrive at a neighborhood full of ex-pats, and walk into his courtyard to a long table set outside. He greets us – kisses on both cheeks - and introduces us to an extraordinary woman from Haiti, Kettly Noel. She turns out to be a dancer – this is really her place, Michel is staying here with her. She points out an outdoor stage built right next to the courtyard for rehearsal and tells us about her work her in Bamako…she says she likes to challenge. She created a piece about a prostitute, a piece she describes as “not about judgment, just about the woman.” Of course, it was shocking to the audience here; apparently all her work pushes boundaries. She tells me that when a piece is no longer controversial, she knows it is time to move on. Yes. Later the most rivetingly gorgeous couple I’ve ever seen walks in to join us; of course, they are dancers as well!
Wednesday, Nov. 6
I spend the morning reading Lucy’s articles. One in particular: “The Woman is a Slave” Representations of Mande Gender Ideology in Women’s Song is compelling. It describes how the songs women griots sing at wedding parties teach women their role in marriage (here polygamy is still very much the norm_, but at the same time, are meant to support and sometimes speak out critically. Lucy compares these songs to a song Joan Baez sings, “The Wagoner’s Lad,” a traditional American folk song. There’s a lovely old version by country banjo player Buell Kazee (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFc1unFSgB4) Here is the first verse:
Oh hard is the fortune of all womankind
They're always controlled, they're always confined
Confined by their parents until they are wives
Then slaves to their husbands for the rest of their lives.
These words are startlingly similar to the Mailian wedding songs, dealing with the stark realities that speak to many women’s lives around the world. But there are exceptions. Oumou Sangaré is a case in point. I learn about her very difficult early life through reading the unedited version of liner notes to one of her albums. In fact, these songs are more about ideology, not necessarily practice. With money comes independence. It’s a familiar story; Oumou, an international superstar, a very successful businesswoman and quite well off, has the economic power to be independent. In fact, she imports cars from China, with her name as the brand: Oum Sang.
Lucy tells me a story about Oumou that speaks to her strength and will – as well as her diva-like character. Apparently she owns a farm out in the country, with cows and chickens. She was away, and came back to find some people living on the property. They had built a mud-brick hut, were harvesting her crops and milking her cows. This was a farm she’d built up, and they’d taken over. She gave them two days to leave, and when she returned to find them still there, she put on her overalls - this superstar of the world stage – hired a tractor, and drove over their hut.
In the afternoon, we have another rehearsal with the trio. Lucy has set a one-on-one meeting with Hawa to work on a very special song. David Harrington, of the Kronos Quartet (the Kronos and the Trio have a project together), loves the work of African American Mihalia Jackson (1911-1972), known as “The Queen of Gospel.” There is one song in particular he is interested in. David wants Hawa – who looks uncannily like Mihalia, and has the same contralto range – to sing the song in Bambara, channeling Mihalia through her own style. Many feel Malian music is where the Blues come from…it is hard to argue when listening to some of the griot music I’ve been hearing.
Mihalia and Hawa
Mihalia’s version of the song is very individual, free-style, and Hawa’s listening intently to take it in. Lucy is the bridge here, as she’s been for other artists. Before Hawa gets to the rehearsal, Lucy and I try to transcribe Mihalia’s version onto manuscript paper…it isn’t for Hawa to use (Hawa doesn’t read music), it’s for Lucy to understand all the intricacies and coach Hawa. This is an extraordinary interpretation of the song, impossible to transcribe all the slides and time-taking and harmonic anticipations that Mihalia puts into her version, but we try. We write down the pitches and Lucy works out the very, very free rhythm. Then Lucy uses this to work with Hawa, who learns by ear, phrase by phrase.
Hawa and Lucy
It is fascinating to hear this superb artist begin to synch with Mihalia’s style. This is a stunning moment, as she begins to intuit how to cross over the boundary of one tradition into another. She must first be intensely self-aware, so that she understands what it is she, herself does. The she can enter into Mihalia’s conception of the song. There is a profound message here. To truly understand the other requires humility, self-knowledge, a willingness to let go, and the commitment to really, truly listen. It also takes a great deal of confidence, artistry and a good pair of ears!
We stop when the others get here - to be continued... The rest of the rehearsal is fascinating - and hard work - as the musicians and Lucy fashion the program they’ll take on the road. At one point in one of the songs, Hawa steps back and Lassana and Mamadou bring it on. No one in the room has any choice, we have to dance.
This evening, Lucy and Nick pin Toumani down to a time, and we meet up at his studio.
Toumani Diabaté and me in his studio
Toumani has asked that Lucy and Nick produce his new album; he wants Lucy’s ear and advice. This is an album with Toumani and his son, Sidiki (named after Toumani’s father, who is also a legend). All evening she listens…she and Nick are quite open with their comments; the first few songs Toumani and Sidiki play sound great to me, but both Lucy and Nick refuse them, apparently they are standards that have been recorded by Toumani many times already (however beautifully played) …in the next few hours, only a few songs make it to the A list. This world music star trusts everything they say, and digs deeper. After a quick chicken and fried banana dinner, we start again. Lucy pulls out her ipod and asks the musicians to listen to some very old recordings she has of another griot. They love the first song, and father and son being to create their own version. They had never heard this piece before. In 10 minutes it is done, and this song tops the A list. Lucy plays another song that she has collected from her research; it is the first time Toumani has heard this performance as well. Again, we have a hit. The album is coming together. They call it quits after four hours. Toumani, known around the world for his musicianship, goes to Lucy and thanks her for teaching him these old and forgotten kora pieces. I can’t really add to that…how ironic, and what a statement about the humility and respect inherent in this collaboration. A western woman falls in love with Malian music, dedicates her life to it, and through her commitment and passion, becomes an influence to and resource for the foremost contemporary practitioners of that tradition.
Lucy Durán and Nick Gold
Thursday, Nov. 7
Lucy and I had breakfast together on the patio overlooking the Niger.
The Niger, a view from the Mande’s patio
It is a brilliant morning, a soft breeze keeping the flies away, music playing over the radio. I’ve decided that instead of bringing back some object, I’d like to support the music here in some way. Lucy’s documentary project “Growing Into Music: Childhood Music Learning in India, Azerbaijan, Mali, Cuba and Venezuela” give us the idea: The young 9 year old balafon player, Daniel Dembele, who she highlighted in that project and brought to Cuba (!) in a musical exchange, needs support for his education. Lucy calls him “a little genius.” He is doing so well at school that he has skipped a year…and is so popular there that when he comes back after break, they all clap! His education costs about $1,000 a year…We speak with Violet, a indefatigable British woman who has lived in Mali for more than 30 years and is living with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here in Mali. She has taken in Daniel as well. We will see if there is a way to start an account for him.
Daniel Dembele, from Lucy’s documentary
In the afternoon, we return to Toumani’s studio, this time for Lucy to create the set list for Trio Da Kali and Toumani. There are two sessions - I was only at the first, this one, and it was revelatory to me. It is the first time these four musicians have played together.
Trio Da Kali in Toumani’s first floor studio
The repertoire is made up of traditional songs they all know, but of course, what they do with these songs –improvising, like jazz – is what it is all about. Just as with the other rehearsals, I video record some of the songs. I can recognize these melodies now, after hearing them at other rehearsals, and I have my favorites. During the first rehearsal I attended, Yuri Yari, was almost unbearable in its magical simplicity. Usually sung acapella, Lassana underlined this with his tender, sparse accompaniment, and it brought tears to my eyes. Now, at this rehearsal with the four artists, Toumani adds another element of improvisation with the kora. One song in particular was mesmerizing, each musician’s line could have stood as a perfectly satisfying performance on its own; layered on top each other, this was a complexity of rhythm, melody and harmony. I think of what they are doing at some points as jazz, but the irony is that jazz owes its roots to West Africa, so really it really the other way around. Michel, who has come to listen, is in tears and says that what we have in this room is the very heart of Malian music. This is a vibrant, contemporary tradition – one that drinks deeply from the past, and is also clearly an expression of the 21st century. After a heavenly set, each song more beautiful than the last, we head off to the French Institute for a drink, and then on to Namaste, Bamako’s only Indian restaurant near our hotel. We meet up with Nick, Paul and Ousmane. At the table, Ousmane pulls out a brown envelope – inside are two stunning photographs. They turn out to be Seydou Keita originals. Keita was an internationally renowned Malian photographer, known for his portraits taken around the time of independence. There is a quality about the one photo of a couple - looks like it could be the 50’s - but it could also just as well be today. Causal elegance.
It has been a long, long day, and we say goodnight.
Friday, Nov. 8
Lucy takes me to the market today. Drogba, our cab driver manages to take the backroads as the traffic is a giant parking lot. We need to do everything before 1, as Friday is prayer day. We drive through tiny back streets – not so much streets as wide dirt trails – with lean-tos crushed up against each other on either side. Lucy explains these are not slums, these are temporary places to stay for the fishermen. Their permanent homes are their pinasses, long covered canoe-like boats. We peer into one of the lean-tos; men are beating damask into a shiny finish. I haven’t taken my camera; apparently people would be very angry with that…years and years of Westerners taking photos at the markets without permission and using images in documentaries, in front of books, etc. has apparently taken its toll. I can imagine having the same reaction, if our roles were reversed. The central market (Marché Rose) is wonderful. It’s packed, and soon I am entirely lost. We are looking for fabric. We come upon some beautiful designs – I end up with a matched pair of colorful striped panels, and another pair of rough cotton, dyed with indigo. Lucy bargains them down. I have to remember to soak the indigo ones in salt to fix the dye when I get home. On the way back to the hotel, the streets are nearly empty. It is time for prayer.
In the afternoon, Lucy brings little Daniel to the hotel. He has brought his kora-like kamalengoni (youth-harp).
Daniel at the Mande
He spends some time with Lucy tuning it, and then begins. So young, and such intense, single-minded concentration. A griot musician, he’s clearly is a great talent. With proper support, he will probably be an important musical force in the future. How many prodigies remain undiscovered in the world? Later, in the studio before the recording session with the trio, Daniel plays the balafon for us. Lassana asks him what he will be playing, then listens to this young talent who is continuing the oral griot tradition that is so embedded in this culture.
It ‘s time for a recording session. This is not for the actual album; it’s a preparation for the tour. Lucy will send the recording to the Kronos to help prepare for the project rehearsals that will take place in San Francisco. After, I meet up with Violet for a concert of Malian music at the French Institute: the Mali All-Stars. We have dinner in the courtyard restaurant, the Patio, and then go into a small concert hall to hear a few of Mali’s greatest musicians. Toumani Diabaté and Bassekou Kouyaté egg each other on in a virtuosic display; a singer from Timbuktu mesmerizes me with her voice, her expressions and her movements…but best of all was Kasse Mady Diabaté, Hawa’s father. What a beautiful voice, what an elegant dancer – not an excess motion, I can’t take my eyes (or ears!) off him. And I can see Hawa in him. After the concert, Violet drives us back to the Mande. It hits me that I’m leaving day after tomorrow, and all of a sudden I know I shall miss this place and its unbelievable music.
At dinner, someone had said that the French have evidence that 5,000 Al-Qaeda soldiers have massed at the northern borders in Mali. This country is so vulnerable. The thought that the music might stop is unbearable. What is so powerful about music that makes essential that it be stopped? What is so threatening about women, that they must be repressed?
Saturday, Nov. 9
Lucy, Nick and I take a car out about an hour to see the Arche de Kamadjan in Siby…a stunning natural rock bridge that has a deep importance to the formation of the Mali empire -800 years ago - back in the time of Sunjata, the first king.
The Arche de Kamadjan Sign
We hike up to the arch, and see views of the savannah all around us. The arch rises up – a mysterious formation that deserves all the stories and myths passed down through generations. Our guide, Daouda Diawara, knows the history well, and tells us stories about Sunjata, Kamadjan, fetishes and power…I first heard about Sunjata through the griot song of the same name. That is traditionally how these stories get passed down. The grottos, caves, red rocks are stunning, especially in the context of the flat, grassy vista that extends out in every direction.
The Arche de Kamadjan
A boy of 10 follows us, holding his slingshot. He shows me how it works, shooting out a rock that arches so far in the air I loose it. I take his photo and we walk together for a while. Wanting to give him something, I ask if he’d be interested in selling me his slingshot, made of a bit of a tree branch, some rubber, a piece of fabric, and duct tape. On Lucy’s and Nick’s advice, I give him a nice sum and have a sweet memory to take back with me.
The boy with the slingshot
In the arch, we hear a marvelous polyphony of singing bats and birds, each with its own rhythm and melody. It reminds me of the kora music we’ve been hearing. I could sit here all day, listening, smelling, looking. I’m so lucky to be here.
In the tall grass of the savannah
We stop at the village campement in the village for lunch, driving through a busy market that goes along the road for a quarter mile or so. The market travels from village to village; Saturday is the day it comes here. Motorbike tires, fruits, clothes, cloth…The lunch is an enormous plate of rice with vegetables – rizau gras. It would take me days to get through it. Nice to get out of the sun. We drive back to Bamako. This evening I’ve got to get through the rest of Lucy’s articles and make some decisions on readings for participating classes during the residency in February. I can feel my life in the US coming back into focus. Later, Lucy and I meet for a beer on the patio. Bassekou, who I’ve seen in Boston with his group Ngoni Ba, and now in Mali, shows up around 11, to see Lucy. They talk about music and politics for over an hour.
Sunday, Nov. 10
At breakfast, Nick describes a fabulous event we missed: a concert with Toumani’s son Sidiki and a hip hop artist, complete with motorcycle acrobatics, taking place on a basketball court! I really regret missing that! Apparently Sidiki is a very popular figure with the youth culture here.
Lucy tells me about Yoro Diallo, who will come to the Mande. His nickname, since when he was young, is “small little old man”. He’s in his forties now. He plays the kamalengoni (youth ngoni). He’s one of the pioneers of Wassoulou music, music of the deep south of Mali that has been made famous by Oumou Sangare. Oumou sings his music, and he hasn’t gotten the credit due his compositions. Lucy says he plays the authentic style of Wassoulou music, unmediated by the urban environment, and she wants Nick to hear it. This music is, as Lucy says, a secularization of the sacred and esoteric music of the hunters’ societies. It was appropriated by the youth of the villages of the Wassoulou in the 1950’s and 60’ and turned into the popular music of the countryside.
We gather on the top floor of the Mande and meet Yoro and two musicians. All three play the k-ngoni. The instruments have a low range; together they make a round, dark, full timbre. If I had to pick a color that expressed the sound, I’d say it was a deep blue, maybe the indigo of the fabric we bought at the market. Each plays a rhythm, making an irresistible dance track. It feels like music that belongs out in the savannah, related to nature. Every piece is different from the last. The lyrics to one that Yoro sings are about trying not to worry, and as I get ready the twenty hours of travel back to the US, I take it to heart!
It is time for our last dinner, then it will be off to the Bamako airport.
Before this trip, I had listened to only a few balafon and kora pieces. I had a superficial understanding of what a griot is. Having met a number of griots now, in the varied contexts of Malian street wedding parties, in their homes, in rehearsal and recording studios, I have more of a sense of their centrality to the culture in Mali. The music I’ve heard is complex, vibrant, dynamic and truly contemporary. The griot instrumentalists are artists of the highest order; it is no wonder they are so admired in their culture and in such demand on the world stage. I have had the very special pleasure of hearing Hawa Diabaté sing throughout my stay in Mali. Twice she sang a praise song directly for me. The second one was when we said goodbye. These songs were quite personal and deeply moving. I know I'll never forget the experience.
The Malians I met were always friendly; there was joy in everyday encounters. But Mali is a volatile place to be. People are worried about what is happening up north, and are distrustful that the government will improve anything. I think for most people, every day is a challenge. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about women’s role in Mali. As the song says, the woman is a slave. And yet, the women walking down the street carry themselves so strongly. They dress in beautiful, elegant, boldly colorful clothes and easily claim the space around themselves. The women griots sing with powerful voices, with words that urge acceptance and yet challenge the status quo at the same time. I have the sense that there is great promise for change, but it must come slowly from within, from the women themselves, when the time is right.
Music affects us physically, spiritually, emotionally…I’ve heard that we experience music in more than one region of our brains. Music embeds memory. Music expresses place, history, and identity. There is something both ephemeral and eternal about music…it happens in time, so you can’t really hold on to it, and yet there is something about it that penetrates deeply, permanently. I really don’t think there is a better way to begin to know a person or a people, than by listening to the music they love. It might take some time, but the music will make its way to your heart. That’s what happened to me in Mali.