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The Justice (March 4 , 2014)

World music program expands through residency

by Nate Shaffer

Last week Trio da Kali, a group of traditional musicians from Mali, visited Brandeis for a week-long residency as part of MusicUnitesUS. They visited Anthropology, International and Global Studies and Music classes, but also gave two performances. As factors like urban living, political upheaval, globalization and a lack of institutional support for music have been diluting the traditional music of Mali, Trio da Kali is focused on spreading and preserving the custom.

Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS) founded MusicUnitesUS shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the wake of those attacks, she sought to address the ensuing xenophobia by creating cultural connections at Brandeis through non-Western music. A large part of that effort has taken the shape of hosting traditional musical groups from the Muslim world at Brandeis for performances and academic lectures.

“On a really basic level, when you meet someone in person, you have a much stronger connection [than if you just learn about them in an academic setting]. When you meet them through music, you listen more deeply for what they really have to say,” she said in an interview with the Justice.

The nonprofit has an active partnership with the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a group that supports musicians coming from different world music traditions, especially in the Muslim world. Rather than Westernizing or diluting the styles of the musicians, the AKMI tries to promote these musicians and equip them to deal with the challenges of the world music stage.

Interestingly enough, the trio’s music shares roots with some of the most uniquely American musical genres: jazz and blues. Many of their pieces paid homage to important figures in their culture, including warriors and leaders. This comes from a very strong griot tradition; the musicians were not just performers but important mediators between cultural groups—and often advisers to royalty. As these pieces involved a lot of improvisation, the music felt organic and the performers were relaxed. It was a pleasure to watch these joyful musicians and it is such a gift that we have these opportunities to experience the gifts of other cultures’ art.

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