Djembe and Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision on 02/11/99)



This is the first in a series of reviews of jeli (griot) CDs. Although these recordings do not generally feature djembe, jeli music is an important component of the Mande musical tradition from which the djembe originates and is, therefore, important for the understanding of this musical tradition. This review is not to be republished without the express permission of the author.

During the period of the Mali empire, one of the royal courts was located in Kangaba. The jelis or griots who performed and fulfilled other duties there lived in the nearby village, Kela (located in Western Mali near the border with Guinea). Kela, thus, is a jeli village where the songs and traditions of the Mande people have been scrupulously preserved: the jelis of Kela are, for instance, considered the primary source for the Sunjata epic. The two CDs under review here were recorded in Kela by Jan Jensen, a Dutch scholar, and thus give the listener an extraordinary glimpse into jeli music as it is performed in a village setting. 

These are field recordings made using a variety of portable recordings over a several year period during different trips to Kela. They feature extended versions of stellar pieces from the jeli repertoire. On Ana Bè Kelen the primary instrumentation is provided by a pair of ngoni, although djembe, tjumba (a local name for Caribbean congas), karinyan and guitars are added on a few tracks. On Bonya the ngoni is still the featured instrument but a djembe added on 6 of the 8 tracks. These performances showcase, however, jeli praise singing. The singers generally begin each piece by singing the basic lyrics and melody of the song then improvise extensively evoking historical events, commenting on current situations, citing proverbs and praising individuals and/or groups of individuals. In addition, many of the pieces have recited passages.

Learning to appreciate jeli singing can be a daunting task for Westerners. The type of singing voice that is most valued by the Malinké may be considered too harsh-sounding for people who aren't familiar with this music. Moreover, the improvisational nature of jeli singing places serious demands on the listener in much the same way that jazz improvisation does. And last but not least, those of us who don't understand Malinké miss all the verbal inventiveness that is essential to this type of musical performance. It is important to stress this last point since the power of words is central to socio-cultural functions of the jeli (in a seminal book [Gens de la parole, Karthala Editions, 1992] on the role of jelis in Malinké society, the Guinean sociologist, Sori Camera uses the expression "gens de la parole" (people of the word) to refer to jelis), and no survey of the jeli tradition can be complete without a lengthy chapter on their style of vocal performance.

The primary singers on these recordings are Bintan Kouyaté and Lanfia Diabaté, both of whom are members of distinguished musical families. Bintan Kouyaté is the daughter of late Sirimory Diabaté (who sings on one track of "Bonya", which is a real treat; it is the only recording of Sirimory Diabaté that I have been able to find) and performs at weddings and other social gatherings in Kela and in Bamako, while Lanfia Diabaté, whose brother is the renowned Kassé Mady Diabaté, performed and recorded for many years with the Rail Band and recorded an all-acoustic CD "Big String Theory" with Jalimadi Tourkara and Bouba Sacko. The singing is inspired and soulful throughout. Highlights on "Ana Bè Kelen" include classic pieces from the jeli repertoire, such as "Sunjata Fasa", "Jeliya" and "Simbon" while on "Bonya" "Mamadi Bitiki" and two versions of Sara sung respectively by Bintan Kouyaté and Sirimory Diabaté (although I believe that the notes have the order of the two versions reversed) stand out.

The liner notes (in English) are very well-researched and contain a wealth of information on the jeli tradition in Kela. Though lacking the audio quality of music recorded in state of the art studios, both of these CDs are nonetheless excellent quality field recordings that capture clearly both voices and instruments with the added touch of village ambiance in the form of a occasional rooster call or the sound of crickets in the background. And since so many of the recordings of Mali's great jeli singers (Ami Koita, Kassé Mady Diabaté, Tata Bamba Kouyaté) feature modern arrangements with drum machines and synths, it is a special pleasure to hear this music as it is performed in a village setting. Both of these CDs are highly recommended for people with a fair degree of musical sophistication and who are interested in the music of Mande jelis.

Ana Bè Kelen 
1. Sunjata Fasa
2. Tiramagan Fasa
3. Fakoli Janjo
4. Sumoaro Fasa
5. Simbon
6. Jeliya
7. Tara
8. Datuluma
9. A Yelema
10.  Kouyaté fasa

1. Mamadi Bitiki
2. Kaniba
3. Lamine Cisse
4. Kunnaki Lolo
5. Bala Fasa
6. Sara #1
7. Sara #2
8. Bangali Fode

Tom Daddesio