The beautiful thing about attending Brandeis is that a concert given by Trio Da Kali was packed, every seat in Slosberg full of students, professors and Waltham natives. This fact is exemplary because Trio Da Kali is not an ordinary musical ensemble. It is composed of three famous musicians from the Mande culture of Mali, an African nation just south of Algeria. These performers come from a long line of hereditary musical artisans, called griots. “Da kali” means “to swear an oath,” and represents the griots’ pledge to their art, recalling a time when the griots were advisors to Mali’s pre-colonial rulers. Today, the griot is a historian, a storyteller and a performer, making them vastly important to the Mande culture. Trio Da Kali brings a fresh perspective to this serious societal role. This concert was imbued with life and good intentions. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that everyone in the audience was deeply touched by the performance.
I must first acknowledge that it is difficult to write about the music of Mali without imposing a Western cultural gaze. Music has a profoundly different role in our culture than it does in the Mande culture. To analyze it under the lens of a modern American music, or even worse, classical music, would not do this rich tradition justice. Fortunately for the audience, Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, the vocalist, was excellent at connecting with the audience without words. She began with a solo a cappella song, “Soliyo.” Hawa has a powerful, operatic voice. She is obviously extremely well trained, by any cultural standard. This transitioned to “Namanike,” a song that featured all three members of the trio. Fodé Lassana Diabaté played the 22-key balafon, an instrument reminiscent of a xylophone. Mamadou Kouyaté played an instrument called the bass ngoni, a guitar-like instrument that falls somewhere between banjo and a reggae bass. Together, the trio came together to perform music that was harmonious, playful and accessible. The audience could not help but smile and clap along.
I was particularly struck by the way the performers seemed full of life. Hawa occasionally danced, when the mood of the song was appropriate. She seemed to do this out of sheer joy, as it did not feel forced or rehearsed. It was so refreshing to see performers truly enjoy themselves. While neither Fodé nor Mamadou sang, once in a while they would offer words of encouragement, or moments of vocal harmony. Mamadou and Hawa had a hauntingly beautiful duet in Kanimba. Fodé was a gifted performer. Having a reputation as the country’s foremost balafon player, he had several solos, including Samuel and Sossofoli. His hands seemed to move at an inhuman pace, and he smirked as if he knew how much he transfixed his audience. Despite this, my personal favorite was the bass ngoni. For lack of a better sentiment, it was so chill. Mamadou was young, barely older than his college audience, but played with the precocity of a great bass player in any rock, blues or reggae band. If you were unable to attend this concert, I highly recommend finding a recording online, if only to hear this spectacular instrument.
The most notable moment, however, was when a man got up from his seat in the back of the hall, and brought money to Hawa. As a classical musician used to an icy divide between performer and audience, I was shocked. I was even more surprised, however, to discover that this is the correct cultural gesture. The griots expect their audience to show their appreciation through monetary means. This brave man tore down the barrier the audience had put up, and made the concert even more memorable. People cheered and tossed money during a particularly thrilling balafon solo. During Lila Bambo, a song celebrating the joy of music, the audience really came alive. Several African audience members went to Hawa, and offered money, but also dance. They danced for a good portion of the song with grace and energy. I was particularly touched when one of the female dancers hugged Hawa as she sung. Hawa flashed a radiant smile, and it was so blatant that this music made the dancer extraordinarily happy. It was incredibly touching to be part of such an amazing moment.
More than anything, I am thankful that I attended this concert for the profound way in which I engaged with the Mande culture. Despite not knowing a single word of her language, I was able to understand everything Hawa sang. I also came to comprehend the huge cultural significance that music has in Africa. While music in America is becoming a sort of auditory wallpaper, these songs were very personal, and were played in a variety of historical contexts. For example, Kene Bo, a song traditionally sung at weddings, was so much more than the typical American incarnation of a wedding band. Full of history, advice and emotion, it was a beautiful testament to how important traditions like the griots are. I felt connected to a people half a globe away. Concerts such as these are an important part of the Brandeis cultural community; they transcend lingual and cultural boundaries to prove that music truly unite us.