Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Siren Song of Mali - My Thoughts

So a couple weeks ago, the NYTimes published an article on Mali. Which was great. Except the author missed a few things and got a few other things wrong. I've held off on putting this here so that the Times would have a chance to publish some corrections or publish this as a letter to the editor. But they haven't. (Well, they did this but it's not really anything). So you get to read it here. I'm also creating a playlist to go along with Jon Pareles' accompanying article. Check it out on Calabash.
Anyway, here's my letter:
Dear Editor,
I am writing in regards to the article in the Travel Section from April 2, 2006. (

Overall, this was an amazing article, and was a great read. I am both an avid Mali-phile who has spent 6 months living in Mali studying the dance and music, and someone who is working professionally to help Malian musicians reach a wider audience as the VP of Artist/Label Relations for Calabash Music (cited by Jon Pareles in his partner piece). As part of that work, I am working with Paul Chandler (Mr. Hammer's guide in Mali) and other music producers in Mali to directly work with, and compensate artists.

However, I was filled with mixed feelings reading this piece, as there were a few significant factual errors in this piece. I am quite happy that Mali is getting positive publicity, and is being recognized for the quality and quantity of music and culture. I, of course, do want this culture and music to be represented accurately.

The first mistake I caught is in the first paragraph: "A jembe fola ("he who talks with the drum") pounded on a bongo fashioned from sheets of horsehide stretched over a gasoline can."
In fact, a djembe (or jembe) is a specific type of drum carved from wood that is somewhat hourglass shaped. It is covered by a goat-hide (and in very very rare cases, cow-hide). It is neither a bongo, nor covered with horse-hide, nor is it made with a gasoline can. And while "fo" can mean "talk" it also means "to play", so a more accurate translation of djembefola would be simply "djembe player". This term is generally reserved for a good player, as opposed to just any person who picks up a drum. Also, this type of writing ("pounded on a bongo") seems like that which would come from someone wholly ignorant of Africa and its music, rather than someone based in South Africa, and presumably familiar with basic instruments.

Second, later on, the article reads "The city has become a cultural hothouse, in which singers and instrumentalists from Mali's myriad tribes — the Tuaregs of the Sahara, the Sorhai of Timbuktu, the Malinkes from the border region south of Bamako, the Dogon cliff dwellers, the Wassalous near the Ivory Coast, the Peuls of central Mali — mix and fertilize one another's art."
Wassalou (or Wassulu or Wassoulou) is a region, it is NOT the name of a group of people. Wassoulou stretches across areas of Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast and is home to Bambara, Peul (Fulani), Malinkes, and other groups of people. Wassoulou is famous as it is the home region of such famous artists as Oumou Sangare, Ramata Diakite, Coumba Sidibe, etc. The style of music from Wassoulou started it's rise to prominence in the 1970's, and changed the music scene in Mali forever. It brought out themes of love, women's empowerment and other previously unheard musical subjects. At Calabash Music, we've devoted a whole section of our site to the music from this region (

Additionally, the Peul (also known as the Fulfulde, Pulaar, Fulani, Peul, Fula) people are nomadic herders who have settled all across West Africa and are not restricted to central Mali, as the article implies.

Thirdly, later on, the article reads "Four percussionists stood in the front row, beating on jembes and dununbas, slim tapered drums that fit snugly in the armpit." Dununbas are NOT slim tapered drums that fit beneath ones arms. I believe that the author is referring to drums known in Mali as "Tama" or "Tamani", which are known in the west as "talking drums." Dununbas are large double headed drums played with sticks in ensemble with djembes. Tama are typically reserved for griot music, though their role is expanding as fusions grow as with all music in Mali now, as Mr. Hammer correctly points out.

And finally, the article misses Mali's rich cultural boat in several significant ways. I appreciate the difficulty of putting a whole culture into one article, however, I expect more from the New York Times and it's fact-checkers. For example, the article reads "The griot still ranks low on the social hierarchy, however: Salif Keita, a descendant of a royal Malinke family, earned his clan's scorn when he chose the career of the griot."
Griots occupy a very interesting role in Malinke/Bamana culture. Griots are both respected and scorned. They are found at all levels of Bamana culture, from the kings bedroom and boardroom to the common streets. This duality is rooted in their historical place in society, and is the subject of many books, academic articles, and discussions, all widely available to the casual reader.

Salif Keita faced scorn from his family not because he chose the career of a griot (since one cannot choose another role in a casted society), but because he became an artist, traditionally the realm of many different castes (including griot), but definitely NOT the realm of a noble. Many other artists coming of age in the 1970s faced this same scorn from their families for becoming dancers, drummers, or musicians.

Finally, the article reads "Mali musical tradition goes back to the height of the Songhai Empire, in the early 16th century, when a caste of itinerant entertainers — oral historians called griots — emerged in the villages along the Niger River, the third longest waterway in Africa."
Again, this is slightly problematic historically. The consensus is rather that griots "emerged" in the Empire of Mali in the 12th and 13th centuries, and a quick review of the historical literature (or even the net) will show that griots are almost always associated with this earlier Empire and the first ruler Sunjiata Keita (many spellings exist also for Sundjata's first name). The Empire of Mali was founded and ruled by the Bamana people, from whom the Songhai seized power and formed this new powerful empire in the 16th century, by which time, the tradition and caste of griot was well established.

I hope that some of these corrections can be passed on to the public and/or to the printed record of the NY Times, and I also hope that the Times continues to cover West Africa and its culture in such depth and color. We are all richer for it, and hopefully we can help make Mali a bit less poor as well.
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