Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Round Three

Hello, friends.  I'm back in Mali for a third round of kora/Mandé music studies.  I'll be here for five months this time, studying mostly kora, but also n'goni and balafon with a variety of masters.  I'll also be attending (and possibly performing at?) the Festival sur le Niger, in Ségou.  In the meantime, I've been building my core repertoire of traditional Mandé songs, both as recordings and as songs I can actually play.  I've got field recordings of about 60 songs so far, and have probably another 15 or so through commercial recordings of other musicians.  I've also cross-referenced my field recordings against my commercially-recorded Mandé music library and grouped different recordings of the same song together.  My hope is that, by comparing different musicians' versions of the same song, I can arrive at some idea of the core song itself, i.e. its characteristic melody/ies, accompaniment pattern, and traditional lyrics.  This musical reference library is pretty much the only advantage I have on Malian Mandé musicians, most of whom have been playing kora since childhood!  Nothing like getting your tuckus kicked by a 16 year-old to keep you humble...

The first week of intensive kora playing is always the toughest, as you can tell!
Stay tuned for some audio next post.  Comments/questions/whatever: waraden.diabate [at] gmail.com

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ali Farka Touré

Ali Farka Touré was one of Mali's best-known musicians, and rightly so.  A dedicated musician with a unique, instantly-identifiable sound, Touré put out numerous solo albums, as well as collaborative works with American bluesmen Ry Cooder and Corey Harris, guest tracks for singer Boubacar "Kar Kar" Traoré and balafon-player Kélétigui Diabaté, and two excellent duo albums with Mali's own kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, both Grammy Award winners.  A polyglot, Touré spoke Fula, Songhai, Bambara, French and (I would imagine) at least some Tamashek.  He also amazed the world music crowd when he backed Toumani Diabaté on their two collaborations, playing dozens of traditional Mandé melodies from an entirely different musical tradition than his own.  Among Malian musicians, notorious for their mutual "treachery" (janfaya in Bambara), Touré left behind an impeccable reputation as a kind and gracious individual, generous with his praise of other musicians.  Finally, in the last part of his life Touré owned Mali K7, the country's foremost legal CD production facility and was named mayor of his hometown of Niafunké.  

This week, I'm profiling two of Touré's best albums, Radio Mali and Niafunké.  Both appeared on the excellent Nonesuch/World Circuit label in the late '90s, and they showcase Touré's range, from solo songs to full band numbers, acoustic to electric.  Touré accompanies himself on both albums with guitar and n'jarka single-stringed violin.  The songs on Radio Mali are culled from recordings made at the Office de Radiodiffusion et Télédiffusion du Mali, Mali's national radio and television station in Bamako, the capital, from 1975-1980.  They tend to be spare and acoustic, often understated duets between guitar and n'jarka, in perfect counterpoint to Touré's dry, even hieratic voice.  Niafunké, in contrast, is plugged in and immediate, uncompromising in its groove.  Hand-claps, djembe drums and electric bass all revolve around Touré's wailing electric guitar.  There are some slower, and sweeter moments to Niafunké, though; the sentimental "Cousins" (about Mali's ethnic Tuaregs) and the n'jarka/djembe rocker "Jangali Famata" highlight Touré's acoustic chops.  

For the dedicated Ali-phile, there are plenty of other albums to be enjoyed (notably Ali and Toumani and his early Yer Sabou Yerkoy), but for newcomers to his music, these albums are highly recommended.  Whether you understand a word of what he's singing or not, Touré's music is infectious, instantly drawing the listener into a new, welcoming sonic world.

A final note: there's some wonderful free recordings of Touré accompanying the famous Timbuktu singer Khaira Arby available on the blog of Music Time in Africa, a long-running radio show on Voice of America.  Check it out.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Some thoughts on the Golden 70's of W. African pop

Hello once more from Virginia.  I'm playing more oldtime than Mandé music lately, but I can never go too long without listening to some 1970's Mandé electric pop.  Today, I'd like to share some of the biggest names and hottest songs from that special era of W. African popular music.

Guinea, located on the coast of W. Africa south-west of Mali, is the other powerhouse of Mandé music.   Kankan and the capital, Conakry, are both hubs of traditional and electric Mandé music, the equals of Kita and Bamako in Mali.  Several of the greatest singers of the modern recording era are Guinean, including Sory Kandia Kouyaté, the most powerful singer of his time, and Sékouba Bambino, Guinea's answer to Salif Keita.  While Mali is associated mainly with the n'goni, the four- to eight-stringed lute, Guinea is known for its peerless balafon players (a sort of wooden marimba).  There is speculation in Charry's Mandé Music that the Guinean electric guitar tradition is based on balafon accompaniment patterns and Mali's on n'goni melodies.  I think there could be something to this theory; certainly, there is a distinctive Guinean electric guitar sound.  Among the many great Guinean guitarists are Sékou "Bembeya" Diabaté (lead guitarist for the peerless Bembeya Jazz National), Kanté Manfila (a longtime collaborator of Salif Keita, and a well-known Afropop artist in his own right), Sékou "Docteur" Diabaté (lead guitarist for Balla et ses Balladins), and others.

I'm not going to get too deep into the historical background of this music since it's been written about so eloquently elsewhere (see below for links).  Suffice it to say write that Guinea's president from independence in 1958 to his death in 1984 was Sékou Touré, a noted anti-colonialist.  Touré promoted a policy of "authenticité," wherein "authentic" Guinean musicians were supported financially and foreign music was marginalized.  Guinea's best musicians became government bureaucrats, "functionnaires," to use the ubiquitous W. African term.  In practical terms, the musicians had a fixed income, in some cases government housing, state-provided instruments, and venues in which to play.  In return, they were expected to transform regional folk songs into danceable electric pop, practice every day together, and perform nightly at special government nightclubs.  They also regularly recorded albums on Guinea's national label, Syliphone, not only for internal consumption, but also as a cultural export showcasing Guinea's unique musical culture.  This whole cultural/beaurocratic idea proved wildly successful, producing some of the most classic African music ever recorded.

Having spent a fair amount of time now in the Malian contemporary music scene, I can say that a steady paycheck (even a modest one), help with housing, instruments, and venues to play in are very, very important to most street level musicians, many of whom live concert to concert.  The most important innovation of the authenticité program, though, was the enforced practice time.  In Guinea, as in Mali, the core Mandé songs (Kaira, Lamban, Duga, Alpha Yiayia, etc.) are known to all decent musicians, who have been playing them since childhood.  As such, it's easy to throw a band together, since everyone knows the songs already.  This shared repertoire, coupled with the lack of funds to pay for practice space, gas money for the band, snacks, etc., means that bands in Mali rarely practice together in the way the Guinean bands of the 70's did, which is to say, every day for several hours.  The only bands I've known in Mali that practice to that extent are Habib Koité's band, Bamada, and Bassekou Kouyaté's N'goni Ba.  Otherwise, the general rule is to practice intensively before recording a new album, and on the road, if the band tours.  To my ears, the immense amount of time the Guinean (and, to a certain extent, Malian) bands of the 70's spent together practicing really comes through on their albums.  There's no hesitation, no missed notes, excellent instrumentation, and the whole band works together as a unit, with each solo blending naturally into the next.  I'll leave it to your ears to decide, but for my money, these bands set the standard for musical excellence in W. African pop, and one that has rarely been equaled in later years.

I'm going to go into more detail about some of my favorite Guinean and Malian 70's bands next week, but in the meantime, here's two of my favorite tracks, Pivi et les Balladin's "Samba" and Bembeya Jazz National's "Armée Guinéenne."

Finally, here's one of my favorite Malian tracks of that era, L'Orchestre National "A"'s "Janfa," led by the late, great Kélétigui Diabaté on lead guitar.

Graeme Counsel has done more than any other non-African to bring this music to the world's attention (though a close second might be Leo Sarkisian, the legendary Music Time in Africa producer).  Counsel's site is well worth checking out if you enjoy any of this music and want to learn more about its context.  He has also more or less single-handedly digitized the entirety of the Syliphone catalog and Radio Télévision Guinée archives, which are now available at the British Library.  

I'll close this week's post with a thought: when organization and a steady stream of money come together in African music, remarkable things can happen.  Food for thought... See you next week!

Friday, August 9, 2013


I'm mostly recovered from a week's worth of overstimulation, sleep deprivation and general partying at Clifftop, a.k.a the Appalachian String Band Festival.  Clifftop is the biggest oldtime music festival in the world, with some 3600 attendees this year.  Many people come for a week or more, camping under the trees up in the West Virginian mountains and playing music for hours every day.  Great musicians come from all over the U.S. and beyond to play there, so even if you just wander around listening, it's hard to get bored.

Clifftop also has one of the largest oldtime banjo contests, and many of the best players (Walt Koken, Reed Martin, Adam Hurt, Paul Brown, etc.) regularly compete there.  There were some 40+ contestants this year, each of whom played one tune to qualify for the finals.  Once in the finals, the top 5 players each get the chance to play an additional two tunes for their chance at ultimate oldtime banjo glory (such as it is).

This was my first year in the finals, and I ended up getting third place.  My campmate Andy Fitzgibbon got 2nd, and Tim Bing (a melodic clawhammer player) got 1st.  I've wanted to be in the finals since I first came to Clifftop at 13 years old, so I was pretty excited.

I've posted the audio of my two songs for the finals: hope you enjoy them.  I'll be back next week with another Malian music-related post.  And big thanks to Pete Marshall (of WTJU and Mando Mafia fame) for passing along the recordings he made!  Thanks, Pete!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A brief analysis of a traditional Mandé song

As a follow-up to my last post, here's my analysis of a song by the Mandé supergroup, Djelika.  Djelika (also the name of their sole album) was composed of Toumani Diabaté on kora, Kélétigui Diabaté on balafon, and Bassekou Kouyaté on n'goni.  These are the three traditional melody instruments of Mandé jeliw, played with great skill by some of Mali's greatest musicians and recorded for this album with perfect fidelity.  The musical interplay amongst the three is careful and subtle, but perfectly comprehensible with a little explanation and some careful listening.  I've linked to a youtube video of the track below, but if you enjoy the music, I strongly recommend buying the full album which, in addition to seven group tracks, also includes the excellent solo kora track "Cheikh Oumar Bah" (actually the traditional Mandé tune "Lamban" played in an alternate key).

"Kandjoura" is a version of the well-known Mandé song "Tonya Le" or "It's the truth!" in Mandékan, the dominant language in and around Kita (the hometown of both Toumani Diabaté and Kélétigui Diabaté).  The song begins with an introduction, in this case a call and response melody involving all three instruments.  It's also common for just a single instrument to play the introduction.  The introduction (in my experience) is often written by the musician(s) playing it.  This gives a chance to the musicians to put their own spin on a song by adding an entirely new melody; essentially, it's another way to show off musical skill.  

Around 0:12, the song begins to take shape.  Keletigui takes the lead, playing a strong accompaniment pattern that shows the basic melody of the song, while Toumani and Bassekou play minimalist backup that accents Keletigui's playing without being true accompaniments.

Around 0:31, Keletigui effortlessly lifts himself out of the accompaniment pattern he had been playing and begins a short improvised solo, while Toumani and Bassekou support him with the same minimalist accompaniments.  By 0:36 he's already back within the accompaniment, though he changes the pattern slightly, though the song remains recognizably the same.  

At 0:43, Toumani begins adding short bursts of melody with his kora, accenting Keletigui's strong balafon accompaniment.  These are fragments of kora accompaniment patterns, very recognizable around 0:57, which interlock perfectly with Keletigui's playing.  By 1:25, he's back within the accompaniment, and Bassekou has his turn to do an improvised solo at 1:30.  As he plays, Keletigui provides the accompaniment, while Toumani essentially just strums the kora to add sonic interest.  

There's no break between solos as Bassekou smoothly steps back into the accompaniment at 2:22 and Keletigui takes his first long solo.  He's done by 2:53, and he and Toumani immediately begin mixing and matching different accompaniment patterns, giving both listeners and musicians a short break before Bassekou takes another solo at 3:30.

The song continues in this vein, with the musicians passing the solo "spotlight" amongst themselves and playing a variety of interlocking accompaniment patterns.  As you can see, too, there are also short breaks where essentially the whole trio is playing nothing but accompaniment patterns.  The overall feeling of the song is very organic, as opposed to the comparative rigidity of bluegrass or oldtime music, where one part follows another in lockstep.  Since Mandé music usually has just one part, endlessly repeated, it flows quite differently and, as I hope I've shown, the logic is somewhat different, as well.  

I'm off to Clifftop (the biggest oldtime festival) for a week; I'll be back next Monday with a post.  Any questions or comments may be sent to waraden.diabate [at] gmail.com.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How I think about playing Mandé music (pt. 1)

For this and next week's post, I thought I'd talk about the practical mechanics of traditional Mandé music as I understand them from a player's perspective.

A fruitful way to analyze Mandé music is through the interaction of back-up and solo musicians.  Many types of music around the world (jazz, bluegrass, certain types of rock, etc.) have a tradition of solos, i.e. a single instrumentalist playing a sort of song-within-a-song, many times improvised, while the other musicians of the band play some sort of backing.  In bluegrass, for example, backing musicians try to provide a solid rhythmic base for the soloist, as well as playing chords to let the audience know where in the song they are.  Mandé music is similar in some ways: only one musician takes a solo at one time, and the other musicians back him (the vast majority of Mandé instrumentalists are male) up.

In the Gambia, there are specific Maninka language terms for kora solos and backup; kumbengo (an accompaniment pattern) and birimintingo (a fast, improvised solo), but in Mali the French terms accompaniment and solo seem pretty universal.  I asked all of my teachers which words they used, and solo and accompaniment were the only answers I ever got.  As those are the terms I'm familiar with, those are the one's I'll use here.

Solos in Mali (and throughout the Mandé music-playing region) serve pretty much the same purpose as everywhere else: they break up the song and spike audience interest, and they give skilled musicians the chance to show off.  Generally, all of the members of the group will play their instrument-specific version of the accompaniment while one member takes a solo; if there's a singer, solos are taken between verses.  If there's a particularly skilled player, he may be given more, or even all, of the solos.  However, it's more common to rotate between all the competent players and give solos to each in turn.  There's a strong current of egalitarianism and respect for each member of any group in Malian society, and this applies to the musical community as well.

Accompaniments, however, work a bit differently in Mandé music than other genres.  Whereas the basis of Western music is often the chord structure, Mandé music is based more upon melody and counterpoint.  This is not to say that there isn't a chord structure to Mandé music, or that Mandé musicians never play chords (they often do, at least on guitar and keyboard).  However, since both the n'goni and the kora tend not to use chords, and since Mandé music in general is more interested in counterpoint (the interplay between multiple melodies) than harmony (the sounding of multiple notes together in a single melody), chords aren't the best way to think about Mandé music in most cases.

A quick word here about Mandé song structure.  While Mandé songs tend to be long (often in excess of 15 minutes when played at a wedding or public event), the underlying melodic structure (essentially the accompaniment) tends to be short, sometimes as short as a few bars of music.  Thus, the same (often simple) melodic cycle is repeated again and again.  Much of the genius of Mandé music is in keeping the audience from becoming bored by the repetition of a short melodic line.

This is accomplished in several ways.  First, each Mandé musician knows several (generally at least three) accompaniments for any traditional song that are unique to his instrument.  Skilled musicians will also know several more, and will often have devised their own accompaniments over the course of their musical career.  The best musicians can even come up with improvised accompaniments on the fly.  In a common ensemble with kora, n'goni, guitar, and balafon (or bass) and drums, each musician will start with one accompaniment, then switch to another when the time feels right.  The group can practice beforehand and decide when to switch the pattern, or, more commonly, the musicians will simply change the accompaniment based on what the other members of the band are doing.  In other words, in the best ensembles, each musician is listening to all the others, and changes his accompaniment to fit what everyone else (both back-up musicians and soloist) are doing.  Accompaniment patterns fit together and mutually complement each other, which is a great part of Mandé music's incredible catchiness.  Each accompaniment is, in itself, a catchy, usually two-part call-and response melody.  When three or four or more of these accompaniments are played together, the groove can be unspeakably good.

In some ways, Mandé music can be a little like modern jazz, in which each musician knows the underlying chord structure, but often substitutes other chords for the original ones to make the song more interesting.  Everyone knows what the original chord/chord structure is, but no one actually plays it.  In Mandé music, the basic melody of the song is known to all the musicians, but each approaches it in his own way.  The overall spirit of the song is carried forward, but the song mutates over time as the musicians change their accompaniments, thus creating interest in a song that might otherwise become boring after two or three minutes.

Some good audio examples of this interplay between solo and accompaniment can be found on the albums Djelika (Toumani Diabaté, Kélétigui Diabaté and Bassekou Kouyaté), the ensemble album Kulanjan (Toumani Diabaté and Taj Mahal) and pretty much anything from the Rail Band or Les Ambassadeurs du Motel.  A more in-depth and scholarly discussion of this interplay can be found in Charry's Mandé Music.

There's a tendency among the latest generation (maybe generations?) of Malian Mandé musicians to focus more on hot solos than solid accompaniments.  The older musicians that I played with disapproved of this pretty strongly, and even made fun of musicians who couldn't step aside musically and back up someone else's solo or singing.  When I first started studying this music seriously, I constantly pestered my teachers for solo techniques.  The universal response was, "practice the accompaniments, and the solos will come on their own."  This has turned out to be mostly true in my case, although it could be incredibly frustrating playing the same simple patterns over and over again while listening to my kora teacher noodle like a rock god.  Still and all, accompaniments are the heart of Mandé music.

This is a lot of material to cover in one post; next week, I'll analyze a Mandé song (or several, if I'm ambitious) and try to show some of what I've explained in action.  Questions/comments can be sent to waraden.diabate [at] gmail.com

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some solo kora to start the week off right

Greetings all.  It's wet and dreary in Virginia and I'm thinking of sunnier days in Mali.  Here's a solo kora track off my new demo CD, recorded one hot night in January.

Also, I've been doing more and more contemporary African music radio shows on WTJU of late.  My last show (of W. African electric epics) was on Radio Tropicale on Wed. 26 June.  If that sounds interesting to you, feel free to check out the Tape Vault (WTJU.net/vault) where you can listen to old shows, free of charge, for up to two weeks.  You can also stream shows live as they're happening; I'll try to figure out a widget to put up on this blog to let you know when my next show is.

Have a great week.