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The Justice (March 4 , 2014)

Trio da Kali highlights musical traditions

by Aliza Gans

During the last bleak week of February, Brandeis welcomed a fresh new voice. The Aga Khan Music Initiative and MusicUnitesUS, which brought “Silk and Bamboo: Music From China,” last November, presented a more effusive group from Africa this semester, Trio da Kali. During the course of a week, the three musicians from the Malian griot tradition performed in over a dozen classes, and offered workshops and performances during their week-long residency, concluding their visit with a final concert Saturday night in the Slosberg Music Hall.

On Thursday in Prof. Judith Eissenberg’s (MUS) “Intro to World Music” class, Trio da Kali performers Fodé Lassana Diabaé (balafon), Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté (singer) and Mamadou Kouyaté (bass ngoni) graciously performed for and answered questions from curious Brandeisians. The musicians are descendants of a long celebrated line of griots—Mali’s lineage of traveling storytellers and musicians who preserve the oral traditions of their ancestors.

The trio’s name in Mandinka, “Da” (“mouth”) and “Kali” (“swear”), proclaims the role of the performers to keep the rich history of Mali alive through music and song. The eager students whispered about the peculiar instruments set up on stage: the balafon, a 22-key marimba-like rosewood instrument with gourd resonators, and a bass ngoni, an ancestor of the banjo with a cow skin head, resembling the shape of a cricket bat.

The chatter stopped when Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté entered in a bold green and blue patterned dress and interrupted with her penetrating voice, singing “Soliyooooooo!”

After Hawa Kassé Mady’s soul-rattling solo, Slosberg was steeped in silence until finally Eissenberg asked the class, “What did that feel like?” Students responded by saying that the piece was very personal and passionate.Lucy Durán, who also led the discussion, is an ethnomusicologist and project adviser for the Agra Khan Music Initiative in Mali, and has worked with Malian musicians for 26 years. Durán described the song as “Soliyo,” an improvised cry to summon horses from the pastures so pre-colonial kings of the Mali Empire would not have to walk on foot. It is considered the “calling card of Mande griots,” she explained, and now honors the “ancient tradition of praising and honoring.”

Jared Redmond, Ph.D. candidate in Music Composition and Theory and teaching assistant for Eissenberg’s class, described the crucial role of da Kali’s residency in bringing the study of world music to life. “Reading and media only go so far to describe the artistic tradition,” he said, “When you hear the griots’ voices … it forces you to feel immediately.” This immediacy is essential in an “Introduction to Music” class, he said, where a direct encounter with the society you are studying “makes you take it seriously.”

Students were encouraged to return to Slosberg Music Hall on Saturday for an evening concert where the auditorium felt less serious as it did during class on Thursday and instead more celebratory. Durán delivered a preconcert lecture in which she elaborated on the trio’s focus on “Mande music that has been eclipsed by contemporary music … [including] many beautiful old songs from the ’50s and ’60s that griots aren’t interested in today.” During the concert I was re-immersed in the music and even more blown away by the talent and versatility of the griots.

Fodé Lassana’s rhythmic and melodic adroitness on the balafon was breathtaking. His mallets would swiftly move up and down the rosewood keys as fluidly as water over a bed of river rocks. Kouyaté picked at his ngoni, which had the resonance of a Les Paul bass, like a Malian Bootsy Collins. And as during the “World Music” class several days before, there was never a dull moment when Hawa Kassé Mady offered her song. Her voice was a constant source of surprise: subtle and sweet at one moment, then a powerhouse of volume and vibrato in the next.

She proclaimed the history of her culture, which often took a more contemporary turn. For example, “Ladilikan” (‘words of advice’) is based on the gospel song recorded by Mahalia Jackson, “I’m going to live the life I sing about in my song,” to whom Hawa Kassé Mady bears a striking resemblance, both physical and vocal.

The performers were convivial, and I would even say loveable. Audience members were lured out of their seats to dance and hand Hawa Kassé Mady dollar bills, in keeping with the ancient griot tradition.

At one point, a woman shimmied her way to the stage with the trio and showered Hawa with singles. In addition to patrons’ cash, Trio Da Kali also received a warm standing ovation.

The audience left the concert smiling—the mark of a great performance. Like the horses of the Mandinka kings, my soul had been called so as I returned to my dorm, my spirit did not touch the ground.

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