Friday, July 8, 2016

Music of the Mali Empire in Northern Ghana

West Africa is often represented by symbols or accoutrements of culture  - Kente cloth and instruments like the Kora and the Balafon. These actually represent well - known and powerful empires. Kente cloth has come to represent the Ashanti Kingdom of central Ghana (although I learned it was created by the Ewes). The Kora and Balafon represent the northern part of West Africa, more specifically Senegambia. It is this area that boasts the legacy of the Mali Empire, one of most well-known kingdoms of West Africa. It is also known as the Manding Empire. It was founded by King Sundiata in the year 1280 AD. Mansa Musa also ruled Mali in the 1300s, and is historically the richest man who ever lived. (See renderings of King Sundiata and the Mali Empire Below)
The story of the founding of the empire has been preserved and passed down through the centuries by musicians called Griots also known as Jelis. They perform a song - poem called the Epic of Sundiata, which was transcribed by D T Niane. Sundiata Keita was a warrior king of Mali who founded the empire by making alliances with vassals of other kingdoms to defeat a common enemy - the King of Soso. He was also known as the sorcerer king who oppressed people with Black magic and kidnapped Sundiata’s sister.  Sundiata’s Griot plays a dominant role in the story as his advisor and historian. Griots are well known throughout the world. Traditionally, they are a part of the Manding Nyamakala class of artisans. Some Nyamakala artisans work with leather, some with wood. Griots work with words and music. Songs and instrumental prowess have been passed down from father to son for generations. Manding cultures have many instruments. One is the Djembe drum, which is now widely used in many West African cultures, especially in Ghana. Another is the ekonting which “evolved” into the African – American banjo.  I put evolved in quotes because it is essentially the same instrument. See the 'evolution' of the Ekonting to the Banjo from left to right below.
There are also specific instruments that only Griots are allowed to play. One is called the Ngoni, which is featured in the 2016 Roots miniseries. Another is called the Balafon. The seven hundred year old Epic of King Sundiata, mentions the Balafon at a key turning point in the story. It is this African xylophone that marks the presence of the Mali Empire in Northern Ghana. (From left to right: Ngoni, Balafon and African Xylophone called the Gyil)

The Mali Empire stretched from Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and the Gambia through Guinea, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and into Northern Ghana, where the Dagara tribe is dominant. They migrated into Ghana from Burkina Faso. Here is where the history of the Mali Empire and my modern encounter with Ghanaian music intersect. I am learning to play the Gyil which is one of the only traditional Dagara instruments. As the Dagara were once a part of the Mali Empire, they play this version of the xylophone. The Gyil is tuned to the pentatonic scale. Some are tuned to the key of G and some in C. Listen closely and you can hear the blues in the instrument. Like the Balafon, large calabash gourds are used as resonators beneath wooden keys that are longest on the bass end and shortest on the treble end. Large dots of white paper are affixed onto the gourds to give the notes a rattling sound as they are played.
A Gyil 'heaven' at Orff Afrique in Dzodze

Sampson Kuudenign, Gyil Master and Professor,
University of Ghana, Legon
 When I heard the Gyiles resounding in the background, I thought “this is the sound of the ‘Old World.’” Our instructor is named Sampson Kuudenign, a member of the Dagara nation from Northern Ghana. He has a resonant, deep voice and a booming laugh. When he lectures, he speaks with a slow rhythm and precise diction. He teaches at the University of Ghana at Legon in Accra and is a master Gyil player. He looks very different from Ghanaians in other parts of the country. When I saw him, I instantly knew he was from the north because his appearance is similar to other Manding ethnic groups. When I interviewed him he shared that the Gyil is played by many Dagara people, even women. However, the instrument is male dominated and women do not perform in public. He also said that when a baby is born with their fists clenched in the playing position (the thumb wedged between the pointer and middle finger), then they are destined to become a Gyil master.  I absolutely enjoy learning to play the songs that Mr. Sampson is teaching. I initially thought each song was simply composed as a beautiful musical idea, nothing more. However, Mr. Sampson informed me during our interview that these melodies are much, much more than pretty ideas. The true purpose of the songs is fascinating.  When he began to teach, Mr. Sampson called each melodic phrase a stanza. Why? Because each phrase is literally Dagara language. The melodies are actually intoned poetry lines. Mr. Sampson described one song as a “love song.” In Dagara language it means, “Don’t pass me by” or “Don’t ignore me.” Another title of a song is translated to mean “Lazy Boy.” He said the main phrase means ‘lazy boy’ or a boy who chases after a young women (or several) without marrying her (or them). Why lazy? In Dagara culture, when a man wants to marry a woman, he must work for her father for a certain amount of time. After this time, he must pay a bride price of a minimum of two cows, sometimes three. A lazy boy simply wants to enjoy the company of a young lady without working for her father and following through with the formal commitment of marriage. I shared that African – Americans call such a man a “player.” Another song he played is a funeral song for a woman that says beautiful things about her life and character. All Dagaras can understand the words being played. This is very similar to the concept and function of the West African ‘talking drum,’ which articulates language using drum rhythms. This drum has different names in various cultures.

Maya Cunningham (Right) and Allyson Chamberlain (Left) Playing the Gyil,
Orff Afrique, Dzodze, Ghana
 The melodies start with a simple motive that builds by adding on more and more notes. In concept, the songs are like an improvised idea that a jazz musician would vary as his solo progresses. Often in Dagara Gyil songs there are sections for improvisation. I have heard Mr. Samson play beautiful ideas. The way he teaches the instrument is very different from the Western European approach. He describes the bass part of the xylophone as the head and the tremble section as the feet. He also described a key interval, which is present in all Dagara songs, as ‘twins.’ I have been fortunate enough to be able to purchase a Gyil to practice at home. I hope to master it one day…

As I walk through the hotel compound in Dzodze, I hear the beautiful, bubbling, buoyant notes floating up to the clouds in the distance. I am reminded that I am now in the Old World. In Africa my homeland. My mind imagines the sound of West Africa in the 1280s when King Sundiata first ruled that vast and great empire. This must have been the sound of Old Mali.


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  2. I keep looking at the gyil that you two are playing. It's huge and looks magnificent! Not sure which came first but you are right on to call it the African xylophone! Great work, Maya!