“In Griot Time”

Banning Eyre went to Africa to learn guitar, but he came back with an enticing tale about Mali, Afropop and cultural immersion.

Topics: Music,

To read about Afropop is to put oneself at the mercy of folks for whom tourism means vocation rather than vacation: the intrepid obsessives who set out from Europe and America to experience the stuff in situ. Academic or journalistic, good or bad, the most putatively objective overviews begin with some wanderer’s adventurism, aka fieldwork.

“In Griot Time,” Banning Eyre’s tale of seven months he spent studying guitar in Mali, falls into a more candid sub-subgenre: the first-person narrative in which the white bwana-acolyte turns his or her quest into travel literature. This has proven to be an engaging gambit elsewhere. Helen Q. Kivnick’s earnest “Where Is the Way” gains so much readability from its subjective point of view that you don’t mind the way it glosses over the internal contradictions that have glared since apartheid fell. A similar benefit befalls even Lewis Sarno’s embarrassing “Song From the Forest,” in which the author goes so native that he’s tricked into marrying a Pygmy who doesn’t like him any more than you will.

Intellectually, Eyre doesn’t resemble Kivnick or Sarno so much as his chief academic predecessor John Miller Chernoff, whose 1979 account of his drumming studies in Ghana, “African Rhythm and African Sensibility,” found the warp and woof of the axiom that African music is woven into the fabric of African life. Chernoff’s insistence that Westerners who want to understand Africa make a personal investment in its culture, rather than maintaining their polite scholarly perspective, caused a paradigm shift in African studies as surely as Robert Farris Thompson’s dance- and music-saturated art histories did. “In Griot Time’s” narrative skill, however, sets it apart. In the Boston Phoenix, on NPR, in many more specialized venues and occasionally for Salon, Eyre has covered Afropop more prolifically than anyone in America, but nothing in his criticism or reporting promised this level of writerliness. There’s truly a story here; you want to know what will happen next.

The setup is simple: In 1995, Eyre quit his comfy Boston computer job to take guitar lessons in Mali from Djelimady Tounkara, leader of the government-supported Rail Band, where international stars Salif Keita and Mory Kante once wailed. Eyre embraces the move, suggested casually by Tounkara after the American shows aptitude on a few riffs during a 1993 visit to Bamako, with intrepid obsessiveness. Nearly 40, he uproots himself to one of the poorest nations on earth, where his teacher is a big man who supports a large extended family and drives a Nissan so decrepit that it expires before the book is over.

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Living in the new house Tounkara is slowly building and hanging out at the present Tounkara compound, Eyre is thrust into an alien social nexus where he is at once Helpless Interloper and Mr. Moneybags. Characters emerge: the generous, irascible, elusive Tounkara; his strong-willed wife and kindly brother; his irreligious bass player; the family griot, whose function is mediation, not entertainment. Numerous dramas unfold, especially after another brother and his griot wife return home, soon followed by the real Mr. Moneybags, a fabulously wealthy and extravagantly disruptive Malian named Babani Sissoko. But the drama that drives the book takes place between all these people and Eyre, who conducts himself with impressive grace and tact, partaking fully of this incomprehensible world without losing hold of his own needs and values — without going native.

Mali definitely has a money economy, as Sissoko proves by throwing African francs around. But much of the money changes hands in a barter system akin to the “favor bank” of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — every kindness anticipates some sort of reciprocation sooner or later. Expected to pay for taxis and beer or advance loans and underwrite equipment repair, Eyre is hit on constantly: “Over and over in Bamako, I felt forced to choose between being a sap and having friends or standing firm and remaining at a distance.”

Often he resists, but in musical settings he’s usually a sap — for Africans you feel really are his friends even as they scheme over his possessions while he’s departing. The financial boons he spreads around seem to him only a proper return of the Malians’ trust. But he can’t help noticing (as did Christopher A. Waterman in his study of juju) that the much-praised social relevance of Africa’s praise-singing tradition comes down to fawning over the rich and powerful. Lyrics are often elaborate, cleverly rationalized lies; centuries-old chestnuts are played past their breaking points as flattery is heaped on to elicit a bigger payout.

Eyre soon finds himself dissenting hesitantly from Chernoff’s first dictum: “Having come all this way to learn the music in context, I found I preferred the music stripped of its context.” With the arrival of the famously music-mad Sissoko, everyone Eyre knows goes into a tizzy; rehearsals and a trip to Cuba are scotched as men and women as big as Tounkara himself polish up their begging bowls. Back in the States, in fact, Sissoko lays some largesse on Eyre himself — to help him finish this book.

If none of this leaves Eyre — or me — disillusioned with Mali, thank the music, which testifies eloquently to its context even when stripped of it. Not that there isn’t plenty of context. Portraits of womanist diva Oumou Sangare, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate and Grammy-winning guitar god Ali Farka Toure provide both star power and thematic elaboration. Toure’s oft-parroted theory that the blues was invented in northern Mali is dispassionately examined and discarded, although Eyre wonders whether the hunter music of the Wassoulou region down south mightn’t support a similar claim. There are enticing descriptions of a Bamako bar scene no tourist could find without a guide.

But equally enticing are Eyre’s descriptions of the music itself, whether they ride a musician’s detailed technical insights or an acolyte’s one-of-a-kind epiphanies. They’re so vivid, in fact, that they bear out what anyone who’s ever loved an African CD without visiting Africa is free to discover — that the music motivates and signifies merely as an organization of sounds. No matter how incomprehensible Mali may be — even to Malians themselves — it must be doing something right.

As has never been clearer, there isn’t a single Malian music. Mali is home to many distinct peoples, and for both long-standing cultural reasons and (we wish) short-term economic ones the country produces an abundance of full- and part-time musicians, the most gifted of whom spend their lives inventing, syncretizing, cross-fertilizing, reaching out and back and around.

Eyre is a touch propagandistic about his home away from home; although Mali is the hot Afropop ticket right now, similar riches can be found in South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Congo. But he knows that big pictures usually comprise small details, he doesn’t flinch from inequities or inconsistencies and he never pretends to an objective authority he doesn’t have. As a result, he paints a picture so credible it could inspire a fella to visit Bamako himself. Anybody out there know how to work a favor bank?

Robert Christgau is the author of the collections "Grown Up All Wrong" and "Any Old Way You Choose It," and three books based on his Village Voice Consumer Guide columns. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a music critic for NPR's All Things Considered.

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