For most of the last decade, the sounds of Mali and West Africa have come to permeate our musical consciousness. The ubiquitous licks from the Ali Farka Toure/Ry Cooder 1995 Grammy winning Talking Timbuktu are a daily backdrop to NPRs "The World." Artists such as Salif Keita and Toumani Diabate are familiar names; and Oumou Sangare, for example, has helped put the regional Wassalou style on the touring circuit. Projects such as Afropop Worldwide have created a cottage industry out of sponsoring tour groups to musical hot spots in Africa, and there seems to be no slowing down. Locally, a group of students from The Evergreen State College spent a recent academic quarter experiencing Malian drumming and dance.
Malian music and culture appeal to me in part because of the proximity to North Africa's Maghrib, the Sahara, and the long established trans-Saharan connections with the Muslim world. Ibn Batutta's early travels to Timbuktu left colorful descriptions that inspired travelers through the centuries to seek this fabled land. Charry goes back further, explaining the archaeological and ancient geographical contexts which produced the environment that led populations to settle and civilizations to thrive and become the hallmark of West African culture. He recounts the flourishing and demise of the Ghana empire, followed by the reign of Sunjata and the Malian empire. The latter is the inspiration for many of the oral traditions passed on to each generation of hereditary storytellers. Eventual contact with the West and participation in the global economy bring Mande Music into a new and changing era.
The Mande language group includes those West African languages that span the geography of the 13th - 16th centuries West African Mande empire. Charry's concise introduction to the history and musical aesthetics of the region helps one to appreciate the richness of his text which includes effective maps, archival photographs, and cultural descriptions for the musical artists known as djelis (griots). He explores various aspects of hunters' music, drumming and modern urban electric groups, and the role of the guitar in Malian music ensembles. He excels at describing performances, instruments, repertoires, tunings and scales, and the various regional styles and techniques for each instrument. These themes offer a rich look at variation, modification and innovation and create a musical landscape that defies simple characterization. Don't for a second let these topics sound academic or destined for only the ethnomusicologist bookshelf! This is fascinating reading and highly accessible.
Mande Music is a first-rate descriptive foray into West African music and offers even more when Charry conveys the subtle and often ancient norms and rituals of the various music making participants. He explains the role of the masters, why certain individuals are entitled to play certain instruments and other are not, and leaves the reader with a clear sense of how "hunters' music" varies from that of the Jeliya verbal artists. Social status and hereditary distinctions have profound impacts on the music of the region; and if you ear has ever been seduced by the kora, the bala (xylophone), koni (lute) or djembe, Mande Music will offer keen insight to these instruments. Last year I reviewed Griots and Griottes (Indiana University Press). Mande Music is the perfect complement to that book and will leave you with an equally fascinating and unfolding look at one of the most important and enjoyable of the world's musical cultures. -Richard Dorsett
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