IN GRIOT TIME: INTERVIEW WITH BANNING EYRE
"In 1995 Banning Eyre went to Bamako, the capital of Mali to study guitar playing with Djelimady Tounkara, a former star of the Super Rail band. His book ĎIn Griot Timeí is the extraordinary account of his trip Ė a unique insider-view into African music. In it, Banning Eyre quite literally goes behind the curtain to reveal the triumphs and failures of the African music scene as it becomes an important player of the world music scene.í
Richard Marshall interviews Banning Eyre
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: Tell us about the book.
BE: Iím a writer guitarist. This book represents the drawing together of two aspects of my life Ė being a musician and being a writer. Take them separately. I started playing guitar when I was about twelve I was a big rock and roll fan listening to the top forty of the sixties and so on. I had a very peripatetic career as a guitarist. For a while I rejected rock and played classical guitar and then I got into a reggae funk band sort of thing for some years. I decided to be a singer/songwriter at which point I found out I couldnít really sing. The I went to Boston to study jazz at Berkley College of music and it was during that period that I started hearing African guitar music . Iíd gone to university in Connecticut where they had a world music department and did a degree in African musicology. There were African percussionists in the faculty , Indian classical musicians, they had Japanese gamelans. So I had been exposed to a lot of international music. I was very interested in it. But Africa particularly came into focus when I started hearing guitar pop musician the early eighties. Starting with Nigeria, finger picking Zulu guitar form South Africa and Congolese electric guitar and round about 1987 Sean Barlow, who Iíd gone to college with, had won funding to do this programme which was going to be an exploration of African music . There was funding to travel and to do interviews and gather materials and he asked me to come with him. Well, at that time Ė Iíll tell the writing half of the story Ė I really wanted to write fiction. I had two long novels both of which I had abandoned near the end. The first time because I was trying to write about things that were beyond my experience and I needed to write about things that were more inside my own experience. And the second time I just lost my faith in the novel. I lost my belief in it so I didnít finish it. So at the time when I left college and went and lived in New Mexico in a rock and roll band it was just more compelling and viable for me to play music. But what happened while I was living for this time in Boston and my friend said lets go to Africa I sort of fished around for some journalistic sense of how to write about this trip. This was 1987/1988. I got a bite from the local paper, the Boston Phoenix, and from guitar magazines interested in African guitar players. This was the beginning of the end because it was the beginning of two seductions. One was the seduction of Africa. With the guitar in hand, meeting all these musicians in their homes, handing the guitar back and forth or ideally being shown to play something and then the other guy playing it. It was the whole way the guitar parts talked to each other , this whole rhythmic concept of the guitar that I first experienced in Zaire in 1987, as it was then known. And the other seduction was the seduction of being back home and having written a few things and suddenly the moment when all these record labels were beginning to release this music and people were beginning to bring these artists and editors at newspapers and magazines didnít know what to do with it. Theyíd never heard of these people. They thought it was interesting but writers were afraid to write about it because they didnít know anything about it. So I was in this position of some advantage because I had been there. So I started getting calls. You know, the Bundu Boys are coming, can you go and review their concert and then the CDs started arriving in the mail by the truck load. So although I never really wanted to be a critic and I never really wanted to be a journalist I started writing about music. The whole package was attractive. I got to meet all these people and then I got to do further trips and the next trip I did in 1992 I went to Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and then down to Zimbabwe which I had also been to on the first trip. And by then I had been listening a bit to Malian music and I heard that there was some sensational guitar playing in it. Really exciting. Actually there was someone from here, from London, Ben Mandelson, of Globe Star records Ė he said that I had to meet this guy, Djelimady Tounkara of the Super Rail Band Ė heís the best guitarist youíll ever hear. So I sought him out. And this is the story that begins the book. Going to the train station and handing him my acoustic guitar and just being completely dazzled by what he was able to do with it. One of the reasons I had left the rock and roll scene was that feeble ears and I really couldnít deal with the volume of the music. So I was already going in the direction of indulging my taste for the acoustic guitar music. The way he played was just beyond anything I had ever heard. I was completely smitten by that. So I spent a month in Mali and I went round quite a bit of it and had some marvellous, exciting experiences and became fascinated by the place. The history and the culture Ė it was really the most seductive place I had hit yet in Africa. But in the end of the month Ė the idea was to have really got involved with the place, the idea of visiting the house and passing the guitar around and then leaving Ė it wasnít satisfying because there was just so much more and it didnít get to happen in a month. There was the famous thing that Djelimady said to me as I was leaving. Iíd seen him a few times and heíd taught me a bit and he said ĎIf you come here for six months I can teach you top play like me.í I knew that wasnít true because heís an absolute genius. But on the other hand, his willingness to say that was just the invitation I was waiting for. It took me about three years but at that point, in 1995, where the book really begins I just left my job put all my stuff in peopleís houses closed down my apartment and originally I was going to go for six months to Mali and then move on to Zimbabwe for six months because I also wanted to do a project there. The timing though was way off. I didnít actually go to Zimbabwe until some years later and Iím still working on that book. I really wanted to write a book that would go beyond the limitations of journalistic writing. I wanted to use the task of learning the music as a way of having as purpose in the context that would allow me to stay there for a period of time and not just feel I was a vagabond or something. And also have time to watch peopleís lives change a bit - you know, over six months things happen and indeed rather dramatic things happened whilst I was there which you could never have foreseen Ė so I think it worked out rather well. The idea was to go deeper and although Iíd never say that Iíd figured it all out Ė there are many things that are very mysterious to me Ė I think I was able to tell a story that goes beyond the typical sort of account you get of an African music tradition.
3AM: So what were the main things you found and brought back?
BE: On the musical side I got this technique that Djelimady uses. Its in the picking fingers, the picking hand positions are very unusual Ė the use of the finger as a flat pick picking in both directions. Itís a very counter-intuitive technique to any Western guitarist. Iíd never seen anything that was anything like that. It has a very particular sound and I got enough of it that I was able to keep working on it and develop it from there. And also repertoire. The basic repertoire that the Griots, the traditional Malian musician, entertainer, praise singer, oral history preservers Ė thereís no perfect definition of Griot Ė the repertoire is a powerful thing to know. Any time I meet musicians which I do in New York regularly from that tradition I can play music with them. We share this language and we can communicate, talk, Iíll start playing something and then itíll be developed Ė yeah, thatís one way of playing it but hereís another Ė you very quickly adjust and adopt and its very wonderful. Itís very analogous to knowing basic jazz standards and being able to have a rudimentary jazz jam with any jazz musician you meet. There are other examples of traditional music but because thereís a core of songs thatís not a huge number of songs and if you know that group of songs then youíre in the game. So one the musical side that was wonderful. On the other side, this Griot tradition is very old, it goes back to at least twelve hundred, probably even earlier than that, but from twelve hundred on, from the time of this empire its very well trod turf. All the Griots tell the stories from that point. Over and over again. There are discrepancies and some Griots have this version and others have that Ė there are a lot of particularities but the general arc of the thing is really solid. Everyone knows it. Everyone in Mali. That use of music to hold on to a sense of history is really fascinating. To see how that has survived colonialism and come to exist in what is soon to become twenty first century Africa was really a treat and something that would fit with this idea I had as a writer to tell a story about Africa and about people and about how people changes and to use music as the centre of that sort of subject area. So thatís what I hoped would happen and I think it did. The introduction of the eccentric millionaire into the story Babani Sissoko, was really a surreal touch. I knew that wealthy people, to have status, liked to give money and things to Griots. This was an old tradition. But to see this guy fly into town with these huge planes and to watch these brand new Japanese and American cars roll out to be given to people who had no money because of their musical performances and bars of gold and houses being built everywhere Ė this was really something I could never have imagined. The chaos it created in the community of musicians and all the ramifications from there were something that I still donít really understand what really happened. But it was really exciting and substantive to dig into. Not just to figure out what happened but also what it means about where Griots are in the modern world. That was a piece of luck. It bore out the logic of the traditional notion that if I spent enough time there Iíd see things that you wouldnít see on a shorter visit.
3AM: Has it changed your perceptions of how we do things over in the West?
BE: Thereís no one answer to that because there are so many particularities about the significance of each different kind of music. Griot music is very unusual in any society because it has this history. How often is pop music about history? There are examples of it but its not normal. It definitely was part of the attraction to write about it because when I look for a place to write something of the level of ambition of Griot type I wanted it to be a music that spoke compellingly aesthetically but also had deeper roots into whatís happening in the society. Some of the other guitar styles I talk about in the book and I dipped into such as hunters music I suppose an equally compelling book could have been written about that. I donít see how that could have worked. I think there are kinds of music it would be difficult to write a book with that sort of penetration about it because its social reality, its context, its content is more contained and doesnít tie in with as many things. But I think when you really, really dig into any type of music you find out that thereís a lot more than you originally thought. So I donít mean that in a dismissive way but I could see the possibility with this one. So I went for it. As far as comparing it with other music in different contexts, thereís a basic distinction to be made because a lot of music is just about entertainment and dancing. Thereís religious music with all its particularities but its unusual to have music that has so many associations as Griot music has. Thereís politics there, thereís history, thereís religious stuff, entertainment and dancing Ė not a lot of romance although thereís some. Stuff about the changing rolls of women. Women in Mali is a whole fascinating subject that the music gets at. Women have a very high status in music. Itís not something you can particularly tie to a particular culture Ė across it all, whether youíre looking at the music of the South, wherever, the women are the lead singers. You can go to Guinea or Ivory Coast or Senegal and you can still find women singers in those same ethnic groups and very closely related traditions the men are the bigger singers. So thereís something going on there. I donít really have an explanation for that. Lucy Duran has written quite a bit about this. Its very deep.
3AM: The political good guys seem old fashioned socialists.
BE: I love that. Djelimady talking about politics. For him Socialist is a decidedly good word. It has no bad connotations. Thatís because he reveres Maliís first president who was really a pretty remarkable guy. Came to power in 1960, was assassinated and wiped off the scene in 1968 but during those eight years this was the beginning of not Socialism but really Africanism. He lived on to be paranoid and brutal and did lots of things that are pretty hard to defend but in the beginning the President established this system of politics and dance state-wide where you would have regional orchestras and dance companies and the best of those would come to the capital Ė this would go right down to village level Ė and national groups were all about bringing together different cultures, not fusing them into some sort of mish-mash but letting each one have its voice within new art forms that would reflect the national identity and that whole vision was to Djelimady a whole part of Socialism. It was brilliant. This was the foundation that made Mali a great nation although it then endured twenty three years of very unimaginative dictatorship. And that was another exciting part of the time I was there Ė the dictatorship ended in 1991 so there was a real sense of getting back to a road something like we were supposed to be on. A lot of places in Africa people are not willing to talk about politics Ė theyíre afraid to for one reason or another Ė so the fact that Djelimady was so keen to have views about everything was great. I have to say that he is one of the most delightful and fascinating people I have met in all my explorations of Africa. Heís wonderful to be with at any time.
3AM: Did you get any resistance being a white guy in Africa? An American too?
BE: There were times, sure. Much, much less than in Zimbabwe where the contrasts are so obvious and endless. In Mali there is a sense when you get into traditional arts that when people come from far away like America to learn the culture, to learn to play the guitar or whatever, thereís a sensitivity because its like echoing a whole colonial experience of foreigners coming from far away to take things. Its an odd balance because many people donít have that reaction. The reaction that was much more common was the sense of almost flattery. The idea that you would come all this way to learn their culture suggests a respect for their culture that the colonial experience never did project so itís a funny ambiguous thing that depending on how a particular encounter falls can go one way or the other. Either the exploiter coming to take something away and never giving anything back or else youíre seen as someone coming with respect, you want to learn Ė thereís a lot of negotiation about giving and taking Ė what is the appropriate thing to give, and basically I donít ever feel comfortable learning music from someone unless thereís something that Iím going to give them Ė whether its guitar strings or money or something. Because then everyone can relax. Youíve got a framework. Youíre not just coming expecting to be given stuff which is how a lot of foreigners have approached the situation. Which is very problematic. But nowadays so many foreigners come to Africa to set the African straight Ė to teach them how to grow food, teach them how to run businesses properly, its almost theyíre saying Ė no, no, no, donít do it that way this is the right way Ė so to turn that on its head and say I want to learn to play like you do, how do you do that, a lot of them are tickled by that. It wasnít like it was a device for that purpose thatís just the situation as it was. I think a lot of whether youíre seen as exploiter or not just comes down to your ability to be in tune with people and your ability to relate to them. I think most people who spent some time with me could see that I was sincere and that I did want to give something back and really wanted tom learn. And most of the time that was enough. So I didnít have any serious problems. Some guys did say- donít play with him, heís just here to steal your music and make money for himself - but on the whole there was trust. There were misunderstandings about whatís really going on. Itís hard for people in that kind of a context to really see the realities of music in America. Some of them do imagine that if you go to America and play everybody will be fascinated with you and youíll be making lots of money. Its natural that people think that but its not like that at all.
3AM: Have any of the main players read the book?
BE: Its been taken over there in English. Jo Mardy some friend of the family read it and came and talked to the family about it. There have been and will be and will continue to be some ruffles where some aspect of the book gets repeated and translated - in fact I think it was happening last night but I only recognised it afterwards Ė that there was this thing that Djelimady was referring to was actually in the book. It was that although he liked the person he wished he hadnít said this. It only occured to me later that he might have been referring to the book. The thing is, thatís a whole tricky area. The balancing of identities - between being a musical participant, a writer and a friend. I donít have any magic formula for this. It is undoubtedly uncharted and dubious territory. There was one reviewer, an African in New York who really took issue with the book saying that I had really abused this position and trust Ė posing as a music student to air their dirty laundry you know? Interesting. But I reject it because I just think I was just trying to write an honest book. If Iíd really wanted to air their dirty laundry I could have done a lot worse than that. But at the same time I know that the book I was writing was well outside the experience of Griots had. So thatís something you just have toÖ I just tried to be a writer when it came to writing the book. And to write the best book I could and tell the story in the best way I could but not to be dishonest and not to hold back things just because I knew this person. I really tried to put that aside as much as I could. So I made many, many judgements about how to say this, should this be here, but I stand by all of it and I like the way it ended up. And I realised that there might be times when people find out that there are things in the book, they will read it Ė especially when thereís a French translation of it Ė and Iíll get some feedback about it but Iím prepared to deal with that.
3AM: So tell us why youíre over here in London.
BE: Well, Serpentís Tale press picked up In Griot Time which was out on Temple University Press and so thereís been a bit of a long time to get things to happen but the amazing coincidence and what brought me over this time was that Djelimady was nominated for the BBC Radio 3 Africa Award of the World Music Awards which are just being launched this year and he won. That was announced a couple of weeks ago and the press was given a headís up on that so Djelimady has come and they brought me over and Djelimady very graciously asked me to play a song with him at the award concert. So I asked Serpentís tale to bring me over and Iíd find somewhere to stay and they said ĎYouíre coming!í So itís quite a storybook turn of events yet again. Itís all very nice, very nice. Itís always very nice to see Djelimady. The Rail Band came and toured in the US last summer which if you remember from the book did not seem to be on the cards at all when the book ended. At that point we thought the band might be on its last legs. But far from it. The band came and they were sensational. They did an incredible tour. The Lincoln Centre, lots of big festivals, they got rave reviews everywhere and they were on fire. It was unbelievable. Partly because they moved out of the old train station, they now play in a barn and young kids come and see them and hear them play. Theyíve been really energised by that. So theyíre just having a great time and doing really well. For me, itís very rewarding because I knew the moment I heard Djelimady play that he was really a genius, in another category even from the other great artists who I love to hear, so itís very gratifying to se the world recognise that. When he played last summer in city after city, people who had read my book saw the band and they came up to me and said ĎI can see what youíre talking about you know!í So obviously, I felt great. I was with him last night and we played on Charlie Gillettís show and it was just delightful. We have a lot of easy rapport. A lot of jokes. His sense of humour is one of his great characteristics. So itís always good to see him. Iím having a good time here.
3AM: So what happens next?
BE: The book Iím working on now is a book abut Zimbabwe. Itís a kind of cultural history of Thomas Mapfumo and his band , the major pop band of Zimbabwe. Mapfumo came up in the 1970ís revamping religious, traditional music of the Shona people as guitar band pop music and singing songs that were about the struggle for independence from Rhodesia and Marabout,this new music, was an amazing cultural development in the context of a really, really traumatised country. Because the colonial experience in Zimbabwe was a lot harsher at the cultural level than the colonial experience of Mali. In Mali I just thought that colonialism was just another episode in the many ebbs and flows of different power struggles of different ethnic groups whereas in Zimbabwe it was a cataclysm. It was an attempt to erase culture. To stamp out religion and music with it and it left a very, very culturally wounded society behind. So to come to the present with its daily nightmares in the paper, Mapfumo is now in exile , thatís a little more than a year ago, in the United States, and heís become a very vocal critic of the very people he helped to bring to power. And the whole story of how that has happened Ė Iíve been back to Zimbabwe four times Ė and Iíve had the privilege to get to know a lot of people who are now no longer here Ė its very sad and itís a very interesting story.
3AM: Mugabe started off as a good guy.
BE: Yes, exactly. Thereís somebody who has made bizarre and strange transformations over the years. There have been so many in Zimbabwe and Mugabe is central to the story. And this thing between Mapfumo and Mugawe, this sort of dance thatís happening, is very interesting. And again, this will be a story about music, guitar music, but with all sorts of historical, cultural, political and social aspects to it. I think itíll be very interesting. If I ever get the time to get it written!
ABOUT BANNING EYRE
Banning Eyre writes about international music for American public radio and for a variety of American and British publications, including Folk Roots!, Guitar Player ! and Rhythm!. He co-authored (With Sean Barlow) Afropop An Illustrated Guide To Contemporary African Music. Eyre has travelled extensively round Africa, researching radio programmes, articles, books and reports on musicians, their lives, work and conditions, and especially, local guitar styles. Eyre also performs and teaches African music on guitar. Contact Banning Eyre at www.banningeyre.com. Order the book at www.serpentstail.com