on 28 December 2010
From seedy nightclubs to TV broadcasting houses, people's homes to the haunts of government, Eyre narrates his epic seven-month journey into Malian life with candour and intelligence, affording the reader a rare insight into the realities, politics, and experiences of learning under and alongside the Griot master Djelimady Tounkara. The narrative begins with the guitarist's preparations in America and, through historical and personal anecdotes, recollections, quotations and analysis paints a picture of both his personal journey and the Malian world in which he finds himself. It does not set out to be a densely academic piece of ethnographic literature, but instead strikes one as part travelogue, part reflexive ethnography. The accounts he gives of those he meets describe both the personal and on the socially dictated nature of their interactions, offering a level of description that conjures life in Bamako in vivid colour.
The tone of the book strikes one as reminiscent of the journalistic voice the author employed in the past during his work for magazines and papers, the mix of anecdote and more academic material tightly woven together such as to make it irresistible to a non-academic readership. This, however, belies the truly remarkable ethnographical value of the material. In all the tales and accounts, the attention to detail- the head gasket being blown on the Nissan, the food the women prepare after the windfall of Babani's visit, even the "scratching whiskers" of a stranger in a bar- amounts to an incredible wealth of insight into the transition between tradition and modernity, changing priorities and a myriad more issues.
In chapter ten, we are introduced to Sali Sidibe', "the Black Pearl of Wassoulou," with whom the author works for a period during his teacher's absence. The episode is particularly fascinating because in it we get a sense of the complex impact of modern technology on the music being created, and the shifting politics of performance through which the boundaries between `Griot' and `Kono,' or the Wassoulou genre's non-hereditary, un-patron-bound musicians, suddenly seem less delineated. Sali sets out to record "her first cassette in two years" in order to rejuvenate her career and invites Eyre to play. Strewn amongst the descriptions of the collaboration itself are insights into the layers of mediation that a female singer must negotiate. Her Imam father's objections to her musicianship, the difficulty of negotiating with producers and thus the need for her husband, and the dangers of singing about those in power, all mediate her music and her role in its world.
Perhaps the most overt layer of mediation, however, comes in the form of the auditory expectations of her Malian audience. Using "silly, fake rhythm tracks" (Eyre 2000; 173) seems to be standard and desirable to Sali and the band. Much to Eyre's frustration, she ignores his pleas to drop the drum machine, (ibid. 165) prompting a bout of reflexivity, "What if Sali listened to my ideas? Maybe the music would have been more palatable to foreign ears, but would the Malians like it?" (ibid. 173.) This acknowledgement of his place as a toubab, outside of the culture that he so tries to be a part of, allows us to situate him in the narrative and lends an air of honesty and humility to the account.
References to the Griot/Wassoulou rivalry come courtesy of Eyre's astute observations of social interactions and thrown-away comments like Djelimady's "What's to learn? It's always the same melody." (Eyre 2000; 158) Similarly, small details like when Sali explains, "[the Ensemble Instrumentale du Mali] pleaded with my father... my father's younger brother...said, `Take her and let her sing.' ...If the younger brother of the father says yes, the father cannot say no" show something about kinship relations in Wasulu, but more importantly give the reader a sense of what it must be like to grow up as part of that community.
I found In Griot Time both gripping and educative, but at times wondered as to the tint of the lens through which Mali was being portrayed. Of course, Eyre's monetary contract with Djelimady must have shaped their interaction, just as, by the author's own account, his unwanted and falsely attributed identity as a `western producer' impacted on his interaction with musicians like Sali. What other factors affected the answers he got during interviews, a chat in a bar, or round the TV? These questions are inevitable, however, and Eyre addresses them with more awareness than many. At once both funny and sobering, the book gives a much-needed backdrop to the music that has taken the world by storm.