January 4, 2007

The Power of Music I: Preserving Traditions

In what I expect to become a recurrent feature on the site, I proudly present the initial installment of "The Power of Music." Now with such a simple, generic, and cliched title, one might worry that the segment will suffer from prolonged and grandiose ruminations of musical glory. Instead, I wish to relate stories, anecdotes, and reflections that in essence sing truth to power. I aim to expound upon the many ways in which music affects the events both surrounding and penetrating our lives, like a deep breath of the freshest air which cools our skin and refreshes our lungs at the same time.

Tonight, we travel to Mali, where Toumani Diabate serenades us with the kora, a traditional stringed African instrument. In doing so, he is perpetuating a tradition more than 70 generations old. And as the AP discussed in an article today, he is deemed by many to be the finest at his craft in the world:

The music is East meets West, past meets present, a 21st century take on ancient Malian harmonies that smacks of flamenco, Far Eastern strings and the winding legato improvisations of freeform jazz.

For Diabate, the show is much more than just music: it's the preservation of culture and tradition, a way to keep alive the spirit of the defunct Mande empire that once stretched across a vast swathe of West Africa.

Long before the region's history was recorded in books, it was told through a caste of griots, musical storytellers. Seven centuries later, the songs are still sung over powerful rhythms and haunting pentatonic scales produced on traditional instruments like the banjo-esque ngoni, the wooden xylophone-like balafon, and kora players from Guinea to Niger.

"If West Africa was a living being, the griot would be the blood," Diabate says over lunch at his Bamako home, scooping couscous and fish from a silver tray on his Persian-carpeted floor. "As griots, we are the memory, we are the link between society and the past."

That this form of musical storytelling preceded (for all intents and purposes) recorded history is a startling fact. That the sonic reenactment and transmission of preserved and honored customs is somehow more ingrained and basic than even something like reading and writing speaks to a fundamental and inherent communicative force which surpasses rational understanding and transcends time. For Toumani, the only kora player to win a Grammy, this notion is precisely what enables him to express the heart of his culture:
...The same year he released "New Ancient Strings," an exquisite set of cascading acoustic kora duets performed with Ballake Sissoko. The work was an interpretation of "Ancient Strings," the seminal 1970s recording made by their fathers and credited with introducing kora music to the world.

Diabate says such instrumentals allow foreigners to understand Mande culture.

"Music has its own language," Diabate says. In the modern world, "you have lots of books about the histories. We have the Internet, we have mobile phones. ... Now what we are doing is bringing the Mande culture outside of this continent to meet different cultures. We're still griots, but we are griots in different way."

This last idea is critical to the need for music to promulgate the social fabric of different societies, particularly in a world where cultural isolation is no longer possible. Even though the medium changes, the notes and melodies fluttered or beamed through that medium stays the same, save for melding and conjoining with other local influences:

The music is East meets West, past meets present, a 21st century take on ancient Malian harmonies that smacks of flamenco, Far Eastern strings and the winding legato improvisations of freeform jazz.
In the end it all goes back to the kora. Whereas the music is the heart of the culture, the kora is the heart of the music:
In July, Diabate's 50-man Symmetric Orchestra released "Boulevard de l'Independance", named after the thoroughfare that bisects Bamako's dusty moped-packed streets. The sounds range from Cuban-Senegalese salsa to horn-driven funk, but the kora is always at the heart.
(all emphasis mine). And that really is the way it ought to be. The kora as played by Toumani goes beyond being his instrument and in fact becomes the instrument of the Mande, living on and growing in an increasingly shrinking and colliding world.

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