“I want to be Andy Rayner and Rob Baker with I grow up.” Jeff Frazee
This statement was written by a westerner living in Mali, named Jeff Frazee. I have no idea what prompted it, probably our recent ethnomusicology work, but I can assure you, it is misplaced on my part. Jeff is a great guy too.
However, it was a most encouraging sentiment.
We had a blast this week recording Malian music with Rob Baker, of England, who is an ethnomusicologist.
Four months ago we began working with a new people, the Ganadougou, and wanted to capture their music history.
The Ganadougou have interesting, though relatively recent origins, reaching back only 150-200 years ago. This is a unique story, as they are a mixed race of people, but rather than the smaller group simply getting assimilated into the larger group, which is what commonly occurs, these two groups formed a new distinct ethnic group, with unique customs and language forming.
The Ganadougou origins are from the larger Bambara group that originally resided in the region, and a smaller group of Peulh, (often known as Peul, or Fulani) who came down from the north, seeking to settle in the area.
The ancient chiefs and leaders of both peoples gathered to work out an agreement for the settlement.
However, rather than simply having the Peulh assimilated into the population of Bambara, or worse, simply settle among them and not integrate, they came up with the following plan:
Both parties agreed to give up loyalty to their ethnic origins, and become a new united people.
United not by mere agreed upon spoken words, that could later be forgotten or denied.
United not by a written legal paper document that could be ignored or burned.
Rather, united by the flesh, in a new bloodline and families. The larger people, the Bambara would not become dominant in the merger.
If there was to be a unity of two peoples they wanted it to be assured, deeply rooted, unbreakable. They were tired of tribal wars, and broken agreements.
A law was established that very day. A Bambara man would marry only a Peulh woman. A Peulh man would only marry a Bambara woman.
This is how the new race of Ganadougou came into being. They ended up mixing up and blending various ceremonies, marriage customs, and rites of passage for young boys and girls. The language that eventually formed was based on Bambara, but they had Peulh pronunciations, and Peulh words mixed in, which eventually created whole new words, and pronunciations unidentifiable to Bambaras or Peulhs from other regions. A new language emerged over the decades. One could say it became more of a Bambara dialect than a whole new language and that would probably be more correct. But the unity was linguistic as well as in marriages, births, and blood.
Our ethnomusicologist and I watched as the Ganadougou sang a song representing this history, where a small boy is tossed back and forth between two groups of singers reflecting this unity and love that developed. One group would sing about how they love the other, and wish them well, and here is our love, a small boy (a symbol of the health and strength of their people). Please receive this love, don’t drop our love we send to you, you need to receive it. The boy is then tossed to the other singers who catch him. The second group begins to sing of their love for the other, how they have received this love, and send love and well wishes is return, and they toss the boy back. The boy is tossed back and forth dozens of times during the singing of this song.
Information, history, unities of whole ancient tribes and ethnic groups are preserved orally in songs. We can learn much about a people via music. The arts in general often have powerful and ancient messages captured in words, rhythms or designs.
We westerners are mostly oblivious to them, but as soon as a Ganadougou hears that word, or that rhythm, or sees that symbol, or design, he immediately recognizes the deep meaning intended. More than the words, the images, the movement, the instruments, the rhythms all speak a message.
We had an opportunity to record living history this week. Rob Baker used his skills to help the locals identify many genres of their Ganadougou music. and we recorded some of them.
For example, one song style is sung when you plant peanuts, and only peanuts. or when a hunter returns with game, at a wedding, a funeral, when women are grinding grain, a birth, the induction of a new chief, etc. They often have 30 or more styles.
We recorded a wedding song, a field seed sowing song, and a male circumcision song, for example. There are female circumcision songs too, but we do not promote that practice, so nothing is asked about these songs. It is now illegal in some countries, a fading practice, as it should be. Mali has campaigns against the practice also, so it will soon disappear.
Male circumcision is no small or private affair with the Ganadougou. Boys are not circumcised as babies, rather between the age of 15-18 years old. Every few years, village leaders will gather all the boys in the village within that age and circumcise them as a group.
The young men don’t even get to go home after the cut, because it is rite of passage, and the village will celebrate it. When all the boys are circumcised, they are given a new boubou robe to wear, and paraded up to the main street in the village where they are lined up according to age, or birth order from the oldest to the youngest. The whole village, even the girls, then stand in front of the circumcised group and sing them comfort songs about their circumcisions. It is acknowledged how they suffer and are in pain now, but this is good and the pain will pass, so take courage brothers. We know you are suffering, but we support you; you are good young men.
I would be so humiliated to have young girls singing about my penis being cut and how happy they are for me to have undertaken this to become a man. But rites of passage are village affairs here, not private, so there is no embarrassment- though plenty of pain.
Rob Baker produced some excellent recordings this week. His skill and expertise were much appreciated .
It was one of the best and most unique experiences I have ever had in Africa. I was so happy we could do this for the Ganadougou.
Honestly, not being an ethnomusicologist, I had little idea how powerful a project this would become. It was richer and deeper than I had anticipated.
I hesitate to publish the recording tracks, as they have a throaty nasal form of singing that often puts westerners off. To the majority of us, these tones and rhythms often sound awful, off key, or the nasalness of the singing makes some think they might be poor singers, or that we have poor recordings. The opposite is true, they are amazing performers in their own style.
So I am not posting them here, nor anywhere else, because, I do not want anyone thinking that. It is their music, it speaks their history and their language. It is a gift to them, not a gift to me, or a westerner.
I am thankful I got to share in such a powerful experience.
I am also thankful Rob Baker, the ethnomusicologist, volunteered his vacation time to come. The expense for his tickets and lodging were far surpassed by what was gained in return.
Thank you, Rob.