Mali’s Trail Blazers of Traditional Music

Posted March 19th, 2014 at 5:37 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s post takes an exciting departure from my typical in-studio interview sessions at Voice of America headquarters. This time, I brought Voice of America with me to the University of Maryland to record an African music event entitled “Music, Mali, and Citiflyerzen Diplomacy“.

I also sat on the panel of this unique performance and discussion program as a Malian music expert. What made this event exceptional was the representation at once of Malian griot music (or jeliya) by Trio Da Kali and Malian rap by Amkoullel. Together, they represented the two sides of Malian music culture. One was the hereditary caste of wordsmiths who carry the torch of collective memory in their ancient music, stories, and speech. The other was the free-wheeling rappers who, though wordsmiths in their own right, come to music as a profession through their own means and ways and are known as artistes.

The event was part of a larger U.S. tour series that featured a brilliant collaborative performance between Mali’s Trio Da Kali and America’s own Kronos Quartet.

This first video includes the songs “Kalimba” and “Ladilikan” (:36-5:48), performed by the amazing Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté on vocals, Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, and Mamadou Kouyaté on bass ngoni. Ethnomusicologist, radio host, and music producer Lucy Duran explains (in English) the fascinating background and meaning of “Ladilikan” as an interpretation of American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson‘s song “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song”. This song is one of the collaborative  works of Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet.

At 5:50, the panel talks about Malian music and rapper Amkoullel joins Trio Da Kali from 9:56-16:02 in an impromptu performance. The last segment features another impromptu collaboration with Amkoullel and myself!

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Two nights later, I attended the concert with Kronos Quartet. This was their debut performance together and with the permission of Lucy Duran, the Aga Khan Music Initiavie and the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts, I offer this delicious musical excerpt. The song is “Diaraby” — one of the foundational classics in griot (jeli) repertoire.

The concert was breathtaking. Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s rich, round, powerful voice never missed its mark. Her theatrics were equally on point, charming us all through gestures and expressions that transcended the language barrier. Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s virtuosic playing and jaw dropping execution of rapid fire riffs up and down the balafon was flawless. At times he and David Harrington, the first violinist (and founder) of Kronos, traded off musical phrases and ideas in playful spirit that drew giggles from the audience. Other moments of note featured unexpected string quartet passages from Kronos that opened up new dimensions of Trio Da Kali’s classics, experimental balafon melodic passages that evoked hints of jazz and blues, and a thrilling rendition of another gospel song by Mahalia Jackson “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.”

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Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon

After a robust standing ovation, a discussion with the artists followed. The audience was curious and unquestionably moved by this stunning concert. Hands kept popping up with more questions about both groups’ processes of collaboration, their repertoires, and the way they communicated musically during the performance, among other things. One woman who prefaced her question with the disclaimer that she didn’t know anything about music “I’m an architect”, she said, criticized the groups for not collaborating enough. It was her feeling that the griots of Trio Da Kali stayed too traditional while Kronos adapted their music too much; that the give and take from one tradition to the other was not equal. Fortunately one Malian in the audience quickly rebuked by saying that for Malian ears Trio Da Kali was making dramatic, if not  historic, departures from jeli music. Many others in the audience confirmed and another round of applause ensued. Not that we don’t love classic jeliya but this new sound of Trio Da Kali is irresistible.The Trio Da Kali – Kronos Quartet US Tour blazed an exciting path, and I for one, can’t wait to hear more from them soon.

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Mamadou Kouyaté – bass ngoni.

Trio Da Kali

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté

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Trio Da Kali and Amkoullel. Seated: Heather Maxwell, David Crocker, and Lucy Duran (not visible).

 

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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About

Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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