Wednesday, August 13, 2008

American Blues and Music From Mali

Blues Music from Mali

Years ago I had a job working for an electronics retailer. A certain level of exertion was built into the job. I loaded air conditioners and televisions into people's cars. One day, a well spoken gentleman with his wife pulled up to our loading dock. Playing on his car stereo was blues music with vocals, guitar and light percussion. Although the music had a studio level of quality, it had a folk ring to it. As I was loading the man's car, I was amazed to note that it was not English was being sung but another language. I asked the man what music he was playing, noting the use of a blues musical scale. He said that the group was from Mali. It came out in the course of conversation that the American Blues actually originated in that part of Africa. Despite the breakup of language groups and even families under slavery, the survival of the blues pointed to the origins of many African Americans. Other types of music in Latin America can also be tied to other countries in Africa.
It is distinctly human to contemplate how one's ancestors and nationality affect one's outlook as an individual. One side of my family took with it very little information about the family tree and the anecdotes that go with it.Working hard and making it in a new country left family stories low on their hierarchy of needs. My interest in history is in some ways a replacement for frustrating gaps in family knowledge that will probably always remain blank pages.
It is for this reason that musical and artistic clues so fascinate me. Living in a neighbourhood that is heavily West Indian, I hear variants of English and French that carry within them fragments of African languages.
Haitian Creole in particular has within it many clues about the ancestral lands of the Haitian people.
Languages die and evolve with regularity. Immigration, though the birth of many a dream can be the death of a language. When I listen to music from Mali, it reminds me of this process. I hope that linguists and musicologists make an effort to preserve some of these cultural treasures.
The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary is like a museum. Every word in is defined by relating it to foreign cognates, as well as by giving examples of its evolution through the history of the English language. Some words go back to well before the year 1000. No other language has any work as extensive or comprehensive. It would be a pleasure to see the various dialects of English spoken in Brooklyn treated with the same scholarly attention.
The professor who pulled up at my loading dock later mailed me a cassette of music from Mali. Although I am not able to put that specific music on this posting, I am grateful to be able to include some You Tube selections that are very similar.
I hope that blues music returns to the popularity it once enjoyed. Aside from its beauty, it affirms in a tangible way ancestral ties that should not be forgotten.
Ali Farka Toure speaking with an American visitor about music and common roots

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