Saturday, August 18, 2007

Griot Spirits Spin at the Center of Seattle

poster from

Spirit of West Africa
Seattle Center
Seattle, Washington
August 18, 2007

I had one of those weeks where everywhere I turned I ran into some kind of roadblock--from my professional life to my personal one. So by the time the weekend rolled around, I was prepared to witness some first-rate West African music. I headed to the Spirit of West Africa event held at Seattle Center.

When I first arrived, the Center House seemed sparse of African music aficionadas and a few tourists were milling about. By the time, Guinean griot Prince Diabatè hit the stage and his cora vibrated throughout the cavernous space, onlookers crept up to get a closer look. Eventually members of Seattle's West African community, and African music aficionadas began filling the seats, and they were very much aware of the fact that they were in the midst of an international performer, associated with the Malian legend, Salif Keita, (who produced one of Diabatè's albums).

The West African harp (cora), in a players hands can sooth tired nerves, relax the soul and fill the heart with joy. In a master's hands, that same instrument can lead to a transcendental experience, which I felt while witnessing Diabatè's performance. But for the life of me, I could not figure out how he was able to drum on his cora and of course, watching the musician dance around stage while playing the intricate instrument also amazed me.

Next up was the event organizer and master djembe player, Thione Diop with his drum ensemble, Yeke Yeke. The women sitting next to me cited that Diop is the fasted drummer in the world. I had seen him perform before at the Northwest Folklife Festival several years ago and though his playing certainly got my pulse racing, I had no idea that he possessed such a moniker. I wouldn't know the fastest drummer in the world even he stared me in the face since I know little about drumming finesse. However, Diop exudes charisma and power as a musician. He also emits a friendliness, which is why so many people sitting in the audience could be counted among his friends and colleagues.

The "fastest drummer in the world" wowed the crowd with an electrifying ensemble performance. Then, if that wasn't enough, he invited his first surprise guest on stage, a master drummer from Angèlique Kidjo's band (who also happened to be in Seattle for the weekend). The performance grew hotter by the moment, with children dancing in a frenzy near the stage and eventually, African women strutting their stuff too. And I love watching West African women in their traditional clothing dance with flashes of vibrant colors swirling about and their bodies defying gravity.

Momentum picked up as more musical guests came on stage, this time, twin brothers from Senegal, Assane and Ousseynou Kouyate who sang Malian songs. Although most of the musicians hailed from Senegal and Diabatè from Guinea, the twin brothers' singing, recalled Malian Ali Farka Toure's desert blues. And later, they recalled Malian singer, Django, with their throaty soaring vocals. However, their vibrant acrobatic dancing stole the show. I only wish that I had the perfect poetic phrase to describe the brite colored clothing the dancers wore and their athletic ability. However, anyone who has seen a West African drumming and dancing concert already knows what I am trying to describe here.

At that point, with the drummers kicking out polyrhythms, Diabatè playing the traditional kamalengoni, and the Kouyate brothers crooning sweet desert blues, I started falling into a trance. I watched children of various ethnic backgrounds, gravitate towards the power drumming, and the plucked strings of the kamalengnoni.

All I could think of was the healing qualities of this music. And how exposing children to polyphonic drumming and ancient African harp would enhance brain, not to mention heart & soul activity of those children. And I felt good too with all my troubles melting away into total bliss. I felt like a small child regaining my lost innocence. I felt something rare in my overstressed adult life--I felt gleeful.

Senegalese Master Sabar drummer Mapathe Diop, Senegalese hip-hop artist Baay Bia, Senegalese drummer Modibo Traore (Bougarabou Drums of Casamance), and tons of special guests, both international and local rounded off the event. Unfortunately, time allowed me only to witness a fraction of these electrifying performances. I read the poster only after I returned home and regretted that I missed a performance by a local balafon player, (one of my favorite West African instruments along with talking drum).

In the end, I am glad that I left my troubles behind and allowed myself to feel those drums. I am feeling little tension and anxiety at the moment. And I am sure that I will dream sweet revelries tonight. I advice my fellow Seattlelites, next time, The Spirit of West Africa makes a free appearance at Seattle Center, be there. And if it the Spirit moves to a venue with cover charge, be there also.

African dancing and drumming can do a lot for the body and soul. I enjoy all types of music with each culture, healing some aspect of our lives. But, music from the African continent is the most grounding of music, with Native American drumming coming close behind. So if you are feeling an unintended out-of-the-body experience, having trouble focusing, or staying in the present moment, listen to African drumming. The Spirit of Africa might just be calling your body to surrender to polyrhythmic beats.

photo of Prince Diabate from World Music Central

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Native American Bedtime Stories

The Elders Speak (Spoken Words)
Gourd Woman & Eagle Heart
My Relatives Say (Spoken Word)
Mary Louise Defender Wilson (Gourd Woman)

This review is from Cranky Crow Whole Music

Native Americans as well as, traditional storytellers call their stories teachings. These teachings are for people of all ages. Children who are learning the ways of the world, learn to be courteous, respect their elders and help their parents. They learn how to be honorable people in their community. Adults that listen to these stories, relearn childhood lessons or glean new wisdom to help them master their spiritual and material lives.

A talented storyteller will create new worlds for their listeners to enter and to experience. The storytelling experience is light-years away from any program that appears on television. A listener must create their own images and take to heart the lessons presented in the stories. It is interactive.

While there are numerous talented Native American storytellers from all over the Americas, this review will focus on Native American elders Gourd Woman (Mary Louise Defender Wilson) and Eagle Heart (Francis Cree). They represent Dakotah/Hidatsa and Ojibway respectively. Both elders began their storytelling in their youth and have over the years mastered and won awards for their storytelling talent. Both storytellers have enriched the lives of the people in their communities and beyond. Anyone can go to the store and pick up these CDs and walk away slightly changed or in some cases, greatly altered.

The 1999 recording, The Elders Speak, featuring both Gourd Woman and Eagle Heart features a collection of legends, mostly dating back to another time and place with the exception of, Holy Spring which only dates back to 1910. Both storytellers perform an introduction to help listeners to enter in the world of legends. Now, when I use the word, legend, I am not referring to fictional stories. Native Americans believe that the events in these legends did take place and we must respect that. In other words, we are not talking Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, but actual legends that were handed down over time.

This particular recording features, the Ojibway creation story, Sky Woman and the Great Flood, the Dakotah legend The Powerful Lake, a white buffalo legend (I've heard several different legends) the Dakotah The Spiderman and the Giant (a trickster story) and others.

My favorite story told by Gourd Woman is The Woman Who Turned Herself to Stone. In this story a young girl is different than other children. She is an enchanted one that loves the beauty of the natural world. She was not put on the earth to marry, have children and live the traditional life so she turns herself into stone. That way, she can always be near her beloved creatures. If only Saint Francesco had known of that legend...

The 2001 recording, My Relatives Say features only Gourd Woman. This CD is an absolute treasure chest for folks who enjoy Native American stories. Most of the stories are animal legends, but there is also the star who desires to be close to humanity so it hides out in a cottonwood tree. We learn of a proud warrior who is turned into a snake and then a river because he abused his gifts. A heron who decides not to fly south for the winter almost perishes but is saved by the bird community, a fawn is given spots and its scent is removed by Wind who takes pity on its vulnerable state and the origins of the flute is also communicated on this recording.

Gourd Woman (Mary Louise Defender Wilson) speaks in a clear voice and with a great deal of authority about her subjects. I just want to sit cross leg on the floor and listen to her tell stories. Who needs TV? (Personally, I never watch TV). If you want good bedtime stories, then check out Native American oral storytelling tradition. Makoche