“In Griot Time”

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edited from Roderic Knight (Ethnomusicolgy, winter 2003) and http://www.newhavenreview.com:

For seven months in 1995 and 1996, guitarist Banning Eyre lived on the compound of one of Mali’s greatest and best-known guitarists, Djelimady Tounkara of Bamako, Mali.  “In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali” is a chronicle of Eyre’s apprenticeship to Tounkara.

Eyre tells of his experiences– hours at night spent playing duos with his teacher, the humdrum round of wedding gigs, the grand and tedious music spectacles staged for TV in vast football stadiums, the reddish Bamako smog, the exhilaration of playing with the famous Rail Band.  Those who have been there will say “namu” (“yes, true”) to his every sentence.

With a perceptive eye and compassionate heart he captures the interpersonal realities of trying to make a musical living in a contemporary African city. We sit in on sessions with kora player Toumani Diabate, drop in at hidden-away bars where improvisation thrives, listen as a husband-and-wife duo haggle over the logistics of their performance and the division of proceeds.

Eyre has also done his research, and frequently steps aside from the illuminating dialogues and character descriptions to discuss broader topics such as kingship, patronage, slavery, history versus oral narrative, the politics of post-colonial Mali, and the nature of Islam in African society.

In the course of the book, Eyre freely acknowledges his debt to John Miller Chernoff’s , perhaps one of the best books ever written about African music for a Western audience. The parallels between Eyre’s experiences and Chernoff’s are many. Both went to Africa—Eyre to Mali and Chernoff to Ghana—to learn to play music. Both knew that playing the music well required them to understand something about the culture and history that created the style in the first place, and both strove hard to immerse themselves as much as they could. Chernoff’s immersion was perhaps more successful: He emerged from his experience with a book that reads in parts like a Rosetta Stone to understanding Ghanian drumming in particular and African music generally. As a musician myself, I am still learning from Chernoff’s book, and it’s been ten years since I read it.

Eyre’s book, by design, doesn’t have that kind of insight. Unlike Chernoff, he doesn’t dwell on how the music is put together so much as what it was like for him to learn how to play it. While it seems clear that he played music for at least a couple hours a day, most of the book is about what happens to him when he’s not playing music—the conversations he has with people, the things he sees and does, the other musicians he hears—all written with a clear eye, an astonishing sensitivity, and a willingness to wrestle with some difficult questions about cultural frictions and the legacy of colonialism. The result, I believe, is a much more accessible book than Chernoff’s.

Where Chernoff’s book is perfect for people who already love African music—particularly other musicians who are trying to figure out how to play it—Eyre’s book is just the thing to make people who don’t know much about African music want to learn more about it. Its own effect on me has already been profound. Chernoff’s book in some ways scared me away from trying to play African music even as it made me want to all the more. But it was Eyre’s book (and Eyre himself, who I finally took a lesson from) that finally made me pick up a guitar and try to play. I know that I’ll never play like either Chernoff or Eyre—let alone the African musicians they have played with—but In Griot Time gave me the courage to play with the required humility, and evident joy.

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