Trio da Kali brings musical tradition of Mali

MusicUnitesUS founder Judith Eissenberg explains program's origins

When Judith Eissenberg, professor of the practice of music, founded MusicUnitesUS in 2003, she wanted to explore how the creative act of making music brings people closer.

For the past 11 years, internationally renowned musicians such as Senegalese percussionist Lamine Toure, Palestinian oudist Simon Shaheen, and Homayun Sakhi, a rubâb player from Azerbaijan, have been creating beautiful soundscapes during their residencies at Brandeis. Their performances - aural bridges between local world traditions and the Brandeis community – bring people closer as they listen together. 

When Trio Da Kali comes to campus for their residency Feb. 26 through March 1, we will have the rare opportunity to experience music of the griot tradition of Southern Mali, a deeply stirring and vibrant music, and the origins of the blues.  

Lila Bambo by Trio Da Kali

Brought together for the first time at the BBC Proms in London in 2013, the trio of griots combines the deep, vibrant voice of Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, daughter of legendary singer Kassé Mady Diabaté, the dazzling virtuoso balafon playing of Fodé Lassana Diabaté (Symmetric Orchestra, AfroCubism), and Mamadou Kouyaté providing brilliant bass lines in the tradition of his father, ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyaté. Their music evokes the timeless, rolling savannas of Southern Mali with dashes of contemporary Bamako street weddings and late night performances.

Their visit will include classes and workshops that cross academic disciplines, a visit to Waltham High School and a world music concert in Slosberg Music Center on March 1. Tickets for the concert are $20, $15 for the Brandeis community and seniors, and $5 for students.

A full schedule of events is available on the MusicUnitesUS website.

But first, learn how it began, in a Q&A with Eissenberg.

What is the idea behind MusicUnitesUS?

I started MusicUnitesUS (MUUS) in the wake of the events of 9/11 as an outreach program to the Waltham schools. Bluntly put, I wanted to counter the image of the gun with the sounds of a love song. That, of course, is a simplification. But it gets to the point – we need to find a way to hear the whole story, and music has been offering that since the first lullaby, the first prayer.

Music is not a universal language.  The very fact that music can sound so different according to place, time, and function, is evidence that music is many, many languages. The idea behind MUUS is that music offers us the means to explore our differences, and in doing so, helps us come toward each other.

The program offers us the chance to listen together in the context of classes across the academy. Musicians from around the world come to campus to share their virtuosity, ideas of beauty, and traditional values through sound. Listening to these sounds, whether from the standpoint of anthropology, global studies, gender studies, history, philosophy, or in my own World Musics class, can reveal so much about culture and society. I think this deepens our appreciation of each other, and helps us to understand the many different world views.

How is MusicUnitesUS supported? Why is Brandeis a good home for it?

The Aga Khan Music Initiative has been our partner for more than four years, bringing musicians of world-class stature from Central Asia and the Middle East. We have funding from the Mass Cultural Council, private foundations and donors, and from various university resources, including the Poses Foundation and the Brandeis Arts Council. I would like to see the program have more stable funding; it is hard to plan in advance going year-to-year.  

Brandeis is the perfect home for this program, because of its commitment to the arts and issues of social justice. I also believe that Brandeis, with its sensitivity to religious expression, benefits from the pairing of two powerful expressions of the human experience, art and spirituality. These two have such a deep relationship, and I believe there is much promise in exploring those connections.

How do you think music brings people together?

I don’t think music automatically brings people together. In fact, one of its greatest attributes is how it differentiates us from each other. That being said, once we are fully aware of our difference, creative collaboration and relationship-building is really at the core of what makes us happy. The world music scene is evidence of that happening in good ways and not so good ways. The most exciting musics today are border-crossing explorations of all sorts, and the most repressive music is when a local tradition is muted by the suffocating dominance of another culture.  

Has the program so far accomplished what you set out to do with it?

It is a work in progress. I want to soften the boundaries between our different sources of knowledge, to repair some of the damage done by the Age of Enlightenment. [There is a need for]a little less separation, a little more connection. I don’t want to rewind, I just think we need to respect all the ways humans make sense out of the world, and the ways we talk to each other. Although technology (internet, iPod, online music apps like Pandora, etc.) has increased access and choice, the quality of our “encounters” is profoundly at risk; one of my objectives is to provide opportunities for live performance, so we sit elbow to elbow over a period of time. Having recently seen the movie “Her,” which brilliantly explores the limits of virtual relationship, I think we need to make sure we still have intimate moments with each other.

Can you talk about a few highlights from MusicUnitesUS over the years?

Kayhan Kalhor, the kamanche player from Iran played one single improvisation that lasted the whole concert - it was mesmerizing. Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana (from Azerbaijan) transported us out of the concert hall and into some other spiritual realm through his Sufi-inspired music. Pablo Ziegler made it impossible to sit still, especially when international tango stars Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo stunned us with a surprise dance that brought us into the most intimate spaces of our hearts. Stuff like that.

What do you hope this spring's attendees and participants will come away with?

I’m really looking forward to the upcoming residency with the Trio Da Kali. I had the chance to spend time with the musicians this past November in Mali. (Read Eissenberg’s journal.) Each musician in the trio is a griot. The griot holds a very special place in Malian traditional society…artisans of the word, and renowned for the depth and beauty of their musical expression.  Hawa, whose voice is a deep purple (some compare it to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s), manages to make everyone think she is singing directly to them. Lassana is a master of the balafon (wooden xylophone) and Mamadou has arrived as young prince of the ngoni (a stringed lute-like instrument) with one foot in tradition, the other in the world of blues and hip-hop. I think everyone, whether in the audience at the final concert or in class, will feel the values and beauty of an ancient culture thriving and alive as contemporary expression…and we’ll all revel in it!

Categories: Arts, International Affairs

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