A whole mosaic of global folk traditions offers contemporary musicians and composers a rich palette to pull from and evolve. Though have the engines of popular music culture unknowingly skipped past the heartbeat of what makes the music of these cultures so powerful? The implications of the surge in interest in West African traditional griot music in the United States, Europe, and throughout Africa in the past decade offer much in this analysis of how cultural intersections affect the study and experience of music. In the case of the griot performers, they are born into an order of mystic historians that codify music and poetry with the intent to cultivate public knowledge within an oral tradition going back centuries. This intimate look into the soulful mechanics of the ancient griot music culture will explore their comprehensive philosophy of music composition and what leaders in their community fear are the rapidly fading temporal threads that link them to their ancestors.
To properly contextualize the ethos of griot music today, it’s important to begin with the Mandinka people of the powerful Mali Empire in the early 13th century, established by the first king, Sundiata Keita. Griots, also known as jelis in the Mande language, were not only the living scrolls of history for the royal court but also worked with a singular patron as a trusted advisor. Keita himself was advised by a griot named Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, who played the n’goni. This stringed instrument, made of a singular gourde, goat skin, and wood, is the predecessor of the beloved North American Bbanjo and was used to induce meditative states that would assist leaders in decisions regarding governance and conflict. Kouyaté’s lineage still keeps his teachings alive through a direct line of descendant masters who trace their teaching back to him.
Sirfio Sissoko is a jeli and kora player living in the United States, and his father was the great Gambian kora player Djelimady Sissoko, and his brother Ballaké Sissoko is regarded as one of the greatest living musicians playing the instrument. He shared “that at first, it was just singing. there was no instrument. But from there, they said, ‘We have to find an instrument to create a melody. To make it something nicer instead of just preaching.’ So we turned it into music so that everybody could get into it, not only the king but the society in general.”
The empire and the resulting Mande culture expanded outside the plateaus and plains and across the West African Sahel to rule over modern-day Senegal, southern Mauritania, Mali, northern Burkina Faso, western Niger, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and northern Ghana. There are currently over 11 million Mandinka people across these regions, and griots still live and work for the people in their communities. Each jeli learned in the musical tradition, commonly has one particular specialty in either singing or with a range of instruments; the kora is the most sonically distinct.
The kora is a stately instrument. Its large wooden staff towers over the player and is held together by the stubborn tension of its 21-25 nylon strings. The strings themselves are most commonly made out of fishing line. The player sits or stands with the kora directly over the center of their body, and both hands are used to play strings over a large rotund gourd that amplifies and resonates its piercing tones, producing notes with a harp-like quality. There is nowhere where the kora is more important than in the Gambia, where it’s the main accompaniment to jeli storytelling. For Sissoko, the “kora is very intimate,” he added, “It has a very soft sound. We sometimes use pickups and play with a band, but the kora is mellow. When we used to play it for the kings in the empire, it could be played in the middle of the night when they were meditating together and talking.”
Since language wasn’t ever used to record the empire’s victories, document rituals, or share the kingdom’s lore, curious researchers have had to go to the former lands of these ancient West African communities to hear these stories. Dr. Thomas Hale taught African Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and worked to document the great epics enshrined in the minds and souls of griots’ songs in the early ‘80s. Tooled with a borrowed audio recorder, he traveled to Senegal, and while on the search for history, he also witnessed the telling of an extensive catalog of songs detailing family lineages and a world of the ceremony. Griots act as “a cultural glue in two senses. To link the past to the present, and second, you can’t have any kind of function or event without them,” Hale shared. Each song is composed with an inextricable lesson, as a living repository molded by time.
The tuning of the kora itself is as malleable as it is dynamic — A likely result of the absence of written language. There are 4-5 standard heptatonic tunings, with 7 notes in each octave, although the player can adapt those tunings to suit the pitch of their own singing voice or that of an accompanying vocalist/instruments. This encourages the player to explore an endless array of options and expands what they can experiment with sonically. There would be little benefit to finding the same tuning as another player since compositions were never notated, though some standards did call for a particular scale. Whether the player was using one of the standard tunings or if they elected to create one, each string was typically tuned relative to the bass string. One standard tuning is known as Silaba, and it’s the most similar to the western major scale. The picture below illustrates the Silaba tuning and how the strings are arranged with the bass note at the bottom of the diagram.
Lucy Durán is a London-based professor of ethnomusicology, filmmaker, and music producer and warns, “the whole notion of composition is very tricky in cultures of oral tradition.” She’s immersed herself in Mande music since the 1970s and has watched as the world simultaneously discovered and fell in love with the kora particularly. She has also produced several records for another kora master, Toumani Diabate. Even though there is a certain measure of tradition musicians are expected to adhere to, evolution is expected. And in Durán’s experience working, “with Jeli kora players and musicians, there is a certain stock repertoire. It’s a bit like the blues if you like. But then, how do you make it your own, and what are the ethical issues around that?”.
In the case of the brilliant record she named and produced in 1998 for Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko called New Ancient Strings, they recorded “reworkings of the standard old repertoire, but in a very individual way. There was a bit of rivalry between Toumani and Ballaké, as they had grown up together and lived next door. There’s a wall that separates their houses, but they have very different personalities and different ways of playing. And they were quite competitive,” Durán Shared. One composition called “Kita Kaira” was previously played by Diabaté’s father and Batrou Sékou Kouyaté in the landmark 1970 French recording that translates to Ancient Strings; demonstrating how compositions develop in jeli music. Toumani Diabaté recorded the same song in 1988 and even gave the record the same name, and the juxtaposition of each in three different decades shows how lineage, style, tradition, competition, and musical growth relate to one another in their culture.
“Kayra” performed by Sidiki Diabaté and Batrou Sékou Kouyaté (1970)
“Kaira” performed by Toumani Diabaté (1988)
“Kita Kaira” performed by Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko (1988)
Competition is celebrated among jeli players and can push musicians to go deeper to produce moments of ecstasy in themselves and in spectators. In the jeli tradition, these ecstatic moments can inspire players into a temporary or permanent state where they are a nagaraya, or master. Competition is only one route to mastery, but at the core is the ability to transmit history. For Sirfio Sissoko, when asked what is behind great music, he shared, “It’s the message. You have to attach the message to it. And if you can change or touch a few hearts,” then according to his tradition, you’ve succeeded. In part, this is supported by how the music is taught, and why so many musicians who primarily have a western education have difficulty learning many folk traditions, and that is certainly the case in Mande music. In classical music education, details of rhythm, pitch, and harmonic principles are written by a composer in a classically academic and predictable way. For many African musical traditions, like in the case of the jelis, special attention is placed on how the rhythm feels in the body, communal or personal history, connection to spirit, and the perceived sonic language of each instrument.
In the case of the kora, you can tell a story with the instrument alone. It is wholly possible to play the kora in a way that sounds beautiful, but it would sound like gibberish to jelis learned in the way of the instrument. Sirfio Sissoko explains, “for example, let’s say you’re having a good time in Mexico, and we are having dinner. I could create something about it, and play it with my kora. So am I speaking in my language, and I could let you know what the kora is saying.” There is an essential layer that gets stripped away when music or instruments from this culture are played out of context and without the foundation of the tradition. After all, there’s real power in music.
“They say that in the old days, the great masters could break open a door, or all the leaves would fall off the trees. It’s an acknowledgment of the power of music, and we all know that music has power. If music didn’t have power, why would the Taliban ban it? They ban it because they’re afraid of it. Why are women not allowed to sing in public in Iran? Because they’re afraid of it. Women have powerful voices and can move people,”, Durán shared. And that is acknowledged in the Malian discourse. Part of why Malian music has become such a global phenomenon so quickly was because in 2012, when a jihadist alliance announced itself in Mali and immediately banned all music, they effectively forced musicians in the country to seek exile in foreign lands in places like the European Union. This affected other communities like that of the Tuareg people, whose music saw the same rise in popularity in the same period.
The culture has shifted to take advantage of the economic opportunities that came with this, and “Now, when you look at the whole idea of who is great and who you need to sound like and who you need to learn from, it’s likely to be the person who goes on stage and plays to a full stadium; not the person who plays more lyrically and perhaps more beautifully and with more soul, but is only attracting audiences of a hundred,” shared Durán. She added that if musicians don’t have “15,000 followers, they’re a nobody.”
Children wishing to learn these instruments are traditionally taught solely by masters in the family, though most griot children now supplement those learnings with recordings and what they see on the television on their cellphones, “and the reality is that nowadays everyone learns from recordings. Most people don’t learn face to face, and there aren’t very many masters left,”, shared Durán. She added that a child might be talented, but many times they’re “a complete carbon copy of one of the popular singers of the time and singing them exactly as they’re singing on television note for note. Even dancing exactly the way.”
Though still, children learning griot music are also saturated from childhood by the hundreds of standard classic songs that officiate weddings, bless births, and console those overcome with sorrow. They join their families in their duties and are able to experience the distinct character and place of each composition, and this is a large part of what has kept this tradition intact. The compositions themselves have less concern with the entertainment value of a song and instead focus on history and how to translate that into sound. This puts the culture at odds with the undiscerning and commerce-minded algorithms that rule today’s digital world.
To many who currently stand guard to the preservation of ancient traditions globally, this is a shared and undeniable reality. All over the world, interpersonal ties and customs are being exposed to an overwhelming barrage of not only images and sounds shared on social media, but also to the values that are implicitly shared by them. This disproportionately impacts communities like that of the Mande people, whose entire culture historically rests on oral traditions, making them more vulnerable to the visuality and the predatory psychology of apps like Tiktok, Instagram, and Facebook.
A thoughtful discourse is necessary to process the influence of the quickly changing economic conditions of folk traditions, and their exposure to a popular culture that has little consideration of its influence on communities newly integrated into global forums. Sirifo reflected, “I don’t want to lose it, and I will do everything in my power to keep that fire going. It’s okay to be open to other music, but at the same time, you want to keep the sense of your instrument and the culture behind it. Unfortunately, that’s fading away so rapidly with money, fame, the big stages, and everything else. And it’s a shame.” And though Durán wholeheartedly agrees with Sirifo, she admits, “there’s always, in every musical culture around the world, a resistance of the older generation to what the young generation is doing. And I think that’s healthy. And if it weren’t like that, then music would just die. There have to be young rebels who go against their parents and their elders.”
There is an undeniable quality to the traditional style of instrumentation for the kora. The focus is not on hurried fingers dancing on its strings and begging for applause. Instead, when an intent listener hears the meditative strums of a master, there is a palatable ease to the spirit that can take them “home,”, in the most meaningful interpretation of the word. The risk of this passive erasure threatens much more than the entrancing melodies of griot traditions since, in their societies, music is the only conduit that connects them with their societal values, rights of passage, and ancestral histories.