The Beethoven and the Bach of Mali

So now things are real different. School program is over, classes are over, the other students have gone, and my friend Austin is here from the States to visit and study music with me.


My last school assignment was to do a month-long research project (ISP – Independent Study Project) on a topic of my choosing that related to the program themes of health, gender, community empowerment and development. I did mine on the kora, naturally, even though it doesn’t relate that much to the themes. Overall it went well, but by the time to turn it in, it was only about 10% done. That’s in my eyes. In my school’s eyes it was 110% done. 32 pages. I titled it “The Kora and Korafolaw: A Treatise on the Musical Instrument and Those Who Play It.” I used interviews, various other fieldwork techniques, internet research, and my bible: Mande Music by Eric Charry. I interviewed famous kora players Mamadou Diabate and Madina N’Diaye and several kora students at INA (L’Institut National des Arts) in Bamako. I did all my interviews in French… actually just about everything I do is in French or Bambara, both somehow seeming to get a little better each day. But doing academic interviews with the hottest music stars in Mali? That’s not quite my level yet… But ever since Austin came, I’ve been realizing how far I’ve actually come. He speaks no French at all, so I’ve been doing everything that involves communication with other people, which ends up being just about all the time. I translate for his lessons, negotiate prices for things, relay messages back and forth and transcribe menus. I’ve also realized how impossible Bamako would be to navigate without speaking any French. It’s utterly confusing to figure out how to get somewhere sometimes. To take the public transit, to find a good place to eat, drink, stay… basic stuff. Hard to do. Taking Austin around makes me feel like I’m on track to becoming a tour guide.


I stayed in a ritzy hotel for the final 4 days of the program with the other students and then found a cheap hotel in Kalaban Coura (my homestay neighborhood) to stay in with A/C for Austin’s first 2 nights here. They were like complete opposites. Hotel Mirabeau is near the city center and was $100 a night. Hotel Hollywood is tucked away in Kalaban Coura and was $20 a night. But Hollywood mainly just opens it’s rooms by the hour for lovers, prostitutes, etc. We made sure to stay gone all day and locked up well at night… I don’t recommend Hotel Hollywood.

After Austin arrived we stayed there for three nights which was how long it took to find a real room to rent for 3 weeks (this was quite difficult). Now we’re living there until we leave June 7th. We have 2 little rooms to ourselves in a little bungalow that’s part of a compound right around the corner from where my homestay family lives. It’s secure, safe, and nice. The compound is owned by a Frenchie who’s in France right now, so there’s not much going on. There’s a family who lives here to upkeep the house and a few cute young’uns, a few cute bunnies, and several loud-ass roosters, hens and peeps. Add in the usual peppering of lizards and butterflies, and you’ve got a typical kind of Malian compound.


Austin and I both take lessons every night from music teachers at INA. He takes jembe lessons from a fella called Mama Kone and I take kora lessons from Dialy Mady Sissoko. The jembe lessons are formal (1 or 2 hour, paid by the hour) but the kora lessons are informal and taught “in the traditional way.” This means that no money exchanges hands, only gifts such as kola nuts, dates, phone credit, and maybe in the future a package of expensive guitar (kora) tuners sent from the US. Also, there’s no keeping track of time, and I learn side-by-side by watching and imitating. It’s going very well for all of us. I’ve started four pieces so far: Sackodugu, Mariamaba, Kulanjan, and Keme Bourama. These are old tunes; classics, if you will. The Beethoven and Bach of Mali.

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