Suitcase and World: Music to my ears.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Music to my ears.

usic is an integral part of my daily life. There is not a day that goes by that I'm not listening to it. At a minimum, I have the radio for my hour long, each way, commute to work. My work day, for the most part, is music free but the moment I'm home, it's back on.  Even when I travel, I bring along my trusty MP3 player.
When I was texting with my friend Doug, whom I met on a ferry ride in Croatia as he was playing on his guitar, he mentioned that Mali has an amazing music scene. He then proceeded to, as quickly as I imagined he could type, list off the names of famous Malian musicians. He also mentioned the kora, that it's one of his favorite instruments and that I should listen to its sound.

My friend, Roger, the one who told me to travel to Bamako via Dakar, mentioned that one of the main reasons he loves Dakar is because it has an awesome music scene.

As I've come to find out, the region's musical heritage is very rich and it reflects centuries long traditions of its people. In many parts of West Africa, music was a means to storytelling told by griots as they went from one village to another and that is how some of it continues to be today.

A popular West African musical instrument is indeed the kora. The sound of the music that can be produced by a skilled player, from this simple instrument, is in one word, seductive. I'm not a reviewer of music so I don't know what the proper words are to describe the notes and tones that I coming from the kora but to my senses, the music is very soft and elegant - it's very calming and soothing to listen to. In fact, I've been listening to it non-stop for the past few hours....I think it has become my latest musical obsession.

The underlying rhythms produced by the kora reminds me a bit of Indian raga which just so happens to be one of my favorite forms of native music.

A traditional West African kora is built from a really large calabash gourd cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator. It has a notched bridge like a or guitar. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin. Today, most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

The kora has 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in poly rhythmic patterns...using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings.

The kora is played in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia.

Toumani Diabaté, one of Mali's premier kora players comes from a family of kora musicians and griots that goes back some reputed 70 something generations.  Maybe he has kora playing in his genes because as far as my *not trained* kora ear goes, he draws the most amazing sounds out of this simple instrument.  And, I am not the only one who appreciate his talent because he has garnered international acclaim for his musical performances of the kora, winning a Grammy award in 2008. Even the New York Times went  to Bamako interview him.

Here are three short videos featuring Toumani Diabaté.  In this first clip, Toumani Diabaté explains how the instrument is played.  You'll need to forward to about 1 minute into the video before the lesson begins.  Towards the end, he plays an amazing riff of notes.   I have to admit, the first time I saw this clip, I got goosebumps hearing the music. 

This next clip is of Toumani Diabaté performing one of his own compositions.  It's just simply beautiful to listen to.

This last clip is another live performance.  The musical notes are so lush.  It's incredible when you think that the sounds are being produced by 4 fingers plucking 21 strings!!

I am now in the throes of trying to find a place in Bamako that I can go to to see a live kora performance.  It would be dream come true if I could see Toumani Diabaté perform in his hometown but I know that's unlikely.  In the meantime, I've purchased one of his CDs to enjoy!

Another popular West African musical instrument is the djembe ("JEM-bay") , a skin-covered hand drum shaped like a large goblet and meant to be played with bare hands.

Djembes are commonly about 12" (30 cm) in diameter and 24" (60 cm) in height, varying a few inches. They can also be found in many smaller sizes, from 5" (13 cm) to 18" (46 cm) in diameter. As a result of the goblet shape, the density of the wood, the internal carvings, and the rawhide, there is a wide range of tones that can be produced by the djembe.

Traditionally crafted djembe drums were carved from a single section of a Lenge tree though other types of wood may also be substituted, depending upon the forests accessible to the drum makers.

Properly made drums are not smooth on the interior but have a spiral channel inside that enhances the tonal qualities. Splinters and rough carving inside are signs of a hastily made drum.

The drum head is typically made from goatskin and more rarely can be antelope, zebra, deer, or calfskin. Prior to the 20th century, the skin was attached with the sinew or intestine of the animal, or by cutting and stretching a strip of rawhide.

Though I'm not really a fan of listening to percussion instruments, I have to admit that once in awhile, it's refreshing to get my feet thumping to the percussive sounds emanating from a drum. 

One of the most well known djembe players is Soungalo Coulibaly who hails from Guinea. Here's a video clip of one of his performances which also features West African singers as well as the balafon, a West African instrument reminiscent of a xylophone and the kora. Give yourself a minute or two to get into the rhythm and you'll be finding yourself tapping to the beat!

Mali also has a very talented djembe player on the scene.  His name is Drissa Kone and here's a clip of one of his performances.   I've seen this clip several times now and each time, it takes not but a few seconds before my feet are tapping to the beat!  I read somewhere that you often find djembe players performing on the streets.  It would be cool to stumble upon make my feet happy :-)