African Griots of Joy: Mamadou Diabate and his Courage; and the Owiny Sigoma Band, featuring Joseph Nyamungu

By Daniel Garrett

Mamadou Diabate, Courage
World Village/Harmonia Mundi, 2011

Owiny Sigoma Band
Brownswood, 2011

“Respect is the healing medicine of peace.  Peace is the healing medicine of love.”
—Mamadou Diabate

The plucky melodic repetitions of the music on the young kora artist Mamadou Diabate’s Courage can stir the listener’s memory of very old English music and southern Mediterranean folk music as much as African music.  Mamadou Diabate’s song “Yaka Yaka,” a tribute to mother-love, then seems familiar, though it is fervent and fresh.  There is an onrush of notes, like untethered joy, before the blending and contrasting of rhythms—one can imagine that one is hearing a piano, guitar, and xylophone—in “Welcome Home,” a commemoration of community, in which the song’s structure seems more shaped than improvised: there is thought here.  Mamadou Diabate was born to a family of griots; and griots—sometimes called djelis or djelys—are, at once, entertainers, historians, and teachers.  Mamadou Diabate, the son of Djelimory and the cousin of Toumani, for his album Courage has chosen as his partners ngoni-player Abou Sissoko, acoustic bassist Noah Jarrett, Lansana Fode Diabate on balaphone, and Adama Diarra on djembe.  (The ngoni is a kind of banjo, the balaphone is kin to the xylophone, and the djembe is a drum.)  “Dafina,” dedicated to Mamadou Diabate’s wife, is evidence that one does not have to choose between melody and rhythm.

I doubt that Mamadou Diabate’s Courage sounds the way many people expect African music to sound: it has a marvelous delicacy, lightness, and restraint, and the more one listens to it, the deeper, and the more timeless, it sounds, though it is an album of new songs recorded in the city of Bamako in Mali.  Mamadou Diabate plays the kora, an African harp, a string instrument he has been studying since he was six, producing his first album, Tunga, in 2000; a discipline rewarded with public appreciation and a music industry award, the Grammy, for his traditional album Douga Mansa.  On Mamadou Diabate’s Courage, the music is one of many small rhythms; it is music of both simplicity and splendor.  The young kora master Mamadou Diabate, whose father was a founder of the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, prides himself on the different keys, energy, and melody in his work.  His music is a reprieve from the great, monotonous noise of the world.

Instrumental music can be beautiful, have meaning, and bring joy.  In Mamadou Diabate’s “Humanity,” written out of concern for the troubles of the world, there is drama, though no words are used.  The tones are drawn out, and the great weights of the notes achieve emphasis and suspense.  One encourages what one pays attention to; and in the softly and sweetly dancing “Macky,” a remembrance of a generous man, Macky Tall, generosity is affirmed.  The composition “Kora Journey” has a shrewd use of silence between the lingering rhythms, and a parallel management of tempo.  It is music that allows contemplation and encourages peace.

On Courage, the musical piece “Kita Djely,” which has the sound of both ceremony and mischief, is a tribute to other griots, “Laban Djoro” advises compassion and fairness, and “Diayeh Bana,” with its bits of groove, jazz, and twang, an incarnation of shifting possibilities, is a creation with a thematic focus on the limits of human existence, particularly time and age.  The song “Birigo Blues” is an evocation of Mamadou Diabate’s mother’s birthplace, Birigo.  “Bogna,” the name of another tune, is a word for respect.  It is not necessary to know those things, though many of us want to: it is easy to listen to the music and feel them.

The music of the Owiny Sigoma Band is more boisterous than that of kora musician Mamadou Diabate: the music on the Owiny Sigoma Band’s self-titled album is earthy and exultant, poignant and propulsive, as it combines the rhythms and voices of African tradition and today’s western music.  The band was named for the grandfather of singer Joseph Nyamungu, a revered Luo musician who plays an eight-string lyre, a nyatiti, in western Kenya.  This project, an album of ten songs—including compositions with African and English names, such “Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi” and “Wires” and “Hera” and Rapar Nyanza”—is the result of a collaboration between Kenyan and British musicians.

The music has a clear, vivid groove, in which the musical past and present can be heard, in “Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi,” which is on the verge of funk and rock; and “Odero Lwar,” which features the organ-playing of Damon Albarn, is as fresh as tomorrow morning, but even that may not be preparation for the high-stepping, lilting “Wires,” which I imagine Vampire Weekend admirers would like.  The piece listed as “Margaret Okudo Dub” sounds like cosmopolitan large-party house music.

The album is no accident.  Its roots are in the formation by Hetty Hughes and Aaron Abraham of an organization, Art of Protest, to create community among (and to support) Kenyan musicians; and Art of Protest introduced London musicians to Joseph Nyamungu.  The London musicians—already influenced by Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Thomas Mapfumo, and Oumou Sangare—who traveled to Nairobi are keyboardist Jesse Hackett, bassist Louis Hackett, guitarist Sam Lewis, bouzouki-player Chris Morphitis, and drummer Tom Skinner; and they played with Nyamungu and traditional Luo drummer Charles Owoko, exploring old Luo songs and creating new ones.

However, tradition is very much present in many of the songs, in both the voice of Joseph Nyamungu and the beat and rhythm of the music, as in “Hera” with its tiny tribal beats, and the ritualistic “Doyoi Nyajo Nam”  and “Owegi Owandho,” the last of which has chanting and what sounds like an old-fashioned bell.  “Nabed Nade El Piny Ka” sounds a bit techno.  I would not be surprised to hear “Here on the Line” on the radio on a Sunday afternoon, but the last song, “Rapar Nyanza” brings it all back home—to the first home of the human race.

 Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  “The inner life is the one that is hard to know, and difficult to prove, inspiring disbelief and distrust, and yet it is the most important in modern society—its spirit can be medicine or poison,” says Daniel Garrett, who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or