--Various Artists, 2002, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 40494, CD + 30-page booklet.
Sounds of the kora (harp-lute), bala (xylophone), ngoni (hunters lute) and djembe (drum) are popular in more places than West Africa these days. A thriving community of singers and musicians from Mali, Guinea, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau live in New York City and have been making music together since 1997. This CD is the first time that seven of the NYC stars (men and women) have been brought together for a recording.
The artists are all jalilu (sing. jali), members of a hereditary musical caste 1 whose roots can be traced to the ancient empire of Mali in the 13th century. Their repertoire is referred to as jaliya, based on Mande (or Manden) forms of music. The CD title badenya is a Malinke word that denotes the bond of mother and child at a specific level, as well as the wider bonds of historical heritage and current community obligation.
The liner notes are excellent as expected from this label. The first essay topic is the origin of the jali caste and the important roles that jalilu played in society. The second topic is the history of Manden peoples in New York, starting with their immigration in the 1970s. Senegalese established networks of street vendors whose organization was controlled by a primary power in Senegal, the Mouride Islamic brotherhoods. Soon immigrants from seven other countries followed. There are an estimated twenty thousand people of Manden heritage now living in NYC, and the essay documents which ethnic groups are concentrated in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, and other places.
The third topic of the essay describes how contemporary jalilu fulfill roles old and new in an urban, cosmopolitan context. They sing the praises of patrons, help to resolve social conflicts, recite histories and genealogies, and entertain at public events.
The songs on the CD are the fourth topic, and they demonstrate a range of ancient and contemporary jaliya as practiced in NYC. They cover a historical frame of almost eight centuries, from the founding of the Empire of Mali to songs dealing with colonialism, from a courtship song to an anti-war song, from praises of God to praises of patrons.
There is also an instrumental xylophone duet that has the characteristic buzzing resonator on only one instrument, making the two music parts more easily distinguished. A highlight is Track 8, which has a marvelous demonstration of the technique of singing lyrics through a Fulani flute. Electric bass and guitar add subtle flourishes to some tracks; even a cello is heard on the last song.
Each musician and singer receives a biographical note and photo. Lyrics to all songs are included in English and in the original Mande dialects (Bamana, Mandinka and Malinke). A 15-item bibliography is included for further study.
Wow! Liner notes that contain exactly what you hope for; a digital recording that is professionally recorded and mixed; enthusiastic performances by masters of their art; music that moves your mind, your heart, and your body. What more could you want?
1 The generic name for members of such musical castes in Islamic-influenced West Africa is griot; see book review on page 16 for further information.
--reviewed by Paul Neeley
Published in Vol.2, No.1 of