Features July 16, 2003
Mali on the Mall 2003: Part 2

Mali on the Mall, 2003: Part 2
Hunters, the Fula, and the Dogon
Text & photos by Banning Eyre .

This is Part 2 of a series on the exhibit From Timbuktu to Washington, presented on the National Mall from June 25 through July 6, 2003.  Part 1 provides an overview of the exhibit and presents music of the Niger River and the northern Malian desert.
Part 3 focuses on the great balafon groups at the festival and also gets into Mande griot music and puppeteering.
Part 4 reviews evening performances by Malian stars Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, and Salif Keita.

Wassoulou: Hunters Harps and the Drums of Sogonikun

Wassoulou is the relatively forested region of southern Mali that borders Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Guinea.  music fans are likely familiar with the Wassoulou pop music sound of singers like Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia, and Ramata Diakite.  They may be less familiar with the traditional roots of that music.  Two of the Malian acts on the Mall provided electrifying insight into those roots, and having seen these groups, one will never hear Wassoulou music in quite the same way again.

Oumou Sangare's sound is based primarily on the music of the 6-string kamele ngoni, or "young person's harp."  This instrument was created very recently, during the 1960s, as a smaller, secular version of a more sacred, ceremonial instrument, the donso ngoni or "hunter's harp."  The deep, ritualized music of the donso ngoni is not often performed for outsiders, but one musician who came to the Mall this year has made it something of a mission to do just that.

Sekouba Traoré was born to a famous marabout--an Islamic cleric--who was determined that his son follow in his footsteps.  Sekouba stayed in school and read the koran.  It was only as a teenager, after he returned from a stint in Ivory Coast that he heard the music of the donso ngoni and was smitten.  He was badly smitten, and spent all his time in the company of hunters working to master the instrument.  His father tried threats, financial inducements and simple pleading, but in the end, he could not dissuade his son, who now travels the world with his donso ngoni group.

Hunters are privy to some of the deepest and most secretive culture in Mali.  As my colleague Cherif Keita told audiences on the Mall, "Hunters have the oldest culture.  Everything begins with the hunter.  And hunting is not just about going into the bush to kill animals.  No, no.  In the beginning, it was the hunter who left the protected world of the village to learn what lay beyond."  This experience made hunters the first explorers, doctors, diplomats and mystics, for they encountered plants, animals, other peoples, and the spirit world.  The songs that Sekouba Traoré and his group perform publicly celebrate the wisdom and bravery of hunters, and as Sekouba often observed to the audiences in D.C., hunters were the precursors of warriors, the people most depended upon by the society for basic protection and security.

In their leathers, furs, bogolon finery and red-and-white striped leggings, this trio commanded respect even before the first deep thrumming rhythms of their donso ngonis boomed out.  But when the rhythms heated up and the metallic ringing of Nianankoro Diarra's karagnan (iron scraper) hit its pace, the mood became electric.  Diarra displayed some of the fastest footwork on display anywhere at the festival--cloggers included.  In one performance, a Malian man came forward to ask the group to sing about his hunters' family--the Doumbias--and to bless his American wife.  Sekouba Traoré made sure that couple went home proud and happy.

Another strong element in the Wassoulou pop sound came to life in the performance of a percussion, vocal and masked dance group called Sogonikun.  In Bambara, sogonikun means literally the head of a small animal, and it refers to the elusive sight trackers might see in the bush as a nimble young creature makes its getaway.  This word refers generally to one of the most lively and widely practiced forms of recreational dance in Mali, but it originates in an imitation of a primal interaction between man and the natural world.

Whenever Sogonikun performed, the feeling of a village celebration--didadi--prevailed.  Three young drummers, two with djembe drums and one with a barrel-shaped doundoun, moved around the perimeter of the crowd creating little dramas along the way.  The group brought along two wonderful Wassoulou songbirds (female singers), the full-voiced Dousouba Traoré, who unfortunately succumbed to illness midway through the festival and could no longer perform, and Kadiè Traoré, who proved indefatigable, singing and dancing almost constantly, whether as part of this group or in the audience for another.  Her lithe, flexible voice supported only by the drummers, Kadiè's performance provided deep insight into the roots of the popular Wassoulou vocal style.

And then there were the masked dancers.  At 73, Amadou Diakité is renowned as one of the best sogonikun dancers in Wassoulou.  His playful antics, somersaults, and steely, frozen stares from behind a leather-and-fur mask proved one of the signature experiences of the festival.  As he is getting a little old for this sort of thing, Amadou recently begun to pass his art on to two of his sons, Bakary and Kassoun, and the three rotated dancing duties in the group's appearances.  Sometimes, just one dancer would trail the musicians, listening as the singer praised the ancestors and called forth spiritual inspiration, and then impulsively vaulting into action as the drums exploded into polyrhythm.  In other performances, two dancers would work together.

Often, there was mischief in the dance.  The dancer would often move very close to someone, pause at length, and then suddenly flip his body 360 degrees, perhaps landing flat on the floor, or crouching, or even hooking his feet under the subject's armpits.  Once, Amadou landed in that position and then bore his head between the subject's feet, and gradually emerged from behind and beneath the subject's floor-length boubou (men's robe).  Another time, Bakary did a handstand on the arms of a wheelchair.  Luckily, the man seated in the chair was Maki Koné, a vocalist in Le Kanaga de Mopti, and a person accustomed to such antics.  Just once or twice, a performance included the Diakités' beautiful water buffalo mask.

Sogonikun's non-stop, 45-minute sets provided a terrific opportunity for audience members with a feel for West Africa dance to get involved.  The drummers were always willing to rev up for anyone who came forward and show their stuff.  With all these elements in play, the act was never the same twice, and anyone who saw it had a sense of being involved.  The group created the feeling of a virtual village and an exuberant communal party.

Fulani Trails: Krin de Birgo and Tabital Pulaku

The Fula are traditionally the shepherds of West Africa and their nomadic lifestyle has led them to many places from the Gambia to Cameroon.  In , there are a number of distinctive pockets of Fula (or Peul, as they are often called).  In fact, the Wassoulou people in southern are Fula who have been largely subsumed into the surrounding Bambara culture.  They now speak Bambara, no longer Pulaar, but their culture maintains strong Fula elements.

Much the same can be said about the Fula of Birgo, a town in eastern Mali, near the city of Kita and the heart of the old Mande Empire.  The group Krin de Birgo present a merging of Fula and Malinke cultures.  The group's most distinctive feature is the calabash water drum from which it takes its name.  The drum's name krin is said to imitate its sound, but suggestive as the word is, it can't fully do the job.  This drum is made from three, halved and dried calabashes, one large and upturned and filled with water, a second smaller and overturned to float in that water while trapping a pocket of air, and a third smaller still, with a neck that serves as a handle the player uses to bonk the floating gourd--effectively a drum head--and produce a deep, warm sound that when amplified correctly, you feel in the depths of your belly.

These water drums are traditionally used in male circumcision rituals.  Each initiate has a krin assigned to him, and at a certain point in the proceedings, the drum is played and a diviner tells about the boy's future life.  Krin de Birgo's act did not include divination, but it did showcase another of 's fantastic women's voices, this time the deep, earthy voice of Demba Sidibé.   She and her backing singer Tenemba Diallo often wore large yellow beads as hair adornments.  By tradition, Fula women wear amber beads in their hair, but as amber is both heavy and very expensive these days, most women wear imitation beads.  The effect is beautiful and distinctive just the same.

Incidentally, Birgo--also known as Biriko--is the home of the mother of Mali's great jelimuso Kandia Kouyaté.   Kandia's concerts and recordings have always included material from this area, something that distinguishes her work from that of other Mande griot singers.  In fact, Kandia's wonderful 2002 album is called Biriko (Stern's), and it includes two songs in this genre.

The strongest shot of full-force Fula culture on the Mall came from the group Tabital Pulaku of Mopti.  The group's name means "unity of the Fula people," and they presented a rich cross section of characteristic Fula music, song and dance.  At the center of this eight-piece group was the unmistakable Fula flute of Boureima Dicko, the large, deep-toned spike lute (n'goni) of Dinda Sarré, and the haunting, one-stringed violin of Modibo Kanta.  Driven by calabash percussion, these instrumentalists could stir up a mesmerizing, pulsating sound rich in moody overtones.

At the evening dance party midway through the festival, Tabital Pulaku really got the crowd moving.  The group's own dance is part of their general evocation of nostalgia for their harmonious existence with nature in rural West Africa .  According to their press material, "The dances are restrained and graceful, and the dancers' feet barely leave the ground, as if they were constrained by undergrowth."

The Masks of Dogon

For sheer spectacle, it was hard to top the performances of the Masked Dancers of Dogon from the town of Sanga in the rough, rocky Bandiagara Escarpment.  The Dogon split off from the Mande people many centuries ago and moved to the cliffs to escape invaders, mostly those bringing Islam to the region.  In their new home, the Dogon encountered the Telem, a cliff-dwelling people with an ancient, mystical culture.  Since that time, the Dogon have preserved a unique lifestyle, guided by a rich and complex cosmology, and many ties to the spirit world.

On the Mall, the Dogon troupe--all members of the Dolo clan, and led by the mayor of Sanga, Aly Dolo--worked out of a flat-roofed shelter called a togona.  Normally, a togona would have an extremely low roof, not much more than three-feet.  It would be used for meetings and negotiations, the low roof ensuring that no one gets out of control, jumping up and shouting and so on.  To accommodate the troupe's large masks, the DC togona was something of a high-rise, about five feet, floor to ceiling.

Sometimes as often as four times a day, the Dogon would march, drumming and singing, leading four dazzling masked dancers to the scene of their next performances.  Dogon songs are spirited and sometimes swinging; one reminded me of an American black spiritual, although it's difficult to conceive of this as being anything more than coincidence for there can't have been many, if any, Dogon among the Africans brought to North America during the slave trade.  During all that, as before, they stayed remote and substantially protected in their inhospitable homeland.

Dogon drumming is deep and driving, not as polyrhythmic as say Songhai or Wassoulou percussion.  The dance that accompanies it involves a lot of manipulation of regalia.  A quick thrust of the elbows causes the feathery, dyed-reed arm bands to flower out momentarily.  A swooping left-to-right bow brushes the tip of a tall mask against the ground.  A nimble hop tucks the dancer's feet all but out of sight as he seems to float above the ground for a moment.

During each performance, Aly would address the crowd explaining the four masks, beginning with a towering, carved-wood statue of a woman.  Aly would explain that the Dogon first got their masks when a woman wandering in the forest came upon "jinns," or spirits, dancing in masks.  She took the masks back to the people, but the men were worried about leaving such objects of occult power in the hands of women, so they took control of the masks.  But, in order to recognize and show respect for the woman who gave them the masks, the Dogon created this, the mask of the "superior woman."

Then came the Kanaga, a symbol of the creation of the universe.  Its upturned arms represent the sky; its downturned arms represent the earth; and its trunk represents everything in between.  This symbol and mask is especially important in funeral rituals as it is used to purify the earth to receive the body of the deceased so that his or her soul can leave the body and return to the world of the ancestors.  Incidentally, all of these masks are sacred objects that had to be ritually purified before leaving Mali, and before returning there.

The third mask is that of the stilt dancer, a provocative costume of a young girl complete with jewelry, hair braids and bare, wooden breasts, strapped onto the chest of the male dancer.  The true significance of the man becoming a young Dogon girl was never fully explained, but the stilts that raised this dancer some ten feet in the air, were.  When the Dogon were still among the Mande, they stayed by the side of a river, and the stilts serve as a reminder of the long-legged river birds found there.

The last and perhaps most dramatic mask is a painted wooden tower, around twelve feet long, that the dancer must balance overhead while dancing.  The tower represents the succession of sacred ancestors central to Dogon cosmology.  This colorful needle made a provocative contrast with the stately Washington monument, with which it often shared the skyline.  But the mask proved problematic as the dancer had to lower it nearly to the ground in order to clear the rope work as he entered the Bamako Stage tent during the first week's performances.  I watched his huge shoulder muscles straining each time he entered and left and marveled at his strength.  Unfortunately, this feat took its toll.  By the end of the first week, the dancer Atemelou Dolo had strained his back and could no longer dance in the tall mask.  The Dogon performances were spectacular just the same, and Atemelou did recover.

Aly Dolo always made a point of telling audiences that his full troupe has over 100 masks and many more drummers.  "This was the minimum number of masks we could bring to represent our culture.  If you want to see the rest, you must come to Sanga," he would say, and judging from the response these dancers received, I have no doubt that some will take up Aly's challenge.  The complaint about not being able to bring all the dancers and/or players in a particular group was pretty much universal among the festival participants.  Virtually every group had to leave members behind, and none were happy about that.  One could sympathize, but from the public's perspective on the Mall, the delegation was both magnificent and well balanced.