In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali.

Author:Williams, Stephen

By Banning Eyre

[pounds sterling]10.99 Serpent's Tail

ISBN 1-85242-690-X

I was about 10 years ago, in Harare Zimbabwe, that I met the author of this book. He was in town with his friend and colleague Sean Barlow gathering material for an 'Afropop Worldwide' series of programmes for broadcast on US public service radio. These programmes, each devoted to a particular region of the continent, were exploring Africa's contemporary music, and delving into the traditional music styles that underpins it.

I was introduced by Baba Shorayi, a Zimbabwean mbira musician who had been enthusing to me for weeks over his collaborations with Barlow and Eyre.

I have to admit to some misgivings. Many Africans are understandably weary of overseas visitors dropping in on Africa for a few days to stick microphones and video cameras in front of a few musicians. Some perceive it as theft, convinced that after returning home the visitors will profit from the recordings and enrich themselves handsomely on the proceeds - fertile territory for misunderstandings and bitter disputes.

The first question I asked my friend was "are they paying you properly?" He assured me they were, and added earnestly that he believed that the work they were doing was important. It seems that the visiting researchers had, through dint of hard work, already uncovered valuable archive recordings. They were also travelling extensively to track down musicians, not merely content with interviewing the big-name stars in Harare.

Soaking up the culture

Eyre also had his guitar along with him. Evidently, a major part of his mission was to play with as many musicians as he could meet, absorbing and mastering with a musicologist's ear the various styles he encountered and perhaps offering an American twelve-bar-blues contribution.

The Eyre/Barlow partnership seems to have used this modus operandi on many of their programme visits to Africa - including Mali in 1993. But this is the book that resulted from Eyre's later solo-visit to Mali - a visit where he committed seven months to learning Malian guitar with Djelimady Tounkara, guitarist leader of the famed 'Super Rail Band of Bamako'. Eyre had met Djelimady on his first month-long trip to the Malian capital, and they had even done some recordings together.

Djelimady was the 'big man' of the Bamako music scene and, as Eyre puts it, "embodied an epoch of West African history". He first came to the capital at the cusp of Mali's independence from France...

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