Classics 4 Kids – Musical Ancestries: West Africa

Good morning and welcome to a new component of Classics 4 Kids – Musical Ancestries.  In this extension of the program, we’ll be learning about the music and culture of different lands around the world. This special presentation is also available on our website in podcast form, with links to resources that you can explore. For our first Musical Ancestries adventure, we head to West Africa, seeing it through the eyes of a new friend.

Meet Akisha. She’s 11. Her grandmother (“Nana” in Ghanaian) is a musician who was born and raised in Ghana. She’s shared many wonderful stories with Akisha about the fascinating music and traditions of West Africa… Now they’re on their way!

Their first stop is the country of Guinea. Nana had often spoken about a tradition called Griot. (Griot is a French word; the Griot people are also called “Jali” in most parts of West Africa.) They are all descended from a very few families who are musicians and storytellers. Through them, all the authentic traditional music, dances and stories are preserved by “oral tradition” or word of mouth…much like African-American spirituals that passed down through generations long before they were ever written down.

“But Nana,” Akisha asked, “if it’s all done by memory, can’t they make a mistake or remember it wrong?”  “Child,” Nana replied, “have you ever made a mistake singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat?”’ It is much the same thing. These songs and dances are part of who the Griot people are. Since they learn these things from birth, it would be almost impossible for them to forget or learn them incorrectly. Listen to my friend Sibo Bangoura sing this traditional West African song called “Nan Fulie.” It tells the story of the Griot people and their proud traditions of being the keepers of the music, dance and storytelling.” As Sibo sings, he plays a kora – an instrument that has a tall bridge in the center that supports 21 strings. It looks a lot like a harp mounted on a gourd-shaped lute.

Then, Sibo plays a djembe – a goblet-shaped drum with a head that’s tuned with a rope around the top. He plays it with his hands only, using many different rhythms (polyrhythms) and patterns. The djembe’s name comes from the saying “Anke djé, Anke djé,” which means “everyone gather together in peace.”

Total music segment: 2:53

From Guinea, Akisha and Nana head northeast to the neighboring country of Mali. There they see a performance of the African Classical Music Ensemble by the banks of the River Niger, a crescent-shaped river that touches five West African countries. The singer, legendary Malian vocalist Kasse Mady Diabate, performs a song called, ‘There was a Time.’

One of the musicians in the ensemble is guitarist Sona Maya Jobarteh. She is a member of one of the five principal Griot families, and is also the first female to become prominent playing the kora. Playing kora is reserved only to the Griot families and is an important element of the Mandingo peoples of West Africa…and until Sona, it had been a tradition passed down exclusively from father to son.

Total music segment: 1:51

Heading southeast out of the heart of Mali, Akisha and Nana now visit the republic of Benin, where they experience the traditional music of the Yoruba people. Many Yoruba live in southeastern Benin, but the majority of them live in and southwestern Nigeria, and the music is shared by both countries. With colorful costumes and elaborate dancing, the music is a unique mixture of both ancient and modern traditions. Akisha’s fascinated with the talking drum – the dundun. Played with a curved mallet, the body of the instrument sits at the waist where the drummer uses arm pressure to change the pitch.  As a result, the dundun has an almost liquid sound, which is how it got its name, “talking” drum. As the drummer plays, dancers imitate the many rhythms in their movements. Akisha also loves the way the main vocalist sings a phrase, and the rest of the singers, like a chorus, answer him. “This technique,” Nana explains, “is called “Call and Response,” and is very central to Yoruba music. We also hear this in many American music forms, including the blues!”

Total music segment: 1:51

From Benin, Akisha and her grandmother travel west, to Nana’s home country, Ghana. There they see a breathtaking performance by a group called Sankofa. The word “Sankofa” comes from the Akan tribe in Ghana. It is represented by a mythical bird looking backwards, capturing a precious egg. The literal translation of the word and the Sankofa symbol is, “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”  “Because of this deep meaning,” Nana explains, “many groups and organizations use the word Sankofa in their names.”

The fascinating music includes the dundun (the talking drum of the Yoruba) and a number of other drums pitched from low to high, and some with no pitch at all. But the most interesting instrument to Akisha is a xylophone-type instrument – called the balafon – made from rounded wooden bars with gourds underneath to help the sound resonate. Played with mallets, the sound of this instrument gives Akisha goosebumps.

Balafons are used to play melodies, and usually have between 16 to 27 bars or keys. They use different scales, often depending on the country. Benin mostly uses a five-tone (pentatonic) scale, but those from Mali tend to use a 6-tone (whole tone) scale.  Some are even tuned to the tones of the spoken language of the region! According to the oral stories from the Griots (or the Jali), balafons originally come from Mali, and have been played in Africa since the 12th century.  Akisha is so impressed by the balafon, she decides she has to learn to play it. Nana smiles and promises she’ll get one for her.

Total music segment: 2:08

As they head home, Akisha thinks back on all her wonderful experiences and the things she’s learned about West African culture and music, in all its variety and beauty. Hugging Nana, Akisha says, “Thank you, Nana, for taking me to your home. I feel like I got to know you when you were my age.”  Nana smiles, “My dear granddaughter, you’ve heard many kinds of music, rhythms and melodies… heard many ancient stories through songs of the Griot, and seen wondrous instruments invented and crafted by our people. It has been my deep joy to share West African culture with you. Now you will hear the voice of Africa singing through all kinds of music.”

On the flight, they hear the piece African Skies. Akisha immediately recognizes the West African influences that she’s just experienced. See if you can identify some of them in this lovely piece by Stephen J. Anderson.

You’ve been listening to Musical Ancestries, a new component of Classics 4 Kids. Thank you for joining us for this, our pilot program, focusing on West African culture. For the podcast, links to these performances and more resources, please visit our website at: Classic  This is Kathy Lawton Brown for Classics 4 Kids – Musical Ancestries.

Total music segment: 4:14

TOTAL TIME:  Approx 20:00