Energetic and rhythmic tones of Mandé music filled Lyman Hall in Pomona College’s Thatcher Music Building Wednesday night. This performance, which accompanied a lecture on the history of Mandé music, was part of the Ashé Africa program aimed at promoting awareness and learning about African culture.
In the lecture, titled “Music and Identity in the Mandé World,” Professor Cherif Keïta, who is a William H. Laird Professor of French and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College, discussed the significance of musicians—referred to as griots in the Malengke language—within Mandé communities. He also presented some of the epic stories surrounding the creation of instruments and the inception and gradual elevation of the musician’s significance and status in the culture.
“The heroic identity, the man of action, is combined also with the musician,” Keïta said. He spoke here about the derivation of music from the act of hunting in historic times, and how Mandé hunters made use of song to “sing their own praise” during their hunts and hence became the first musicians of their society.
Professor Keïta also discussed some of the inspirations behind the development of musical traditions in Mandé communities. He spoke extensively on the role of the Malengke term nyama, “the vital force that you have to negotiate.” He explained, for instance, that nyama constituted “the raw material that artists stylize.” He emphasized the value placed on lyrics and their power to incite action and inspire.
“Words convey a message that can either kill people or build people,” he said.
The songs performed at the event included those praising the ancestors of Professor Keïta and the musicians. As highlighted in the lecture, the musical instruments played by griots are linked with their family heritage. Musician Balla Kouyaté’s instrument, the balafon, was once designed and played by his ancestors, for instance, as is the case with musician Alhaji Papa Susso’s instrument, the kora. Kouyaté and Papa Susso described how as part of the griot tradition, musicians become skilled not only in playing their respective instrument but also in physically constructing them.
Papa Susso’s instrument, the kora, is a string instrument constructed from a hollow calabash and is played using the thumbs. Kouyaté’s instrument, the balafon, is an instrument constructed from hollow gourds, traditionally coated with spiderwebs, and bamboo flutes, which are played using two mallets. The knowledge and rituals surrounding these instruments were passed down through generations of both musicians’ families.
Keïta contextualized the griot tradition in light of additional cultural practices within Mandé traditions.
“We believe that you are born a human being but become a person through a process,” he said. He went on to highlight the significance of rites of passage within an individual’s lifespan. Music, Professor Keïta indicated, was an avenue through which such rites might be celebrated, remembered, and eternalized through the tradition of oral history, lyrics, and melody. “The heroic model is a perfect example of how a person gains immortality,” said Keïta.