Morikeba Kouyate’s vocals were amazing in their articulation and expression.
Morikeba Kouyate, Griot & Master Kora Musician. Sponsored by Harvard University Committee on African Studies, the Provostial Fund for Arts and Humanities in FAS, and the Elson Family Arts Initiative at the New College Theatre, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, Friday, November 18.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
Thanks to Professor Richard C. Wolf, ethnomusicologist at Harvard University, and his Music 97C course in the music department, we were treated to an extraordinary performance by Morikeba Kouyate, griot (greeo) from Senegal, West Africa. The Senegalese prefer to be called jali, the native term, rather than by the French griot. Jalis are repositories of the history of their people and have been carrying on this oral tradition for several centuries, each new generation learning the songs and traditions from the previous. One becomes a jali by being born into this kind of family of musicians; presently only a few clans continue to propagate the tradition.
Kouyate, now living in New Orleans, is known throughout West Africa for his superb musicianship on the kora, a 21-string instrument made from a large half of a calabash—a woody gourd—approximately 16” across and covered with a cow skin. A long neck with leather tuning pegs and leather strings, now nylon, are stretched over a double-notched bridge. The kora, highly decorated in unique, individual designs, is one of West Africa’s oldest instruments and part of the Mandinka people’s musical traditions. Calling for complex coordination, 11 strings are played by the left hand and 10 by the right.
Thirteen pieces were performed during the hour and a half performance, which included a musician on a bass drum that was approximately three feet high and about 18 inches across, with a stretched skin across the top end that was played with the hands. What we heard from the kora were beguiling harp-like sounds of repetitive patterns based on a constant root tone, with modal variations that frequently sounded similar to the Western major scale, although certainly not in equal-tempered tuning.
As usual with African music, several layers sound simultaneously with a bass line, accompaniment figures, and melodic patterns on top. In addition, the numbers included melodies with Mandinka texts. The jalis are famous for not only reciting their very extensive histories but for commenting on current events and items in the news. This reviewer had no clue on the lyrics, and there were no explanations, so there was no choice but to sit back and simply enjoy the singing for its musical sound. Tempos were usually moderately fast, and the melodies were essentially in descending patterns finally resolving to the root of the mode. The music, aside from predesigned patterns, was improvisational, with occasional runs that startled the ear. The songs varied from a few to several minutes.
After five remarkable numbers, a friend of Wolf’s named Patricia, an expert on mbira (so-called thumb piano) joined Kouyate for an improvised rendition. Some clapping on main beats were added by the audience. On selection seven, Wolf joined Kouyate and the drummer and exhibited some expertise on kora. A second short piece followed.
Kouyate was obviously brought in to teach kora and West African vocal music to the Music 97C students. On selection 10, a student was added on kora to the trio on stage. Eight more students were then added to the vocal portion of the selection. The students were tutored well; they sounded secure and expressed the spirit of the piece. American students can learn something about performance from African musicians, particularly involving the entire body in the musical presentation. These did. Before the night was over, the students, most in native dress, played koras with Kouyate, Wolf, and the drummer, sang, added a small talking drum, and exhibited a real grasp of the music.
The final number brought in the audience with Kouyate teaching a response to his call. We clapped a beat that did not match the response metrically, but overall audiene members responded like seasoned performers. Eventually, the stage was filled with those feeling secure enough to exhibit their newly acquired musical skills.
Kouyate’s vocals were amazing in their articulation and expression. Francis Bebey says in African Music that the singing voice being beautiful is not a criterion for African musicians. Rather, “African voices adapt themselves to their musical context—a mellow tone to welcome a new bride; a husky voice to recount an indiscreet adventure; a satirical inflection for a teasing tone, with laughter bubbling up to compensate for the mockery—they may be soft or harsh as circumstances demand.” Kouyate exhibited this wide array of expressions in a skillful manner. His accompaniment on kora was equally forceful and highly virtuosic. The concert was an excellent representation of West African music of this genre. Boston is rich in world music performances, and we are grateful to Professor Wolf for sharing this unique opportunity to hear this incredibly rich tradition.