Music In Mali

I’ve been thinking about what might be the best way to share my experiences in Africa. What I think I’m going to do is share whatever comes into my mind. First of all, I learned a lot about topics of which I knew nothing. Like music.

I had a fascinating conversation with Paul, the music teacher at the American International School in Bamako. His interest in African music is what brought him to Mali. I admitted that I knew nothing about the subject, other than what I might have heard on PBS’s program Afropop.

Paul started at the beginning. First, he pointed out that West African music is part of an ancient tradition that goes back more than a thousand years. It’s classical music in every sense, and a lot older than our Western tradition. Malian musicians undergo the same intensive training as graduates of the most prestigious Western conservatories. In fact, Paul pointed out, musicians in Mali have to make a choice at an early age. They can either study music or go to school. They don’t have time for both. That’s how intensive the course of study is. Imagine having to decide whether you were going to go to school or take piano lessons!

There’s an upside and a downside to this intense program of musical education. Malian musicians have a vast knowledge of their musical tradition. The downside is that nearly all are illiterate. Because of this, they are easily exploited. Paul has spent his time after school putting together bands, arranging bookings, producing recordings. “I can’t guarantee great success,” he told me. “but at least I can make sure that my musicians make a fair wage and that they get paid.”

The three main instruments in the Malian musical tradition are the kora, the ngoni, and the balafon. I got to hear all three, and more besides, at a reception on the roof of the school later that evening.

The ngoni is a stringed instrument, much like the guitar, the lute, or the banjo. In fact, it is believed to be the banjo’s ancestor. That’s not surprising. African prisoners were shipped to the Americas as slaves by the hundreds of thousands. There were musicians among them. Everything had been taken away from them, but not their knowledge. They were able to make their instruments again and recreate their music. African music became African-American music, which gave birth to jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop. Being a banjo player myself, hearing and seeing an ngoni being played was a look into the past.

The kora is fascinating. I don’t believe there is anything like it in our Western tradition. It looks like a lute, but it’s played like a harp. It sounds like a thumb piano. That music it plays in the hands of a skilled musician is far more sophisticated than anything I ever heard come out of a thumb piano. It sounds like jazz. I could close my eyes and imagine Duke Ellington improvising at the piano.

The balafon is a xylophone. Blocks of wood are placed above gourds of different sizes which amplify the sound. It sounds like a vibraphone. But a vibraphone is a 20th century manufactured instrument. How can an African musician get the same sounds out of an instrument made of gourds? And the music sounds as if Lionel Hampton is playing it!

I realized that I needed to reshape my thinking. African instruments are made of natural materials. However, there is nothing “primitive” about the music they play or the musicians who play it.

Thank you, Paul, for teaching me a lot! And thanks to the musicians who performed for us on the rooftop and for the astonishing music they played.

We were able to get two cd’s of Malian music. Paul also said that there’s a good selection available on iTunes. Check it out. I used tracks from the cd’s to create the slide shows of my African trip that I’ve already posted. Click on this button to see the slides and hear the music.

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