Badenya: New York Concert Review
Contributed by Afropop Worldwide's New York events editor, "Boo" Lynn Walsh.

It was a cool, damp New York City, October 12th, night as I made my way to joe's pub, an annex of The Public Theatre in an area called the Village to listen to a genre of music that has been played for centuries in the villages and royal courts of Africa. The decedents of these musicians, called jalilu (also known as griots) were celebrating their collective talents that resulted in a new CD release called Badenya: Manden Jaliya in New York City.

Through the glass doors of joe's pub there is a cozy venue with café tables and seats that embrace the small, low-slung stage, surrounded by a tier of comfy, cushioned lounge seats and tables, with an inviting bar and tall windows of a landmark building covered in heavy, elegant drapery. You're close enough to the performing artists so that there is a symbiotic and intimate relationship between the audience and performer enhanced by professional sound and lighting that compliment the atmosphere and make it worth the modest admission price. Tonight, Bill Bragin continued his reputation for booking high caliber, diverse talent and has co-presented with The Center of Traditional Music and Dance, the launch of the second CD in a series called Global Beat of the Boroughs Series, documenting the grassroots musical traditions found here. This one, Badenya: Manden Jaliya in New York City, is dedicated to the West African Manding style; most of the musicians who played on the CD were going to be here this evening.

Tom van Buren, Director of Field Research at the Center of Traditional Music and Dance thought that producing something like this would be a great idea, explaining to me that he studied ethnomusicology at The University of Maryland and became fascinated with the music of Africa - particularly the West African hereditary musicians.

Because the influx of Africans immigrating to New York City during recent decades, influencing the music scene, Tom became intrigued with the transposition of the culture here, as well as realizing the creative potential of the foreign musicians that were right in his backyard. Tom said that the opportunity to produce a CD like this is really "Manding Matrix" of different styles and artists. He also explained that some of the CD was recorded specifically for Badenya, others songs were selected from individual CDs, while another song recorded on the spot right in his office where he witnessed the spontaneous creativity of kora maestro Keba Cissoko as he felt his way through improvisations of a very old song, "Alla L'a Ke," and then confidently played his interpretation for inclusion on Badenya.

Tom van Buren's expertise and passion for African musicology becomes evident when one reads the extensive liner notes in the informative 29-page booklet with artful photos included with the CD that make it a joy to utilize while exploring the music. Tom expounds in the liner notes, "This recording presents the sound of the collective energy and artistic shared by a unique network of musicians and singers living in New York City. Haling from the nations of Mali, Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, they are united by the common cultural heritage of the Mandan world of West Africa. The artists are all jalliu (sing. jali), members of a hereditary musical caste whose ancestry and artistic lineage go back to the 13th century."

As the musicians floated through the club in the multi-colored, flowing robes of their embroidered, grand boubous looking like African royalty, flashing smiles and greeting everyone, I had the chance to ask a few questions about their involvement in the CD. I inquired as to the meaning of "badenya." Abdoulaye Diabate, who is featured on the CD jacket and several songs, replied badenya means, "Same father, same mother--the same family." This was confirmed by his daughter a bright, precocious youngster who continued, "The Manding people are all one family!" Hence, the CD is diverse in its interpretations of this style of West African music, but it all comes from the same family of music. The jalilu continue their tradition of being oral historians, orators, counselors, mediators at ceremonies within their various community ceremonies in Africa and abroad while forging new partnerships within the modern musical scene and adding their personal touches and creativity to the musical, cultural, blend as they travel the world. Keba Cissoko once told me when I asked about the paradox of reinterpreting ancient music by explaining that one had to keep the tradition, the musical heart and story of the song. But he added that a jeli's ability to interpret and to add to the song while retaining the basic structure is the mark of greatness in this art. Each performer integrates his style into the repertoire, enhancing the song, giving it new life and momentum.

The evening at Joe's did indeed offer a diverse array of interpretations and musical artistry. Ancient, surreal instruments made of skin, gourds, and wood happily co-mingled. These instruments sport such monikers as tambin (wooden flute), n'goni (lute), bala (a wooden xylophone that looks like someone uprooted a polished wooden fence to play the slats with rubber-headed sticks) and the kora, (a twenty-one stringed, harp-like gourd with protruding phallic staff that produces an angelic voice). These instruments blended with acoustic guitar and bass, flowing like a deep river over the peppery, percussive additions of the djembe drum. The evening's two sets were well executed, as each artist came to the stage and the momentum built and peeked several times. The audience and artists continually called out encouragement to each other, reinforcing the sense of a community event. The music itself cast an enchanting spell. After experiencing an array of talent like this it is no surprise that the Manding tradition survives and continues to gain popularity and spreads like the open arms Africa to embrace your soul.

The two largest groups, Fula Flute and Super Manden were interspaced by the soulful Gambian kora of Mahamadou Sallieu Suso who played the cyclical traditional songs, followed by two balaphone duets in which Abou Sylla and Famoro Dioubate displayed a masterful range of style and sound. Fula Flute's set included not only pieces from the Badenya, but also a few compositions from their latest CD release called Fula Flute which was recently reviewed here on by Banning Eyre. Sylvain Leroux and Bailo Bah complimented each other perfectly as they raised their tambin flutes and spoke like the Sahara wind in your soul, while the group laid down the flawless accompaniment with Peter Fand on bass, Famoro Dioubate deftly adding backbone and solos on balaphone, and Yacouba Sissoko elatedly stroking the kora to create complicated crescendos. This music has a universal appeal with emphasis on the instrumental (no vocals), allowing the listener to interpret the color and mood and let the music speak for itself. Sylvain, the musical director of Fula Flute stated in a recent interview that every musician in the group brings their own personal interpretation and expertise to arrive at unique arrangements of traditional pieces. The result is a completely captivating and enchanting variety of music that is both unique and compelling.

The second set featured Super Manden, which showcased a rich stable of talent. Adjaratou "Tapani" Sissoko played up the role of jelimouso queen, decked out in a fiery red boubou, singed black on the edges, which portended the fire that she and the group were setting. Abdoulaye Diabate dressed in vibrant bogolan, (Malian mud cloth), exhibited a radiant, masculine take on jeliya, his voice blending with Yacouba Sissoko's kora and Mousssa Sissoko's acoustic guitar. Abou Sylla (who played a large role in directing and arranging many of the songs for Badenya) played balaphone, and Bala Kouyate kept it steady on bass. Fode Bangoura spiced it up with a playful djembe, keeping the beat steady and slipping in short, expressive solos. It is traditional (and also good luck) to participate by offering gifts and money to the jelilu, and the bills soon started flowing from the audiece's pockets to the stage, as Abdoulaye continued to smile, sing and dance as the crowd clapped right along. The final climax occurred when all the artists came up on stage and melted together for a colorful, brilliant easy flowing grand finale.

I'd highly recommend people keep an eye out for any upcoming concerts featuring these wonderful musicians and acquire the Badenya CD. With each listen one hears more depth. The music is upbeat yet meditative, ancient and yet contemporary. A valuable addition to any collection whether one is an uninitiated novice or hard-core African music collector. Badenya presents a collective variety of styles and individual talent, which one might want to follow up on and pursue the additional recordings that these amazing, artists have released independently



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