Adam Brooks Anthropology, Music, and Myth June 12, 2012
Hindustani Classical and Mande Jeli Music: A Comparison of Form, Lore, and String Instruments The musical traditions of the North Indian classical canon and West African griot society are extensive, oral in nature, and consequently quite elusive. A thorough comparison of the two would easily demand a several-hundred page book, but a good place to start is in the formats of the music, the stories carried therein, and the mythological associations with string instruments. Musical Form - Notes, Raga, and Donkili Nearly all traditional forms of Indian music are inherently spiritual, though not always religious. In the case of classical music, the Carnatic (or South Indian) style is characterized by its highly devotional qualities, both to Hinduism and long-established, strict musical edicts. Hindustani (or North Indian) music, conversely, is imbued with the wide range of emotions, and over the generations its musicians have adapted many of the music's old governing rules, if not departed from them entirely, for the modern era. For example, the playing and singing of each raga has traditionally been confined to one particular time of the day, a concept known as samay. Morning melodies often cast a feeling of longing and dissociation, while afternoon ones embody introspection and sorrow. Evening ragas commonly elicit a romantic or cheerful mood, and night melodies bravery and devotion. Today, however, the steadfast adherence to samay has remained fairly strong in the Carnatic system, while practitioners of the Hindustani system have loosened such norms to accommodate for modern lifestyles and the predominance of evening concerns in which ragas from other times would otherwise go unheard.
Hindustani ragas are, at their essence, musical and not lyrical. Though some vocal styles will make use of words, especially those devotional in nature, notes are the building blocks of a raga. Where harmony (the sounding of multiple notes simultaneously) and counterpoint (the playing or singing of complimentary melodies over one another) have never been features of the music, monophonic (consisting of single notes) melody has received a great deal of attention. Consequently, melody has been developed and innovated to an extremely sophisticated level, while preserving a certain natural simplicity. Kishori Amonkar, one of India's foremost vocalists, stresses repeatedly the importance of notes and simplicity in Indian classical music. She has described the relationship between Shadaj and Gandhar (the first and third notes of the scale) as one between the dualistic "male and female principle." In this way, she suggests that notes are their own entities, independent of musicians who summon them. When musicians do summon them, she suggests that they can transcend purusha, the realm of consciousness, into prakriti, the physical realm. The idea, as well as its limits in the modern world, is conveyed in the following interview excerpt: Ashok Roy (Q): It has been said that through proper sadhana (spiritual practice), a raga can actually manifest in front of you... Kishori Amonkar (A): That is not possible in this world, now. Yes, a raga may have a form. If you consider it an entity, it has its emotional elements as well. But how much sadhana will it require from us, just imagine! You might need to sing just one raga all your life! Even then, who knows whether it will actually manifest or no... That's why I follow a simple rule. No matter how many different ragas I may present in concerts, for my riyaz (musical practice), I stick to just one raga (K. Amonkar 2004, 27). The music of West African jelis, or griots, takes the form of donkili, which translates to
"song" in roughly every sense of the word as we use it. It is the name for the art of vocal music (as the verb infinitive ka donkilida means "to sing"). It is also the word for a particular piece of music, which comprises of various melodic motifs, variations, and improvised parts. If placed on a spectrum of definitiveness of form, donkili lies somewhere between an Indian raga and the Western song. As it is the song of jelis, donkili always has a narrative quality. Stories commonly tell of the ordering of Mande society, praising the different families and their namesakes, and sharing the trials, virtues, and exploits of powerful people both long past and of recent history. While jelis might agree on the subject of a donkili, their understanding and treatment of that subject will likely vary greatly. Where history has solidified a king's glory in one country, region, city, or village, it has cursed him in another. Mythology One particular donkili, titled Mali Sadio, is ripe with debated mythology and metaphor. It tells the story of a hippopotamus (the translation of the word "mali") who dwells at the confluence of two rivers near the town of Bafoulabe in southwestern Mali. Some attribute the word sadio to the hippo's white feet-- sadio literaly meaning "albino"-- while others recount that it is the name of a young girl who befriends the animal. For some, the full extent of the story is that the friendship ends tragically in the hippo's death at the hands of a white hunter (Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra). Others have assigned magical elements to the story. As my kora teacher has heard from his teacher in Guinea, the hippo is a man with shape shifting abilities. The river junction being a site of frequent travel by foreign explorers and traders, the djinn (meaning "supernatural being") assumes his hippo form at their arrival, destroys their vessels, and brings the exotic goods to his young love interest. Such mischief
would further explain the hunter's motives in the story. Mali Sadio has also taken the metaphor of dissociation. As written in the liner notes of Boulevard de L'IndĂŠpendence, an album by Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra, "you can sing it for any kind of separation, from a loved one, or even a country (ibid.)." Since the 2010 death of Mangala Camara, who gives a riveting vocal performance of Mali Sadio on the album, the track has taken a haunting quality, reminding Malians of a much-beloved singer who was taken from them far too soon. Another contended narrative is found in the song of Mansani Cisse, sometimes referred to as Massalou Cisse. Those who ascribe to the song's first meaning (which translates to "Young King Cisse") may tell the story of a well-respected ruler who took a beautiful woman as his bride. Tragically, on the night of the wedding, the young mansa is bitten by a snake and dies on his matrimonial bed. Others, choosing the less glorious title Massalou Cisse (merely the name of the character), typically recount a narcissistic ruler whose frivolous use of wealth precipitates his fall from grace and disappearance into poverty. To leave Massalou Cisse's ultimate fate untold, as in the second version, follows in the tradition of Soumaoru Kante, one of the greatest antagonists in Mande mythology. A powerful sorcerer who seeks to rule what will become the 13th century Mali Empire, Soumaoru is the adversary to Sundiata Keita, most beloved hero of the people of West Africa. It is told that at the battle of Kirina, where the two opponents assemble their greatest armies, they meet face to face in combat. Sundiata pursues Soumaoru into a cave from which the evil sorcerer never returns. As with Massalou Cisse, to leave Soumaoru Kante's end a mystery and deny him any possible martyrdom is the ultimate insult.
The epic of Sundiata is one of the most extensive and historically significant myths in the region, and a repository from which families draw their prestige. Hence one academic's likely hypothesis that Soumaoru's mortality is unspoken so as to preserve the name of Kante shared by so many families today (Conrad 2006, 73). When jelis perform for an audience they must be ever aware of who is present to ensure that praise is given where it is due, and any possible insult avoided. Lutes and Harps Perhaps most sacred among the myriad string instruments of India are the lutes belonging to the family of veenas. The Saraswati Veena, with close associations to the goddess after whom it was named, is a prominent South Indian instrument. Never is Saraswati depicted without the lute in her hand and lap, and it is a common belief that her essence resides in all veenas (Moorthy 2001, 74). The rudra veena, named for Lord Shiva's wrathful aspect, is one of the largest and oldest Indian instruments. One myth says that Shiva himself created the instrument, and strung the rudra veena with his own intestines (Divekar and Tribhuwan, 2001, 30). Historically, it was a predominant instrument in Hindustani classical music, being used almost solely for slow and introspective styles. As sensibilities have changed drastically, and newer styles taken over, the rudra veena has been largely phased out in favor of other fretted instruments like the sitar and surbahar (a sitar-like bass instrument). Nonetheless, sitarist Ravi Shankar has described the veena in writing as the "stringed instrument par excellence (Shankar 1968, 42)." Indeed, veena players are among the most classical skilled and scholarly of Indian musicians, seemingly channeling Saraswati's divine
penchant for knowledge. Rudra veena player Bahaudin Dagar has roused the attention of musicians, musicologists, and acoustic physicists alike with his lectures on the shrutis-- notes between the twelve commonly recognized today in Western music. In fact, since the work of 19th century musicologist Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, who reframed Indian music theory within its ten popularly recognized modes, the twelve notes have been a dominant framework in Hindustani music as well (Nayar 1989, 64). Still, as gifted traditionalists like Dagar remind us, the human ear can consistently discern between and reproduce many shrutis if trained to do so. The most popular number of shrutis subscribed to is twenty-two, which musicologist Bharat Muni proposed in the Natya Shastra, a treatise on the arts written between 200 BC and 200 AD (Avtar 1980, 83). Bahaudin Dagar has proposed that this number can be outdone entirely, discerning between as many as five microtones for each note (a theoretical maximum of sixty shrutis). His demonstrations of string bending between the shrutis on the rudra veena have been measured with oscilloscopes and found to be consistently accurate within a mere few cents. The kora, a 21-string West African harp, holds mythological significance not only for its creation, but also the conduct with which it is maintained. Amadou Jobarteh, son of Gambian icon Amadou "Bansang," and maker of my own instrument, warned during our meeting that I be sensitive to the kora's jealous nature. "Kora is one of the few instruments that faces its owner while player," he pointed out, "and it demands that you give it your full attention, as it has done in turn, despite the audience before you." He attributed a kora's "unwillingness" to stay in tune to such jealousy. A kora which changes too many hands assumes that its rightful owner's hands have, too, changed many koras, and will cease to
remain in perfect temperament. The kora's tuning system consists of a series of leather rings around which the strings are wound, and which slide up and down the instrument's neck to increase string tension. The physical strength and control required to move these rings is often likened to that of Sundiata's childhood growth. A crippled infant, Sundiata lives his youth life on all fours. His disability excludes him from participation in the other boys' hunting initiations, and communal harassment becomes the source of humiliation for his mother Sogolon. One day, at her wits' end, she sarcastically asks that he fetch her the cooking leaves of a tall baobab tree. He crawls through the village in preparation for the task, but halfway to the tree seizes the inevitable truth: he must finally learn to stand. Before the many villagers, he braces himself against an iron rod and lifts himself up. In rising, his newfound power causes the implement to bend, which his griot Balla Fasseke honors right then with the creation of the song called, "Hymn to the Bow." Unknowingly certain that Sundiata's inability to complete her task has impressed upon him her grave disappointment, Sogolon is shocked when he returns to her doorstep on two feet, dragging the entire baobab tree behind him (Niane 1965). It is this incident, and Sundiata's stringing of that iron bow, to which a young kora player's acquisition of tuning is compared. Triumph in the face of physical difference and stigma is a theme written into the cultural narrative of Mali, and embodied in three of its most famous contemporary performers: Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, and Toumani Diabate. Salif Keita, one of Mali's most prized singers, rose to fame in the late 60's through his membership in the pioneering Bamako groups Super Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs. A musician with albinism in a society that has historically considered the condition inauspicious, Salif relies on his uniquely wide
vocal range, distinguished musical sensibility, and the Keita namesake (shared with Sundiata) to win the acclaim of his people. He has leveraged his popularity to advocate nationally and abroad for those with albinism, a reminder that acceptance should not be limited to the famous. Amadou and Mariam are the musical darlings of the country. A married couple who met in their youth as students at Bamako's Institute for the Young Blind, their music is a blend of modern pop, activist rock, and praise singing. They have recorded and performed worldwide with top international producers and artists. Kora master Toumani Diabate is a polio survivor, which has left him with limited functionality of his legs. This is a rarely recognized trait of the world-renown musician, but impressed upon audiences when he takes and leaves the stage on crutches at each performance. At nearly every departure, he also takes the opportunity to urge audience members and the press to stand against stigma and discrimination. Timeless Essence Amidst the major changes that both Hindustani and Mande music have seen over the centuries, both have preserved their essential features and collective memories. Myths evolve and practices adapt, but the hearts and minds of musicians always find their way back to the same stories that have been told for millennia-- in praise singing, in instrumentation, in performance. It is there, in that timeless essence that the traditions' survival is ensured. References Conrad, David. "Oral Tradition & Perceptions of History from the Manding Peoples of West Africa." Themes in West Africa's History. By Emmanuel K. Akyeampong. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006. 73. Print.
Moorthy, Vijaya. Romance of the Raga. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 2001. Print. Nayar, Sobhana. Bhatkhande's Contribution to Music. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 1989. Print. Shankar, Ravi. My Music, My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print. Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra (2007). In Boulevard De L'IndĂŠpendance [CD Booklet]. New York City: Nonesuch Records. Veer, Ram Avtar. Theory of Indian Music. New Delhi: Pankaj, 1980. Print.