|Mali Yaro and Goumbe Star|
On Saturday, your blogger attended a performance by Mali Yaro and Goumbe Star at the Calvary Center in West Philadelphia. It was put together by Crossroads Music, which bring musicians from all over the world and promotes understanding and cross-cultural respect through music. Mali Yaro (Doulai Boureima) and his expected guest, Hadiza Mangou are from Niger, in the Sahel region of West Africa. Their music deals with social issues, like disease, armed conflict, and women's issues.
The performance was very entertaining. The combo was Mali Yaro as lead singer, Mahamadoul-Habibou Elh Amadou on bass, and Seydou Mounkaila on percussion and Omar Tankari on guitar. (The last two might be incorrect, as they were only introduced very briefly at the end of the concert.) Apparently, sometimes there are additional musicians, including a rhythm guitarist and a trumpet player, but they were not there Saturday. The music ranged from slow love songs to upbeat, bluesy numbers conducive to dancing.
The true pièce de résistance was their dancer, who appeared to have dwarfism. He was an energetic and acrobatic performer, who encouraged audience participation and, at one point, engaged in a frenetic dance-off with a particularly enthusiastic audience member. The other aspect of the audience participation was something common to griot (jeli) performances, where audience members shower the performers with dollar bills. Both the West African members of the audience and others took part in this ritual, which created a sense of complicity in the room. Since the majority of the songs were in Hausa, at various points throughout the evening, an audience member came up on stage and explained the themes discussed in the music. A couple of songs were sung in French, one “Niger uni et prospère” which talks about different groups in Niger coming together and laying aside their arms in order to build a better future.
Besides being an enjoyable experience, music like this is important for two reasons. The first is the ability to circulate messages within societies, especially those where the populations are spread out and rural (as in Niger) and where other media, like TV or the internet might be hard to access or incomprehensible to populations with high levels of illiteracy. The second reason goes beyond Niger and encompasses the cross-cultural element that Crossroads seeks to facilitate. Experiencing the music and dance of another culture is a window for others onto that culture, and helps create links and mutual respect and understanding. This is particularly important, given the current political context, where we have an unfortunate tendency to view other cultures with hostility and suspicion.
The New York Times had an interesting op-ed about music and its political power. It focuses on rap and explains the power that rap has to communicate ideas among young people. More controversially, it considers the case of Youssou N’Dour and asserts:
“...mbalax singers are typically seen as older entertainers who often support the government in power. In contrast, rappers, according to the Senegalese rapper Keyti, 'are closer to the streets and can bring into their music the general feeling of frustration among people.'”
However, the assertion that older singers, or singers who use a different style, are close to the government is problematic. First of all, as Mali Yaro and Goumbé Star demonstrate, singers using different styles are capable of transmitting powerful social messages. Another example is Salif Keita, whose music also carries an important social message and speaks out against discrimination.
While the Times article argues that this is inaccessible to many people, since “Rapping can simulate a political speech or address, rhetorical conventions that are generally inaccessible to the marginal youth who form the base of this movement.” your blogger finds this reasoning to be condescending. Later in the article, the author draws an analogy between the way rappers convey messages and the traditional art form of griots. If West Africans were able to understand the (sometimes complicated) cultural conventions of griots in the past, there is no good reason that they should now lack this ability, unless they are ignorant of their own cultural heritage. If so, that is a larger problem.
Furthermore, the article takes an overly rosy view of the messages that rappers transmit. While some might critique the corrupt actions of government or pernicious social problems, others might use rap to attack others, like in the case of the rapper Psyco-M. Additionally, rap is not necessarily the product of mature reflection, but people can be taken in by fine words, and be persuaded by form rather than content.
However, whatever the message that rap contains, it is certainly useful to create a conversation. Societies across Africa and the Middle East that were previously subject to strict controls on speech are now able to express themselves freely. It's a process, and like electoral politics, it would be naïve to expect these processes of transition to be overly smooth.
As mentioned earlier, music serves a broader purpose as well. It allows people around the world to see into other cultures and to gain appreciation and understanding for them. The internet makes it easier to diffuse music and other creative art forms and makes it possible to exchange ideas that are not only on an elite or professional level. Music helps people to relate to on another and to remember that even faraway people share many of the same hopes and dreams that we do. Each little step towards greater solidarity, each small concert, has a worth, that when put together, is far greater than the sum of its parts.