If there’s a single word to summarize the profound effect that regional culture has in shaping its native music, I haven’t found it. Not before yesterday, that is. Now I believe that influence may very well be described in the word “griot” – at least when we’re talking about music from Mali.
The warmest day of the year so far in Burlington (over 80°F – ugh) brought shoppers, cyclists, and folks of every other sun-loving pursuit to downtown yesterday. As the streets and sidewalks crawled with deliriously revitalized springtime activity, the Amy E. Tarrant gallery offered cool, quiet sanctuary to around 40 attendees with the latest in the Flynn Theatre’s ongoing series of pre-concert “INsight” discussions.
The afternoon’s guest of honor was the Malian kora master and storyteller, Toumani Diabaté. As he shared his own story over the next half hour it was readily apparent that he viewed his part of the timeline just the most recent chapter in a much longer, much more involved narrative that began with his first relatives, some 71 generations ago in the 13th c. kingdom of West Africa. Diabaté is a griot (or ‘djeli‘), a musician by patrilineal birthright. So was his father, and so is his son.
Griots are the vested oral historians of Mali, responsible for maintaining the culture as well as commenting on it, and passing on their knowledge and musical skills to the males of the next generation. In an illustration of the vital relationship between griots and their land, Diabaté raised his left hand, swept the length of his torso, and said “if West Africa was a body, the djeli would be the blood”.
The main voice of the griot tradition is the kora, a resonant, modally-tuned instrument with a light texture and fluidity often compared to a harp. With 21 nylon strings and a resonator made from the huge, bulbous hull of a hollowed-out, half-calabash – it’s a striking instrument in both looks and sound. Why is it played facing the performer, instead of outward facing listeners like other simliar instruments (the banjo, or guitar for example)?
As with most things in the griot culture, history and folklore each have a hand in informing the answer: Diabaté described the time very early in the tradition’s development when the kora was actually an instrument commonly played by the women musicians of neighboring Guinea, and how they gave one to the newly crowned Mandinka Prince in the mid-13th c. as a gift at the start of the Malian empire. Since that time it’s been an instrument handed down through the male ancestors, and it’s played facing the musician, “as if creating an intimate conversation between lovers”.
I listened to Diabaté’s solo performance yesterday afternoon (and last night at the Flynn, with his full 8-piece electrified Symmetric Orchestra) a little differently, after learning more about what I was hearing. The kora is played with only four fingers: both thumbs, and both index fingers. The other three fingers in each hand grip the long pegs on either side of the neck to keep it upright during performance. The left thumb plucks out the bass line; the right thumb plays the melody. That leaves both index fingers free to improvise over the top of the bass and melody.
When Diabaté plays with his Orchestra, the bassline of his left thumb is doubled by the electric bass; the melodic line of the right thumb is doubled by the electric guitar, and the flights of improvisational fancy allowed his index fingers is matched (and THEN some, to my ears) by the virtuosic sonorities of the group’s balafon player.
Listening to a kora under any circumstance is delightful, but seeing it being played, and understanding a little about the mechanics of the musicianship is absolutely enchanting. I hope you, too, are fortunate enough to have the opportunity sometime! More than an instrument, the kora is a chorus of voices, playing with and against each other in a strumming, thrumming, multi-layered conversation of music.
Would you expect anything less, for an instrument that speaks for over 700 years of people and their culture?
A final thought from Monsieur Diabaté: “If you can learn a song on the kora, you are a master. But you have to be born a griot.”
with guitarist/singer Taj Mahal: Kulanjan, 1999
with trombonist Roswell Rudd: Malicool, 2001
with guitarist Ali Farka Toure: In the Heart of the Moon, 2005 (Grammy winner, best traditional world music album)
solo: The Mandé Variations, 2008 (Grammy nominee)