An American Singer in Mali

Adam Klein from Georgia in the United States wants to blend rustic acoustic Mande music with American roots music.

Adam Klein, courtesy of Klein.

Collaborations between American and West African, specifically Malian, musicians are nothing new. But Adam Klein, a successful American folk musician from Georgia who has a long association with Mali (the locals call him by the name Lassine Kouyate), plans to do that and more: Klein is working on an album with Malian musicians that will do three things that together will present a new departure in these kinds of collaborations: that is blend “… rustic acoustic Mande music with American roots music,” records the music in Mali and plans to perform an entire record of original songs “in Bambara with traditional instrumentation.” He is also making a documentary film.  I sent Klein some questions about the project.

Can you tell us more about the project?

I travelled to Mali in early 2010 to record an album of original songs in the Mande style, sung in Bambara, accompanied by traditional Malian and West African instrumentation such as kora, ngoni, calabash, tama (talking drum), djembe, and more. I also brought filmmaker Jason Miller of Eikon Productions (LA via Georgia). Jason shot a making-of-the-record documentary film which includes footage of the recording sessions, footage from the village in which I served with Peace Corps [years before], glimpses into the lives of some of my close Malian friends, shots from the Festival sur le Niger in Segou, as well as interviews with various folks about Malian life, culture, and development. The main three narrative strands of the as-yet-unfinished and unnamed film include the making of the album, learning about the lives of Malians through my friends’ stories, and my personal struggle to remain connected with and supporting my Malian friends and community from afar. The album has not yet been released as I’ve intended to put it out packaged together with the film. It remains to be seen whether the film will be a 25-35 minute short or a tv-hour length piece.

In a recent interview, the interviewer highlighted the fact that you’re one in a long line of American, specifically Jewish American, musicians collaborating with Malian musicians in Mali.

I don’t think it’s necessarily new that an American, or a Jewish-American musician is making music in Mali. Many people have travelled to Mali to study and play music, including my friend Oran Etkin, a fantastic jazz musician who plays in a few Mande ensembles in New York (Kelenia and Mandingo Ambassadors) and Jeremiah Lockwood (of Sway Machinery). What I think is new about this project is it may mark the first time (or certainly first time in recent years) that an American singer/songwriter is blending rustic acoustic Mande music with American roots music, recording in Mali, and performing an entire record of original songs in Bambara with traditional instrumentation. These aspects definitely make this project unique.

How different is your project from the collaborations pioneered by the likes of Ry Cooder?

Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck, Damian Albarn, and many others have collaborated with Malian musicians in Mali, such as some of the greats–Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare–and those are important records which I love. I think this project is a bit different because I bring an understanding of Mande culture and a proficiency in Bambara which allows me to be at home in Mali and amongst its people. The lyrics of the songs are either original or co-written with Malian friends, and the songs are meant to speak to and inspire the Malian people, as much Mande music does, about development issues, hope, peace, and more. Song themes include the dignity of work, marriage as an institution greater than a father’s sale of his daughter, community, brain drain (the need for educated, Malian expats to help develop the country), HIV and other diseases, etc. I’m not adding color to another’s material. I’m bringing songs influenced and inspired by Mali back home, and the talented Malian musicians are adding their voices, instruments, and instincts. Stylistically, it may not be a perfect Mande record, but the Malians who have heard it have been extremely supportive and excited about it. Plus the added medium of the film allows a broad audience to learn more, ‘discover’, and experience Mali through the lens of my experience there and my friends’ lives.

Can you say something about the recording industry in Mali? We know Mali has produced a number of musicians that have made careers in the West. Can you live of music in Mali?

I’m not intimately familiar with the lives of Malian musicians in general, although I’ve become friends with some. The community I lived in during my Peace Corps service had only one griot and there were few musicians around. Griots, or djelis in Bambara, are the traditional praise singers, bards, and oral historians of West Africa, who play a prominent role at life cycle events- baby namings, weddings, funerals, etc. They’re also traditionally conflict resolvers and peacemakers. A number of griots in Mali, then, are hired to serve as musicians and to fulfill the djeli’s functions at such events. I suspect the most renowned griots, especially in Bamako and possibly regional capitals, make a living off of their music and praise singing there. And, since strong social structures are in place in Mali as in many communal cultures in the global south, I imagine their large extended families are supported by that income. I think it’s probably tough for musicians, excluding the popular stars and the many djelimusow (female praise singers), to make ends meet by putting out music there. Once a cassette or CD has been out in the market for a month or more it’s bound to have been pirated endlessly and available as ‘burned’ copies. I’ve heard, though, that the most famous Malian musicians, like Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare, make a ton of money in Mali alone off the sale of their records. If it’s all the rage over there and well promoted with videos on tv and lots of radio airplay, it’ll do well financially. But a lot of musicians have weekly gigs or play a few times a week at the bars in Bamako and earn income that way. As far as the recording industry goes, there are a good number of studios and a lot going on- everything from groove-driven Mande rock stuff to acoustic material, hip hop to synth-heavy jams and north desert blues. Bamako’s got it going on, for sure.

What is your relationship with the young man featured in the documentary film trailer above?

The young man in the trailer is Samba Diallo, whom I consider to be a younger brother. He was my closest friend and sidekick in Mali and I learned about the culture and its intricacies, how to navigate life in the village, and much of the Bambara I speak, from Samba. He would come by my place each day and we’d spend time together, chat in the hammocks in my shade spot, and we’d talk about my work projects, our lives, community members, everything. We have a similar sense of humor, too, which I always thought was funny considering at the time we both lived in our village, Dougouolo, I was 24-25 and he was 12-13. Wonder what it said about me! I learned a lot from Samba and had such a fulfilling experience in Mali thanks in large part to him. Although we only speak occasionally and we’re quite distant geographically now, he’s definitely one of the most important people in my life and I look forward to our lifelong friendship. He recently took the college entry exam and we’ll hear in a few months if he passed. If so, he’ll start university in Bamako in spring 2012 and continue his studies and personal development there. If not, he’ll have to use his determination, creativity, and high school education to carve out his place in society. He studied hard for the entire year to prep for the test, though, and we’re confident he passed.

In the trailer, one of our interlocutors say that while Malians are celebrating 50 years of Mali independence, Mali had only experience development in the last ten years. What is your assessment of political developments in Mali?

I think there has been a lot of rapid development in Mali in recent years. Lots of rural communities have one or more pumps for treated water, I’ve noticed newly built and expanded school blocks in a number of areas, cell phones are common (I read a statistic that says ~25% of Malians have a mobile phone), internet ‘cafes’ are popping up in mid-size towns along with the bigger cities, solar power initiatives are taking root. So there’s a lot of good stuff going on but it’s by no means sufficient. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and being landlocked, has a number of economic challenges around trade. Politically, Mali is a fairly stable democracy and a moderate Muslim country. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is present in the desert in the north, though, and there have been a number of kidnappings the past few years of foreign tourists and aid workers in the regions of Gao and Tombouctou (Timbuktu). There’s still tension between the desert Tuareg people and Mali’s Mande majority in the south. But, thankfully, the meeting place and exchange of the north African desert ethnic groups and the people of the south has not been as violent and catastrophic as in places like Sudan and Niger. The Malian government has announced it seeks to have a more active presence in its Saharan north and will try to bolster economic activity there and fight Islamic radicalism in the desert. A lot of land has been sold to private investors, domestic and foreign, who intend to develop agricultural infrastructure there. That’s needed, and if the food and products remain in Mali then it’s helpful as far as food security goes. But it’s also at the expense of disrupting many communities’ lives and displacing subsistence farmers and their families with no current financial prospects. Possibly 70% of Malians work in agriculture. So it’s a difficult issue. The next election is in 2012 and I expect all these issues will play a role.

You set out to make songs in a “traditional Malian,” specifically Mande tradition. Who’s music is that? Is that the music of young people too? If not, what do they listen to or perform?

Traditional Malian music definitely crosses generational lines. It’s everyone’s- the youth, the elders. It’s such an inherent part of the culture and peoples’ beings- it’s respected and essentially sacred to all. Many younger Malians are embracing traditional music. They’re mastering the instrumentation, writing and performing, living and breathing music. It’s like no place else I’ve seen. A lot of youth are also into hip hop and other styles, but I think mainly they respond to quality and emotional impact of music. The histories, stories, exhortations, and voices of the instruments in Malian music are profound and a deep expression of the people. Malians can’t deny the power of their music, and I think a lot of western listeners are moved as well by both Mande and desert blues.

Follow Adam’s work here and here. Ht to Adam Esrig for introducing us to Adam’s work.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.