CAI presents traditional music of Mali

Another wintry night in Williamstown with cold winds and chilling rain. One yearned for a little excitement, a little more heat than the usual row house sweatbox. What better than a little African experience? Mamadou Diabate and his ensemble performed at the Clark Art institute Feb. 22, with modest success. This was the second concert in the “Out of Africa” series.

Sadly, this reporter was not warmed up much. While the musical experience was pleasing and the performers affable, the event came off as being, well, uneventful. The songs themselves were not as varied in their sonic qualities as one would have hoped. The band members seemed more like old lounge singers than the young talented musicians that they were. The music lacked the energy and the relevance of the previous performance in the series, perhaps due to its ancient tradition.

The griots, or jeli, of Mali have practiced their art as traveling troubadours and musicians of the Malian court since the 13th century, when the empire of Mali covered much of West Africa. It was interesting to note that the most recently composed song in the band’s set was written in the sixties. These artists were firmly grounded in tradition, as young as they were – Mamadou was born in 1975 – and they hardly strayed far from it.

Mamadou’s instrument of choice is the kora. At first glance, it appears to be a visually imposing combination between a harp and a lute. The sound, however, was strikingly different when Mamadou began plucking the strings – a combination of bass guitar and harpsichord. The musical virtuosity displayed on the kora was astounding; the many solos were beautiful and involved breathtaking hand speed. Moussa Cissoko joined Mamadou on the guitar and the ngoni (a small stringed instrument), and displayed equal skill. Balla Kouyate joined them on the balafon, a xylophone augmented with gourds to provide a watery resonance. Abdoulaye Diabate (no relation) rounded out the group as the vocalist and the eldest, and sang in a commanding, experienced tenor. Though each band member had his own ensemble and considerable performing experience, Mamadou was the headliner, as his talent has gained him much respect in Mali and internationally.

The group performed piece after piece from their repertoire, all with roughly the same form. Each piece contained long bursts of improvisation from each instrumentalist, the elder Diabate singing verses in between (with a dance step thrown in every now and then). While the skill was exceptional, the tempo and patterns of sound varied little between songs. Kouyate in particular, while energetic, was monotonous, and his balafon was loud enough to dominate those instances when the band played as one.

Emotionally, the band failed to connect strongly with the audience, a big detraction from their performance since the language and context were foreign to the listeners. For the musicians, these songs were deeply meaningful, and the enthusiasm was evident in Abdoulaye’s broad smile and occasional dance step. Still, the band seemed more excited about their subjects than the crowd. While Mamadou would usually preface each song with some context or meaning, it was most often something to the effect of “this song honors X.” Playing one traditional honorific after another, no matter how sonically stunning, becomes tiresome. This was especially so given the somewhat unvaried palette of sound – several songs were very similar.

The evening had its high points when the artists strayed from their formula. “My Love,” the most recently composed song, had distinctly Latin American influences, particularly in the guitar work by Cissoko. Another, whose title was translated “Destiny,” had an unusually varied structure: a mellow chorus of all the musicians singing, followed by a musical argument between the kora and balafon which became progressively more heated. The end of the performance was an invitation to dance (much like Gokh-Bi System’s performance a month before), which was a nice change, but lacked the spontaneity and energy one would have hoped for.

Overall, while the evening was pleasant, it was hardly overwhelming. The next performance promises to be much more exciting, with Afro-pop guitarist Alpha Ya-Ya Diallo and his band coming to town on March 8.