Archive for September 16th, 2012

KTs Master Class…Follow-up to previous post.

September 16, 2012

When asked as a callow princeling, what were the three greatest inventions enjoyed by mankind? I wouldn’t have hesitated. Simple. The LP or long playing record for style, the automobile for travel adventure with comely companions and the hot shower to wash away previous excesses.

Today however, being older and better informed, I would simply say “the langenaria siceraria“, which is none other than the bottle gourd, opo squash, long melon or calabash. Wiki has a tremendous entry, noting that this cultivated vine has played an integral part in the genesis and migration of humanity. It has both culinary and cultural uses, and here we will be focusing on the latter.

It’s the diversity of shapes which make them so interesting

So begins the Master Class on how to make a calabash-based instrument.

Now, you could go the long way and grow a langeria siceraria which could take ages, so the happy citizens of tubbyland go online to The Gourdfather and select a calabash of their choosing. If you are US based, HERE is your link. And it you want to know why I’m such a smarty pants on the subject, THIS is the read for you, and which I’m referencing for a lot of information below. Finally, if you’re hit the links, you will realise that choosing a gourd is a bit like choosing a partner: they are all different so its a question of the type of music you wish to play.

Gourds lend themselves to the following instrumentation based on the Sacks-Hornstabel system:

Idiophones – which is to say a solid material which you hit, stamp, shake, knock together, scape, rub, pluck (mbira) and hit in a complex manner (xylophone).
Try this sample of the marimba by the African Dream Marimba Band of Capetown.

And in the same family:

Mbira or thumb piano

Mbiras come is a massive variety of styles, many to which transform into cultural objects par excellence, as evidenced by THIS google image save:

Membraphones: basically a drum of any type.

Aerophones: any gourd based intrument you blow through such as the god-awful sounding Indian pongi.

Finally, chordophones: any instrument which uses a vibrating string as its sound source.

Unquestionably, the greatest instrument in this category is the African harp-lute or Kora.

Griot Lamin Saho

Now I see that the class is not on-task: sleeping, texting and chatting up members of the opposite sex, so we will resume this afternoon.

I was going to set some homework on How a String Vibrates, but this type of math is way above my pay scale.

Afro-Centrism – Part One

September 16, 2012

Given recent unwelcome events taking place in Mali, finding a point of departure is not easy.The number of internet entries on the Sahel has increased exponentially. So let’s begin with a bit of wicki pilfering on the history side:

Mali was once part of three famed West African empires which controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, slaves, and other precious commodities.[8] These Sahelian kingdoms had neither rigid geopolitical boundaries nor rigid ethnic identities.[8] The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire, which was dominated by the Soninke, a Mande-speaking people.[8] The empire expanded throughout West Africa from the 8th century until 1078, when it was conquered by the Almoravids.[9]

The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger River, and reached the height of power in the 14th century.[9] Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centers of both trade and Islamic learning.[9] The empire later declined as a result of internal intrigue, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire.[9] The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. The Songhai had long been a major power in West Africa subject to the Mali Empire’s rule.[9] In the late 14th century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern portion of the Mali Empire.[9]


The Niger River which is every bit impressive as the Mekong

Mosque in background

The Malian Kingdom was organised around very sophisticated forms of social organisation and was seriously wealthy as evidenced by this entry by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ibn Battuta, the great Morrocan Berber traveller, visited Mali by foot and his account is found HERE. He gives Mali a bit of a mixed review, but had the good sense to comment on the beauty of the women. However, I suspect our Islamic version of Marco Polo was a bit of a grizzle guts and non-cosmopolitan, since his visit to China concluded thus:

China, for all its magnificence, did not please me…. When I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I stayed at home and went out only when it was necessary. When I saw Muslims it was as though I had met my family and my relatives.

Yet, even in the 20th century, Mali retained aspects of its original greatness and advanced notions of civil society. And this brings me to one of the great train journeys in the world.

The Bamako-Dacca Senegal rail link – Inaguarated in 1904 with branch lines completed in 1924.

After independence in the early sixties, the railway was jointly run by the Regie des Chemins de Fer du Mali RCFM and its Senegalese counterpart. The Malian Ministry of Information and the RCFM displayed advanced social characteristics when they formed the Super Rail Band to entertain passengers staying at The Buffet Hotel de la Gare before departing to the coast from Bamako’s railway station.

I suggest that you read the full Wiki entry on the Super Rail Band HERE – taking note of the original Cuban influences – as it contains all the musical references you will be to be aware of in order to complete your weekend homework.
Finally, I highly recommend this tremendous photo gallery assembled by various photographers, containing as it does the only image of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare I could locate, plus the Artisans Market….many thanks.

And what is all this verbiage about?

The original (?) Super Rail Band.



Tons of youtube entries when you include the many luminaries such as Mory Kante and Safil Keita who passed through the Rail Band. However, the Rail Band has a much slicker sound today due to high-end French production methods.

And I leave you with two recommendations:

For a guaranteed killer introduction to the West Sahelian griot sound (Whats that KT? – back to your Wicki homwework), try this CD offering from Rough Trade . The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali and Guinea: Kora Kings and Griot Minstrels. This is the disc for you when you hold your next block party and want to test your slinky new moves on the dance floor.

And to understand what is taking place in Mali today, read anything by Jeremy Keenan, an independent anthropologist with decades of experience in the Sahel. Here is just one recent sample of his reporting from Al Jazeera.

If you have the time, obtain a copy of his The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2009). Densely written, but highly rewarding.

And what of the Bamako-Dacca rail link today? Well, it is basically fucked as this recent account by Rhiannon Batten for The Independent notes.

Sad, so here is a truly beautiful entry on an experiment in Malian musical cross-fertilisation written for Vanity Fair.

Contains photos to die for.

Enjoy, because the follow-up – KTs Musical Master Class – will be demanding and requiring your very best artisanal skills.