16 April 2011

Music out of Mud: Nigerian Pot Drums in Upstate New York

The workshop took place at the upstate New York pottery studio of Frank Giorgini. He and Abbas Ahuwan instructed 12 students in the finer points of pottery drum making. The workshop proper was held on consecutive weekends, and I had the opportunity to stay the week between as an impromptu apprentice. Abbas began on Saturday with a slide show of traditional Nigerian pottery making. Abbas is a professor of ceramics at Ahmed Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria and has a Ph.D from the University of Georgia. He shared scenes from his workshop in Zaria as well from rural areas. I initially sensed an “African” sensibility in the works he depicted. Designs and methods that might otherwise be labeled primitive by some observers appeared to come alive with a rhythm in the context of culture, albeit objectified through slides. I had later several discussions with Abbas about this - the differing sensibilities of Westerners and Africans. For me, it came down to a McLuhanoid viewpoint of oral and visual sensibilities. The African peoples can be considered orally oriented, I argued, and this sensibility shows in the work, the design. One does not see the obsession with formalization, quantization and uniformity. The works are shaped with an oral sensibility, the perfection being in the unperfected form. Abbas thought about this for a few moments, then replied, “There are no bad curves in nature.”

02 April 2011

Children of Jaliya: Teaching and Learning Kora in West Africa

"From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us."
The youthful prince Sundiata heard these words as the reigning king of 13th century Mali presented him with a customary gift. Sundiata was about to receive his own personal jali, who was called Balla Fasseke (Niane 1965:17). The jali (also known as "griot") is an oral historian and master musician who presents his knowledge in the form of song. Balla Fasseke inherited his art, known as jaliya, from his father who was the king's jali. Prince Sundiata was heir to the kingdom, and Jali Balla Fasseke, was heir to its knowledge, wisdom and music.