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Duke University’s Goodson Chapel recently hosted an evocative and haunting performance by Malian jeli (griot or troubadour) Mamadou Diabate. Although the kora player is internationally recognized for his skill and is a member of the Mandinka West African jeli caste, Diabate didn’t have to travel far to play this gig. The renowned musician—whose 2005 solo album, Behmanka, was nominated for a Best Traditional World Album Grammy in 2005—currently makes his home in Durham.
The well-attended concert was a benefit to help the pregnant women of West Africa gain access to medical care, and it seemed as though Diabate’s resonant, glittering tunes on the gourd-based ancestor of the banjo created a strong current of empathy from the audience toward the people they were helping to support. A handful of academic and humanitarian organizations affiliated with Duke University enlisted Diabate to perform the benefit for the International Organization for Women and Development (IOWD), a nonprofit group whose efforts go toward sending doctors, medical supplies, and post-operative support for the West African nation of Niger’s most needy women.
Dedicated and compassionate medical professionals and other volunteers put time and money into fundraising, raising awareness, and self-financed trips to regions of Niger without access to medical care to perform surgeries, establish clinics, and train individuals in obstetrics and basic women’s health. Before the music, Dr. Jeffrey Wilkinson of Duke Hospital and Medical School presented a concise, short lecture on the tragic social, physical, and emotional realities of obstetric fistula and how the IOWD works.
Dr.Wilkinson’s address left a somber, hopeful tone over the crowd, but Diabate was welcomed enthusiastically as he took his place on the low, stagelike apse. The kora’s strings are oriented at an angle to the neck rather than parallel, with strings stretched in two planes ending in an intersection. The resonator – the “front” of which faces toward the player, while the round side of the gourd sports a fist-sized cutout to let the sound escape – creates the twang and rustic resonance of kora successors like guitar and banjo, while the strings’ larger number, odd orientation, and lack of fretboard contact causes a numinous shimmer in the kora’s tone. Only the index finger (middle and high notes) and thumb (bass notes) are used, but the best players in this centuries-old dynastic tradition play the instrument as though they have ten fingers on each hand. Harmonic technique consists of thumb-plucked bass beneath broken chords, much like the thumb-brush technique developed in Appalachian folk circles in the early twentieth century.
After a few moments of tuning – adjusting any of 21 strips of something along the instrument’s neck to hold the strings – he began to play an energetic, almost tipsy waltz pattern, plucking the bass notes of broken arpeggios with his thumbs and ricocheting his index fingers from one high string to another. Middle, ring, and pinky fingers remained wrapped around the handles on either side of the neck. The dozen-or-so short selections Diabate played ranged in mood from eerie to jubilant, and many of the motifs were based in triple rather than duple time. Before a theme or riff is established, a little introductory rapid-fire ad libbing is common; dizzyingly fast, extended flourishes throughout the kora’s range also pepper the rest of the piece. Diabate’s occasional chanting accompanied his playing, and the performance, artist, and musical style seemed well received; the only drawback to the show was the tuning process between songs, which sometimes took more than a few minutes for Diabate to get just right.
In the end, the audience granted Diabate a standing ovation, and the concert’s co-sponsors presented the bashful jeli with a statuette of an abstract sculpture of a woman rejoicing at being freed from the suffering of obstetric fistula. It’s unclear how many patrons came to hear a kora concert (I was one of those) or to support a noble cause, but that’s immaterial. By the conclusion of the evening’s festivities, most were as ostensibly enchanted with Diabate and his exotic lute as they were moved by the plight of their fellow human beings.