If you look at old maps you’ll notice Europe dominating the rest of the world. Not only is it in the centre of the map, it is also represented as being much larger than any of the surrounding continents. While the excuse could be made the maps were composed out of ignorance as they didn’t know the locations or sizes of the other land masses at the time, there can be no denying they also thought the world, if not the whole universe, revolved around them. Remember, it wasn’t until after they burned Copernicus at the stake for espousing the view the world revolved around the sun did that belief begin to take hold. So it’s pretty easy to see how they could believe themselves to be the centre of the world.
Over the years, as more and more of the world was revealed through exploration, maps gradually became more accurate in their depiction of the world and countries’ and continents’ sizes in relation to each other, but our Euro-centric view of the world hasn’t changed at the same speed. While we might recognize certain geo-political realities, when it comes to culture, we tend to diminish the creations of certain countries of the world as if they couldn’t possibly have the traditions or history required to produce art of real quality. Aside from ignoring the fact these civilizations existed long before Europe, it has resulted in the art produced in those regions being dismissed as “folk” art and not being appreciated appropriately.
One of the most glaring examples of this is the way the music of the various African nations has been relegated to either the world music or folk categories down through the years without regard to what is being played. If the instruments aren’t immediately recognizable as ones that look like they belong in a symphony, or the music being played doesn’t fit into any of our preconceived notions of “what” it should sound like, the idea of it bearing any resemblance to what we call classical music is considered laughable by most people. The thing is, there are musicians and composers of all types scattered throughout the length and breadth of Africa who, like their European counterparts, are playing music of incredible complexity and emotional depth passed down from generation to generation and which inspires the work of contemporary composers. All of which sounds remarkably similar to our definition of classical music.
It was while listening to the new release, Courage on the World Village Music label, from Malian kora player and composer Mamadou Diabate that these thoughts really took shape. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me so much about the practice of lumping all music from outside English-speaking North America and Europe into one grouping, world music, no matter what type of music is produced. How can you put this man and what he creates into the same genre as, for example, the Tuareg musicians of the Northern Sahara and their electric tribal blues, let alone the same genre as the musicians of Southern India or Flamenco players from Andalusia in Spain? It makes as much sense as putting Jimi Hendrix and Mozart into the same musical category.
This cultural snobbery has its roots in colonialism and European refusal to believe any “native” could be as sophisticated as them. While it is nowhere near as blatant as it once was the attitudes really haven’t changed that much, as I doubt very few people would believe the music Diabate composes on his twenty-one-string Kora is every bit as intricate and sublime as the work of J.S Bach or other European classical composers. How could a man who plays an instrument which has its resonator made out of a calabash covered with cow skin, and whose only accompaniment is somebody playing a wooden xylophone (Lansan Fode Diabate – balafon), a small-stringed instrument which looks like a stick stuck into a tube-shaped drum with four strings (Abous Sissoko – ngoni), a percussion instrument made from a gourd (Adama Diarra – calabash) and a guy on acoustic bass (Noah Jarrett), be compared to one of the most revered European composers who lived?
Actually it was very easy. I was listening to the third of the eleven tracks on the CD, “Dafina,” when it popped into my head how much this disc reminded me of a recording I had heard of Glen Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was about the third or fourth time listening to the disc when I was struck by the similarity. It wasn’t that track in particular which triggered the thought, but rather it was more a cumulative effect of having listened to the music a few times; and it no longer mattering what instruments were being used. Obviously Diabate’s music doesn’t sound much like a solo piano performance (and he doesn’t hum tunelessly along to his performance like Gould used to), rather it was the intricacy and arrangement of the notes – the patterns they formed – that put me in mind of the Bach.
I realize this is all very vague, but the best I can do is tell you is Diabate’s music generated the same feelings the Bach did the first time I fully appreciated it and allowed it to carry me away. Each of the eleven tracks on the disc are a piece onto themselves and express individual themes or ideas. “Yaka Yaka,” the opening track, is dedicated to the love he feels for his mother, while others are less personal and reflect the concerns he has with the state of the world. Track four, “Humanity,” and the disc’s closing track, “Bogna” (respect), were inspired by his understanding any hope we have of solving today’s problems rests in us learning to treat each other with a heck of lot more respect and humanity than we do now. While we might not be able to “hear” the message in each track, their combined effect is to create a disc of amazing emotional power imbued with overwhelming sense of hope.
Yet the title of the disc, Courage, indicates Diabate does not cling to false hopes or suffers from any illusions about what is needed to overcome so many of our problems. Listening to his music you have the sense the courage he is referring to is the kind which allows you to stand up and admit you were wrong, the kind that allows you to forgive your enemy and look for the common ground you’ll need to forge peace between you or the kind allowing you to respect other people’s beliefs and not be scared of something because you don’t understand it. Like Bach, Diabate’s work has been inspired by something greater than his own personal feelings and objectives and he has responded by creating music every bit as technically sophisticated and emotionally uplifting as any composer you care to name. In 2009 he received a Grammy for for Best Traditional World Album. I don’t know if they have a Grammy for best Contemporary Composition, but if they do that’s the category in which this disc should be considered. This is a truly remarkable disc of music and deserves to be considered equal to anything written or recorded by any composer or symphony orchestra in the rest of the world.