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Sunday, April 10

Can the griots lead us home? Whereupuon we take a break from modern warfare

Oumou Sangaré working the calebass musical instrument, a hollowed gourd cut into a basket shape and ringed with small seashells that click against it when the basket is tossed in the air: 


It takes a lot of mental focus to play the calebass without dropping it, which makes me wonder if that's where the saying "I nearly lost my gourd" comes from. Yes; always very important to maintain control of one's gourd. 

The body of the stringed instrument that looks like a cross between a harp and a guitar is also made from a gourd. It's so difficult to play that people once believed only those possessed by a spirit could play it well, and maybe some still believe that and maybe I do as well after seeing a chief of a hunting clan play the contraption. See Donso, below. Anyhow those two musical instruments aren't the only African ones made from gourds but moving along --        

If you watch enough videos of Oumou singing (there must be a zillion of them posted to YouTube) you'll see that in many of her performances she has a highly conversational way of singing. You feel as if she's talking directly to you. Sometimes it's as if she's talking to you in the manner of a defense attorney making an argument to a judge; others as if she's chatting about something over lunch with you.     

I think the ability to set up a very personal communication through song is the mark of a real griot, although after watching about 50 of her videos I think Oumou represents a tradition that I suspect goes back much earlier even than the griot clans -- to a time when certain people in a tribe were interlocutors between humans and natural forces and helped settle disputes between members of tribes, and did so through the power of their voices to project a wide range of emotions. 

That's not quite the same as the standard definition of griots. From Wikipedia's description:
A griot (/ˈɡri.oʊ/; French pronunciation: ​[ɡʁi.o]), jali or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a societal leader due to his traditional position as an advisor to royal personages. As a result of the former of these two functions, he is sometimes also called a bard. According to Paul Oliver in his book Savannah Syncopators, "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable". Although they are popularly known as "praise singers", griots may use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.
In any case there was a time when singing wasn't entertainment; it was a way that people settled important issues. When did people began singing their interventions rather than speaking them? Who knows? Maybe it's the other way around. Maybe this kind of vocal communication came before language was spoken. Oumou's songs (many if not all, her own composition) suggest this could be the case.

I also think that's why so many people who follow her singing at YouTube write in the comment section that they can't understand her language but that their heart understands -- although several viewers do plead for someone out there to please translate her words into English. 

(This prompted a Malian to reply to one such request that the listener should visit Mali and learn the Bambara language, in wide use across West Africa.)  

I agree with both sentiments; I'd dearly love to know the exact meaning of the words to all her songs but generally I feel I understand what she wants me to know -- and the visuals in the videos can be a help in catching the drift of the lyrics.  

For example the video accompanying the song Donso, which means hunter in the Bambara language, is clearly about Oumou intervening (on request by the hunters) in a dispute between a clan of hunters and government troops.

The men representing the hunter's side of the argument are real hunters -- and their musicality isn't put on for the video. From Oxfam's "Raising Her Voice: Music and Rights in West Africa. A cross-circular teaching resource exploring the power of music with ages 7-11," (PDF), which discusses the musical tradition in West Africa and Oumou's singing (and includes lyrics from a few of her more well-known songs about female rights):
Hunter’s music – this included harp playing and ritual songs, used for spiritualistic and ritualistic purposes to link the hunter to nature and ensure success.

However the obligatory Dancing Ladies in so many African music videos make an appearance in Donso, which I don't think is actually a part of negotiations, although this being Africa I don't know for certain. 

I wonder how negotiations between say, American and Chinese trade officials would go if at a critical juncture Dancing Ladies burst into the conference room. I especially wonder how it would go if Oumou appeared along with the dancers and began singing to both sides at the negotiation table.

You know, it's just a bunch of people. There isn't much that can't be worked out through dialogue. In fact in the really old days in Africa, the battles were very kinetic but there was no physical conflict. The battles were waged according to which party in the conflict wore the most creative war paint to the battleground, had the most impressive war dance, shouted the scariest war yells, and shook their spears in the most authoritative fashion. No kidding.  

Who was the judge of the battle's winner? I guess old people. So. Do not ask why so many Africans are great dancers. 

As to why they didn't try to kill or wound each other in these battles -- stop and think it through Pundita don't start. When you live in very hot and humid conditions, economy of motion becomes paramount. It expends a lot of calories to kill people in close combat, then you're too tired to hunt, then your tribe will starve. Remember there weren't refrigerators in those days for preserving meat say I have an idea let's get back to the theme of this post. Anyhow if you have a brain you should also be able to figure out why it made sense to settle conflicts without having to live near people whose relatives you'd killed Pundita one more and we're cutting this post short.               

Where was I? Dialogue, public discourse, should be with as much heart as one can muster.  And it happens that speaking in a way that reveals our true feelings is the heart given voice. It's written nowhere that the speaking can't be in a rhythm that emphasizes the speaker's points. 

This kind of singing is not about carrying a tune. It's about revealing to others the best of who we really are.             

The theme of Oumou's Senkele is harder to understand without help because it's more abstract in its meaning than say, a dispute involving hunters and soldiers. Senkele is about the importance of creating good relationships. 


But my favorite Oumou video for last week, which helped me put a trying time in perspective, is Ah Ndiyah (Boddhi Satva Ancestral Soul Mix). It's just a lot of fun.  


Wait! Boddhi Satva? Mali? 

A Japanese viewer of one of Oumou's videos at YouTube exclaimed that this was Japanese folk music he was hearing. An Indian viewer for another of her videos noted that one of the drums played was very much like a certain traditional Indian drum. 

Human civilization is far older than modern historians date it. And we've been sailing and trekking to and fro ever since --  

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