One of the most fascinating things about “world” musicians is how they create an impression of authenticity by means of the most subtly layered cultural and technological artifice. What are the unique roles of audiences, performers, and presenters in this mutual suspension of disbelief, by means of which we wish away the distance between local and global, traditional and commercial? How does this “extremely complicated process of cultural transmission and re-transmission” actually work? We assembled a panel of graduate students, led by our own Darren Mueller, to use Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté’s performance at Reynolds as a springboard to explore these intractable questions.
Tim Hambourger is a pianist pursuing a PhD in music composition at Duke. Paolo Bocci is a jazz drummer pursuing a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at UNC. David K. Garner is a Duke composer whose Lament for the Imagined was premiered by the Kronos Quartet in Glasgow this year. We invite you to add your perspective to theirs—and let us know if you’re interested in reading the panel’s musicological thoughts on the performance, which we’re omitting here but will gladly publish upon request.
Darren Mueller: I always walk away from concerts like Kouyaté’s thinking about how technology—electronic amplification, recordings, and so on—affects our perception of the music. Any time you mix modern technology and traditional styles together, out comes this other thing called “world music.”
Tim Hambourger: I heard blues and rockabilly references, like the band was consciously reclaiming (African) American rock to prove that there’s nothing a guitar can do that an ngoni can’t. Like Kouyaté said, “This is no guitar, this is the guitar’s grandfather!” There’s so much competition in that statement, but also homage. It seemed like there was an extremely complicated process of cultural transmission and re-transmission at play in their sound.
David Garner: I guess I feel like conversation about the ngoni and the American guitar is unnecessary. Sometimes I think it comes down to musicians (and composers—I speak from experience!) hearing sounds they are attracted to and wanting to make them as well. I’d argue that this music was created equally by the tradition from which it came and the forum in which it was presented.
DM: The concept of “cultural transmission and re-transmission” brings to mind Béla Fleck‘s DVD, Throw Down Your Heart, which at times features Kouyaté.
DG: Fleck’s project was all about “bringing the banjo back to Africa” by traveling the continent to play with well-known musicians from Tanzania, Mali, Uganda and Gambia. The project proposed some pretty hefty goals: “Using his banjo, he transcends barriers of language and culture, finding common ground with musicians from very different backgrounds and creating some of the most meaningful music of his career” (found here).
I love the album, but I am not sold on these claims. The romantic view that this is a sort of “homecoming” for the banjo is a stretch. Yes, the banjo has roots in the music of Africa, but the success of the recordings comes from wonderful musicians with great flexibility and listening ability, not in the “cultural transmission.” For me, the issue is the representation of such collaborations in print, film, and promotion. For example, the Throw Down Your Heart website represents the “Musicians” section as sort of generic rural village, as though Bela Fleck “discovered” these musicians. But musicians like Kouyaté have been present on the world scene for years!
DM: To what extent do artists like Kouyaté perform a certain type of authenticity, which is mediated by essentialized ideas of “African music” in the West?
DG: It can seem as though Western audiences expect African music to be presented to us in a pure form, lifted straight from rural villages. But the Kouyaté concert we saw was molded by years of popular music from Africa and America, the technical needs of playing for a huge crowd, and the formatting of songs and programs for Western ears and eyes.
Paolo Bocci: As Darren pointed out via the issue of amplification, much dialogue is already in place in the technology, in the musical influences, in the styles and sounds. Claiming the origin of the blues back to Mali, Kouyaté warned us that “il n’est pas un blues americain” (“it’s not an American blues”), as the harmonic structure was different. Yet many riffs were clearly from that “American blues.”
But it is also interesting to see how African musicians present themselves to Western audiences. Kouyaté told us twice that, while his great-grandfathers used to play these songs to the kings of Mali, he was going to play them for us. It reminded me of a certain “economy of the gift” I experienced while I was doing fieldwork in Senegal. Receiving an unsolicited “big favor” or “special treatment” forced me to be grateful for something that I hadn’t even asked for. I felt the same dynamic of creating a “moral debt” at the Kouyaté concert.
At the end of the concert, a few people (and me) went to see the ngonis on display. A person asked, “How much?” “300”, replied the musician. “300 dollars?” said the person, appalled, and he added, “C’est trop cher!” (“It is too expensive!”). And the musician, imperturbable, said, “How much are you willing to pay?” I left as the trade went on, feeling a bit of nostalgia for that art of living with other people…
DM: Paolo, I’ll have to think more about the use of the royalty songs within an “economy of the gift,” but the mere fact that Kouyaté mentioned the “songs for the kings” added to the collective perception of authenticity—his introduction marked them as being a part of an “ancient tradition,” which is what we expect and enjoy hearing about. By highlighting this fact, I think, Kouyaté deflects attention from the other, non-traditional influences, like amplification and American blues licks.
TH: I agree. As I recall, Kouyaté specifically mentioned that one song was from the 14th century and the other from the 17th. He didn’t say, “Here’s our updated version of an ancient song,” or “Here’s a new composition inspired by ancient minstrel traditions.” And I don’t know what you all thought, but it seemed like there was something almost voyeuristic about the way Kouyaté referred to us, the audience, as his “kings and queens,” as if we were being privileged to a private look back in time.
DM: Consider Paolo’s story about the ngoni sale. Why was the prospective buyer shocked at the price? How many times do you think the ngoni player has had that exact conversation? Does it have to do with this show being promoted, using pictures and video clips supplied by the artist, to suit specific audience expectations for African music?
TH: I think it’s too simplistic to say this concert was presented entirely within the framework of the “authentic homeland.” On Duke Performances’ website, the concert was placed in both the “International” and “Gospel/Country/Blues” categories. The press blurb describes Ngoni Ba’s sound as “sweet and explosive, infusing African rhythms with the bite of American blues.” The band’s ngonis, which are “similar to the banjo,” have been “modified,” “with extra strings for added kick.” And Amy Sacko, Bassekou’s wife, becomes “the Tina Turner of Mali.” These descriptions all suggest a sound that is syncretic, modern, and full of American popular influences. This probably has a lot to do with why I went into the concert expecting that kind of sound.
Yet if you go to Kouyaté’s home page, you find something very different: “Bassekou is one of the true masters of the ngoni, an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa.” No blues, no America, no banjo, and no syncretism. Instead we get mastery, tradition, and professionalism on a world scene. I’d argue that the way Kouyaté presented himself during the actual concert didn’t quite fit with either of the above discourses. It seems to me that “world music” performers have to navigate an incredibly complex commercial environment, which often means having to place their work within different, even contradictory discourses at the same time. Overall, my impression was that Kouyaté was pretty successful, but as we’ve noticed, the seams are impossible to fully conceal.
* * *
A lot to chew on. What do you think, readers? And do let us know if you’d care to read the musicological portion of this discussion.