Students bring music with a message to Mali
By Jane Ford
Afrika Soul, started by ethnomusicologist Heather Maxwell, was the only performance group from the United States invited to participate in Mali’s multi-day cultural festival this year, which featured almost 20 African music groups of international acclaim.
U.Va. student Malaika Schiller said she was nervous and excited as she performed on stage in front of a crowd of about 1,500 at the “Festival sur le Niger” in the Mali city of Ségou in western Africa.
The audience included Malians from all over the country, dignitaries and foreign visitors. And the event was covered by the BBC, Radio France International and Africable.
Schiller, a psychology major, and Seth Green, a philosophy major, accompanied Maxwell to Mali for the festival. Schiller is a back-up singer and dancer with the group. Green plays bass. Both fourth-years have a passion for music.
“African music is in my background and in my blood,” said Schiller, who was born in Africa, and plans to go there again after graduation to teach English in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer. Green, who started a “basement band” in seventh grade, plays with a variety of groups and plans to pursue a career in music performance. The two said they jumped at the opportunity to go to Mali and perform with Maxwell, who has a deep knowledge of Malian culture, having been a Peace Corps volunteer there from 1989 to 1991 and Fulbright Scholar from 1999 to 2000.
Songs the group sang touched on community issues of deforestation, black magic, love and poverty, and women’s issues of nation building, as well as youth and the role popular music plays in encouraging participation in the community.
Mali is among the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy is 48 years, and only 46 percent of the population can read or write. Infant mortality is also a major concern. One song Maxwell wrote about this issue during her time in the Peace Corps, “Keneya-Ji,” became a hit. The title of the song means “Health Water,” and the lyrics instruct mothers on how to make an oral re-hydration mixture that combats the effects of diarrheal diseases.
Schiller said they were repeatedly stopped on the street and requested to sing “‘Keneya-Ji’ on the spot.”
Many of Afrika Soul’s songs were in Bambara, the local language of the region, and Maxwell played the Kamelan n’goni, a native traditional guitar-like instrument made with a gourd and six strings that are plucked.
“It’s a traditional male instrument. Everyone really respected her as an American playing a traditional Malian instrument,” Shiller said.
Green said, “They loved it when she sang in Bambara. Not many whites can speak their language.” He also noted that Maxwell sang a song in the native language of the people who live in the north desert region, which she learned phonetically. “The language was a real ear-catcher.”
As a musician, Green’s ear is tuned to music — its varied rhythms and messages. Immersion in the Mali music experience and exposure to high-caliber musicians, who play in a mix of styles, was the high point of the trip. Green was able to work with great musicians, who joined Afrika Soul on stage.
“We were not isolated in any way. We interacted with everyone,” Green said.
Music was the language of communication for Green, who speaks neither Bambara nor French, the official language of Mali. ”You can bridge cultural and language barrier gaps with music — playing it and hearing it,” he said.
Green saw first-hand the integral part music plays in everyday life when he attended a birthday celebration for Habib Koite, a Malian guitar player, who is famous in Europe and one of the festival performers. The partygoers feted him in the griot musical tradition, which originated with an ancient caste of people whose job was to sing the praises of the king, Green said. Although he could not understand the lyrics, “the context was like a free-style at hip hop parties. It was out of this world.”
In addition to sharing the joy music brings to Malians and witnessing the power of music to communicate serious messages, the two students were given traditional names by the Malians. Schiller’s is Maimouna Coulibaly. Green’s is Ngolo Diara. The names have a lot of tradition and a story attached to them, Schiller said. The Coulibaly are known as the cousins of everybody, and Diara are considered the founders of Mali.
“The students flourished in the environment,” Maxwell said.
The group had been invited to participate in the February festival in Ségou and a second one in the capital city Bamako, after performing for the prime minister, ambassador to the United States and other Malian dignitaries on a November visit to Richmond, Va.
Schiller and Green applied for numerous grants to defray the African trip’s cost. Just weeks before departure, they secured funding to cover all expenses from the Southern Africa/Virginia Networks and Associations, a research consortium of which U.Va. is a member.
“I see it as our role to educate students and provide diverse learning experiences and to take expertise that we have here at the University and use it for good,” said Robert Swap, a U.Va. research associate professor in environmental sciences who oversees SAVANA. “It’s a great example of the use of the arts to get messages across to local populations about health and stewardship of the environment.”
The students also participated in discussions with Maxwell, the minister of culture and the prime minister that explored ways to formalize an interdisciplinary program between Mali and the University that would be focused on the arts.
Afrika Soul has been invited to return to perform in next year’s festival.