For those in Bamako, Mali, from October 24 to 29 there is a chance to meet some of the experts on African music during a symposium organised by the Centre Culturel Français in Bamako. And I will be there too, not so much an expert as an experienced amateur (and/or 'dabbler').
For me it will be a chance to meet some people again. Graeme Counsel and I only meet in Bamako, and it will be just over ten years since we last met on the occasion of the first Semaine Nationale des Arts et de la Culture, which took place from September 11 to 21, 2001. But some sadness will also be inevitable, as many of my musical friends will be missing, - and missed. Daouda 'Flani' Sangaré, Zani Diabaté, Ali 'Farka' Touré: they have all passed away.
For those who are unable to attend, I will attempt to report on the event when I get back.
All this has little or nothing to do with the cassette I would like to share with you in this post. This cassette has presented a mystery to me since I got it in the early 1990s. I have no idea what ensemble, troupe or group is playing, and I can only guess what the titles are. The sleeve carries no information apart from the title "Gao Thonville". And I am pretty sure that by the last name they actually mean "Thionville", a town in the north-east of France near the German border.
Apparently Thionville is twinned with Gao. This 'jumelage' was started in 1986, was suspended in 1992 (as a result of the Tuareg rebellion) and resumed in 1999.
My guess is that this cassette is a result of the enthusiasm of the initial twinning. This enthusiasm is reflected in the musical content. Or perhaps "love" is a better word to describe the general feeling (sorry) of the music.
The songs appear to be entirely in the Sonrai (or Songhai or Songhoi) tradition, which is no wonder given the history of Gao as the capital of the Sonrai empire. Perhaps you even recognise track B3 as a version of "Tamala (Maïga)", the first song of the Songhai lp in the "Premiere Anthologie de la Musique Malienne" on Bärenreiter-Musicaphon. Compared to this, the version on this cassette is much smoother, less earthy, and this is largely a result of the strange instrument which plays a leading role on this cassette. You may be tempted at first to think it is a kind of balafon. A smaller type perhaps. But listening to the first notes on side B it becomes clear that it must be a kind of lamellophone or thumb piano. This instrument, plus the njarka (fiddle), and the proud singing of the girls' chorus make this cassette one that could claim a permanent place in your musical memory, - as it has done with me....
Gao Thonville (cassette)
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