Music, Mali, Melody and Wales

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

West African Kora and Welsh Harp

I’ve always liked the radio. There’s a visceral affection I have for small transistor radios that transcends any feeling I could ever have for any vulgar television set. I think of all the wonders that can come out of that little box with the grilled speaker—all that I learned about music and about the world while listening to it as a young ‘un; and in the here and now, there is this love I have for radio as a medium where one’s own mind and imagination are still in play, versus that televisual medium where so much (way too much) gets hurled at you in the way of stimulation, like it or not.

And, these days, thanks to the wonder of something much more modern (the internets) you can actually access radio programs from all over the world.

There’s too much to choose from, truthfully speaking, but, as in recent times I’ve come to the realization that I appear to be a misplaced Welshman, I’ve naturally been drawn to the Cerys Matthews show on BBC Radio 6. The show is not actually Welsh in theme, but the disc jockey is, and that suffices. There really is no theme, other than the presenter’s own genuinely eclectic taste and tangible enthusiasm for the music she selects, and, as Mrs. C. and I listen to it week by week, along with that which is familiar and already beloved there never fails to be something out of left field that tickles our fancy and provokes further interest and exploration.

Just one example came in this past Sunday’s show (still available for a short time) where Cerys talked to a writer named Andy Morgan about the music of Mali. The whole segment (which starts at about the one hour and five minute mark and is about half an hour in length) is quite fascinating and there are a number of terrific tracks played. But just following the thread of what Andy Morgan has written on in the past also provided an enormous revelation. That would be: Finding The One: The Strange and Parallel Stories of the West African Kora and the Welsh Harp. As someone intrigued by Welsh cultural history, such a title couldn’t help but catch my eye. What are the similarities between this West African stringed instrument and the Welsh one? What could it mean? I haven’t read the book (as of this moment) but I immediately had to seek out some audible examples. It turns out that two great musicians in their respective traditions have already played together, recorded together, and toured together: namely Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita.

Listening to the sound they make as a duo, playing instruments separated by so much geography, is astounding in the best possible way. An example via YouTube is below, titled “Bamba” (with additional musings from yours truly under that):

Now, if that stuff doesn’t grab your ear, you might need to see one of them otolaryngologists (ear doctors); and, if it tugs not your heart, maybe a cardiologist also. There is in that music so much poetry, beauty and transcendence.

And what is also audible immediately, I think, is a common voice, and a common joy. An old saying goes that God made man in his own image, and to some of us it has also always seemed that music is closer than anything else we can identify to the language of God; if these things are so than it kind of makes sense that it is in music that we can best find our commonality as human beings. And it is also wonderful to understand that there is no call for discarding who we are, culturally-speaking, but only for being open to those underlying spiritual commonalities. And enjoying them.

West Africa has been in the news for all kinds of bad reasons lately, and sadly it likely will be for a long time to come. There is in this world—as there always has been—a struggle between light and darkness. We see it these days in the headlines and on our TV screens in some very particular ways. The people of Mali are only too cognizant of it. We are fortunate if we are among those who do not have to confront it on our streets. It does us well to remember that music—beautiful music—is always on the side of the light: all the way from New Orleans to Timbuktu. And it’s a very a good thing, indeed, to lift up that melody.

Below is the trailer for a forthcoming film on the struggles of musicians in Mali, titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First.”