Mande Music

    -- by Eric Charry, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, 500 pages (accompanying CD available). 

Charry has done a magnificent job of compiling a vast array of materials into a relatively compact volume. The resources include about 50 photos (dating back as far as 100 years) and over 40 diagrams, maps and tables. His appendices and “-ographies” (bibliography, discography, videography) are substantial, cross-referenced and thorough, as is his subject index. This book is an excellent jumping-off point for the study of any music in the extended Mande area (Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, western Burkina Faso), although it deals primarily with the musics of the Mande peoples (including Mandinka, Maninka (Malinke), Xasonka, Soninke, and Susu).

After an initial overview, the author’s primary chapters are structured on a repeated design outlining the studies’ content: a) situating performers in the historical context of the genre, b) occasions when they perform, c) description of instruments, d) description of repertories, e) tuning systems, f) playing techniques and styles. He divides the field into music maintained by the hunter’s societies, and that performed by the endogamous group of professional musicians, who are often given the title “griot” in West Africa and “jeli” or “jali” in this study (the author suggests a new Arabic origin for the term “griot”). A whole chapter is included on each of these and the instruments (harps, lutes, xylophones) and playing techniques involved, noting the interaction – and lack of it - between the groups. For example, the hunter’s harp and kora are similar instruments with similar playing techniques, but “it is uncommon to find a kora player who also plays a hunter’s harp or vice versa. They live in two different musical realms. It is much more common to find one person playing both the guitar and the bala [xylophone]… because they are all jeli instruments.” A jeli will specialise in one field – speech, singing or instrument playing – while still being competent in the others. Considerable attention is also given to the complex social, economic, political, historical and religious interactions between the musical/verbal artists (jeli) and their traditional patrons, the freeborn or noble people.

The Mande drumming traditions and recent developments such as the international interest in jembe drumming are separated into a separate chapter. The author notes that while traditionally, “jelis play pieces honoring specific persons, drummers play pieces honoring groups of people: strong men, children about to undergo the rituals of circumcision or excision, slaves, farmers, blacksmiths, neighboring ethnic groups, and so on” (p. 12).

Another chapter deals with the developments of “modern” music in the Mande world, looking in depth at the musicians involved and the ways they have taken much older pieces of music and re-presented them using guitars and “orchestras” of electrified (often European) instruments. Within such modern genres, “the most significant contrast is between a Malian guitar style based on koni [plucked lute] playing and a Guinean guitar style based on bala [xylophone] playing” (p. 14). Charry does well to include this vital component of the current musical world of the peoples of West Africa, since it is rarely treated in the same way as the “deep” traditions with which it co-exists. “Traditional and modern in a Mande context do not refer to opposing sides of battle with impenetrable lines, or to blind adherence to colonial lexical categories and mentalities, but rather reflect states of mind that can be fluidly combined and respected in innovative and often humorous ways. That guitars, koras, konis and balas can all be played in traditional and modern styles should give pause for thought” (p. 24).

Charry includes nearly 40 musical transcriptions, including multiple versions of some pieces to permit comparison. The audio CD (available separately) has 36 examples keyed to the book’s pages, and the CD booklet makes occasional corrections to transcriptions in the book. If you plan to study from the transcriptions, the CD is an essential tool.

With a view to application to my own research work in the region, I found the chapter on music terminology fascinating and inspirational for pursuing a similar investigation of how local people perceive, critique and talk about their music. The whole book outlines the scope of a thorough ethnomusicological investigation about a region or people’s music and raises important questions about musical change and authenticity. Charry’s reflexive observations in Chapter 7 concerning his experience as an outsider learning music in Africa (“sticking one’s ears into other people’s music”) are essential reading for any fieldworker in African music.

Not included was any depth of insight on women’s music (aside from a few paragraphs about professional women singers), music for community participation, or song texts, or much focus on the interplay of Islam and music. The author states near the end his intention to focus on Mande instrumental music, hence the male perspective is highlighted (female jelis usually only sing), but it is a shame that this was not made more explicit initially. His discussion and illustration of other griot traditions in West Africa excluded a number of well-known groups in Ghana, Nigeria and Benin (pp. 108-9) with only minimal justification. A disappointing feature in a book of this price was the low-quality binding of the soft cover which did not survive a high-temperature road trip into the very area under discussion. But overall, the text is a highly readable introduction to the musics of the Western end of Africa, as well as an in-depth study of Mandinka and Maninke traditions specifically.

    --reviewed by Sue Hall, Senegal, working in ethnomusicological research and application for the development of Christian music resources in the Senegambian region.

Published in Vol.1, No.2 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony