|Hunter Harp Griot|
Color Pencil by Melissa Enderle
Music is an integral part of the people. You'd be hard pressed to not find — music occurring somewhere in your surroundings - whether it be a drum, or simply a small radio. What I have noticed is that African music and dancing is not what it initially appears to be - it is not just random beats of a drum or movements. Rather, there are many complex rhythms occurring simultaneously. The dancer, who is trained and is knowledgeable of the many different dance movements, will pick up on a rhythm of the instrumentalists and begin the appropriate or fitting dance steps. The dancing requires precision, endurance, a sense of rhythm, and aerobic ability. Drums vary in size and shape. They are typically played in ensembles - many people playing at the same time. At the artisan market, I saw people smoothing the top of a skin (leather) for a drum head - with the bottom of a glass coke bottle!
I will have to admit, though, that my favorite instrument is the kora. Historically the instrument played by the griots, the kora has 21 strings and is one of the most sophisticated instruments in sub-Saharan Africa. I is a cross between a lute and a harp, with the look more resembling the lute. The main part of the instrument is made of a gourd with leather stretched over the top. The player plucks the strings, with the instrument held upright. It's simply amazing to see how fast notes can be played by using one's thumbs! I do have a picture of a kora player on my zing website. Anyway, the instrument has such a beautiful sound - much like a harp but unique onto itself. I went to a restaurant on Saturday and the kora player had me in a melodic trance. The music was delicate and yet powerful. A common theme and melody was replayed often, with slight variations. The music (he was also singing) told of things such as the great combination of hope, love, and trust. He was so into his music - it just flowed from his fingers. I am seriously looking into learning to play the kora. I did learn to play the kora, along with another teacher while living in Mali. Our teacher, Djelimady Sissoko, was very patient as we learned the fingerings, how to tune (sort of), the accompanying parts, and main melodies of the songs. All music was improvisational and had no written music.
Another stringed instrument is the ngoni which looks a little like a boat-shaped narrow lute. While in Senegal, I also heard some beautiful flute playing - reed flutes that is. Gosh, they were doing acrobatics while playing! The other instrument that I have seen quite often is the balafon - a type of wooden xylophone with keys (15-19) made of hardwood suspended over a row of gourds which amplifies the sounds. Wooden mallets are used to strike the keys.
Music is ingrained in the very blood of Malians. Whether it is playing, singing, dancing, or simply enjoying the music, the tunes of this West African country reverberate throughout the day. All of the weddings and other special functions I attended had live musicians.
Now having taught in five countries and having collected music from around the world, I still have to say that Malian music is some of my favorite.
Some Mali music you might want to find CD's of: Oumou Sangare and Rokia Traoré (female singers of Mali), Salif Keita (male singer), Ali Farka Toure (acoustic guitars), Salif Keita; For Kora, the popular players are Toumani Diabaté (video above), Ballaké Sissoko (brother of my kora teacher), and Mamadou Diabaté; Tuareg music by Tinariwen.