Not long ago, I went to hear Malian guitarist Habib Koite at Yoshi’s Oakland, at the recommendation of a friend who’s been a fan of Koite since the 90s when he first toured and had recordings available in the US. In addition to enjoying the skilled and charismatic performance, I wondered about the instrumentation – guitar bass and kora, drumset, talking drums and calabash, the way the group played – what traditions did this come from, and how closely was it tuned for US audience. So I picked up In Griot Time by Banning Eyre, a journalist and guitarist who works for Afro-pop worldwide, NPR, and elsewhere. The book addressed those questions and much more.
In the 90s, Banning Eyre travelled to Mali to study for six months with guitarist Djelimadi Tounkara, one of the masters in a living griot musical and cultural tradition. As an advanced student, Eyre lived in the Tounkara household, getting to know the network of musicians and experiencing the culture. Eyre describes how he negotiated his role as a visiting outsider, learning and figuring out how to participate in the complex give and take of Mande culture, where exchanges of money and goods are part of social interactions along with favors and confidences. His ability to interact musically helps provide entre to the society of musicians. Early on, he learns to play accompaniment to Sunjata, the central epic of the griot tradition; this and other elements of the repertoire earn him a quick welcome. As a musician, he was good enough to be asked to play a part in Tounkara’s famous Rail Band, and to play weddings and other events.
Eyre writes richly descriptive travel journalism, portraying weddings, baby-namings, funerals; upscale performance halls and a bar scene that is extra-sketchy because alcohol is quasi-underground in a Muslim society, and especially the comings and goings, errands and hanging out, economic stresses and family conflicts that make up the texture of life. Eyre mitigates the dubious confidence of the traveling reporter by showing multiple voices in disputes and disagreements.
One of the complex issues he explores is the role of the griot, which is seen ambivalently by musicians in Mali. As some reader will know already; a griot is a hereditary role as musician and transmitter of oral history in West African cultures. Griot or jeli as they are called in Mali, are part of a class that is lower in rank than the noble class. The nobles provide patronage to the griots, who in return compose elaborate praise for their patrons. Griots also play social roles of confidant and mediator to the powerful. On the one hand, griot culture preserves legendary history and provides a structure for economic patronage of music. But the customs of praising leaders to gain financial support entrenches musicians in support of the power structure.
Also, the hereditary transmission of griot status makes musical meritocracy and tradition mixing harder. Some of the most notable musicians in Mali have crossed hereditary and ethnic lines. Salif Keita came from a noble family, but because he was an albino facing social marginality, he had little to lose by pursuing music. Habib Koite came from a griot family in Western Mali but went to music school, and his music combines elements of multiple ethnic groups in Mali.
The book also explores questions about the origins of the blues in West African music. Based on Eyre’s research and experience, he believes that the scale and tonality of blues derives from Bambara music. But the 12-bar blues structure is foreign to Malian musicians, and difficult for his mentors to pick up. Blues is American music, not African.
As usual, intercultural influence is more complex than one might guess on the surface. Modibo Keita, the first President of Mali in the post-colonial era in the 60s, encouraged a revival of traditional styles, bringing musicians to the capital from various traditions, and cultivating a national identity that embraced the different strands of Mali’s cultural heritage. Meanwhile, state-sponsored dance bands, including Djelimadi Tounkara’s Rail Band, incorporated traditional Malian elements, Cuban rhythms, horns, and Cuban-influenced guitar (although acoustic guitars had been integrated into griot music since the 20s and 30s. The Cuban influence was bolstered by Castro-sponsored cultural exchange. The instrumentation and folk roots of musicians including Tounkara and Koite incorporate these influences of urban modernization, ethnic revival, and Cuban styles.
The strangest Cuban connection in the book was a missed connection. During the writing of the book Djelimady Tounkara and young ngoni player Basekou Kouyate were planning to travel to Cuba to record with Ry Cooder, but because of the presence of a wealthy griot patron in Mali, they missed the date, and Cooder’s recording focused instead on elderly son musicians he brought back from retirement, creating the Buena Vista Social Club.
During the 90s at the time of Banning Eyre’s visit, Malian musicians often replaced live drumming with drum tracks, and added synth keyboards. Eyre doesn’t like this at all, but admits that his esthetic taste bears no relevance to the decisions made by Malian musicians appealing to their local audiences. Not only that, Eyre reflects that his orientation to music as primarily an artistic/esthetic experience is different from his hosts, who create music to make a living economically; within sets of cultural rituals and social/economic obligations.
Other than the role of the griot, the book covers political topics fairly lightly. Eyre writes about the conflicts between Djelimady Tounkara and his wife Adama Kouyate, as Djelimady attempts to assert traditional male command of his wife’s coming and going. The author also writes about prominent female singers (jelimusow), who play a musically leading role, whose husbands typically play backing musician and business manager roles. Eyre seems less interested in vocal music generally, and more interested in instrumental music, and one can’t fault a guitarist this preference. The book also profiles vocalist Oumou Sangare, a champion of women’s rights who speaks out against polygamy and arranged marriage. The most shocking moment of the book is when Djelimady strikes his wife once, causing turmoil as the household defends Adama. With the mix of stories showing women with different levels of power and society changing, Eyre is trying to convey that “it’s complicated”, but his continued friendship and respect for his mentor after that moment makes me less sympathetic.
I still appreciate the book for its portrayal of the place and culture as Eyre observed it, and especially for the musical background. The book includes portraits of musicians who had already established a global presence by the time the book was written (Habib Koite, Salif Keita), as well musicians who were less well-known globally at the time but have since established more of an international presence, including Eyre’s mentor Djelimadi Tounkara, kora master Toumani Diabate, singer Oumou Sangare and many others. The musicians covered in the book are well-represented in YouTube and other digital services, so it is not hard to get started exploring. It was YouTube searching that reminded me of the connection that prompted a friend to recommend the book to me in the first place – this favorite recording of Djelimady Tounkara playing with a Bill Frisell ensemble, along with Malian master percussionist Sidiki Camara, Greg Leisz, and Jenny Schienman. The book comes with a CD, which is not yet available online, so I haven’t listened to it yet.
A North American musician has challenges and risks in writing about African musicians and culture. Of course as a reader and listener more removed from the people and places, my role in writing about it is even more potentially problematic. That said, I really liked the book and thought he did a very good job of portraying a complex culture in a rich and un-romanticized way. The book has enough color and drama to make it fun to read; information that is fascinating to a Westerner interested in African music, with strong references for plenty of further listening and learning.