"If you came here for six months, I could teach you to play the way I do," predicted Super Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.
That was an irresistible challenge for U.S. writer, broadcaster and guitarist Banning Eyre, who took off for the West African country of Mali in response. His new book, In Griot Time (Temple University Press), with its accompanying Stern's Africa CD of the same title, recounts how Tounkara's promise was fulfilled.
Eyre first met Tounkara in 1992. "I was staggered by his technical brilliance," recalled the writer, a sonicnet.com correspondent. "You can barely see his fingers move, but there's a direct line between what's in his heart and what comes out of the sound hole when he plays" as can be heard on the traditional tune "Sunjata" (RealAudio excerpt).
In Mali, Eyre became a member of the extended Tounkara family. He lived in their compound in Bamako, the nation's capital, and received daily lessons from Tounkara. His horizons expanded as rapidly as his musical knowledge, and he soon began performing at weddings, parties and even stadium events.
New Malian friends took him to clubs such as the open-air Ma Kele Kele, where he recorded guitarist Lobi Traoré performing "Maby Djoudon Don" (RealAudio excerpt). To his satisfaction, Eyre became accepted as a fellow musician rather than as a white interloper.
"You don't want to assume that's going to happen, because that's when you go wrong," he said. "I tried to take nothing for granted, but I was lucky. Of course I wasn't a real insider much went on I had no idea about. But there was a lot of genuine affection."
Because Eyre became a participant in the city's musical life, his book is more than a diary, travelogue or ethnomusicological study. He makes the characters who comprise Bamako's music world come to life especially the griots, members of the hereditary musical caste whose role is to praise the rich and powerful and to preserve the tribe's oral history.
"The griots are in a different category altogether," Eyre said. "They're used to respect, to being taken very seriously." No Western equivalent exists for this class of musician and, noted Eyre, many of Mali's best griot singers have never been heard in America. "A lot of the great griots never record, or simply play for their own amusement. They make their money in person." Even when they do record, "the griot music is harder for Westerners to get. Some people feel it's bombastic, and a lot of it is badly produced.
Their cassettes have lame drum machine parts and just sound cheap."
The informal tape Eyre made of griot singer Yayi Kanoute singing "Jeliya" (RealAudio excerpt), on the other hand, sounds fresh and vital, and demonstrates why the book's accompanying CD was, he said, "a necessity." From album tracks by Oumou Sangare to a field recording of kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate to informal jam sessions recorded on an inexpensive cassette deck, the In Griot Time CD illustrates the spectrum of Malian music in a way words never can.
After seven months in Bamako, Eyre returned to the United States in 1996 as the temperature rose to an enervating 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
"I managed to scratch a deep itch to commune musically with Africa," Eyre said. "I did what I came to do establish a bond with the people and the place so it was OK to go home. I'd learned enough of the griot guitar style to understand the music. I'll never play like Djelimady, but I felt competent."
In January Eyre returned to Bamako. After four years away, having had no contact with the people there, he wasn't sure what to expect. He nevertheless found himself welcomed back as a friend. Tounkara was impressed his student had practiced his lessons and progressed significantly, and his praise was a source of pride and vindication for Eyre.
Eyre hopes In Griot Time is successful enough to make an American tour "something intimate" possible for Tounkara, who is currently recording an album of his own.