Glad you asked. The obsession began around eight years ago when I strolled into the Hampshire College library one evening, as was my wont, after a somewhat reverse circle-jerk-like Philosophy of Time class, and Alice-in-wonderlandly fell into the music section: hundreds of CDs, and most of them really fucking weird. Like, I’m talking Karlheinz Stockhausen kind of excellent weird: there wast discovert Steve Reich, Sergei Prokofiev, Balian jegogs, and, at last, les griots du Mali.
The gateway drug into this most excellent musical tradition was The Festival In The Desert, where I not only found Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocoum, Tinariwen, and Super Onze, but found them at their best. That, in turn, led me on to all kinds of other weird names you can use at any convenient time to out-hipster even the raddest and most widely-listened acquaintances: Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, Ballake Sissoko, and Afrocubism, which somewhat projectile-orgasmically unites many of these artists onto one single stage.
But why do I even like these guys? Why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? This music works for me, other music works for others, but I also found it cool that a lot of this stuff is like classical for the Malians: griots are the rough equivalent of wandering minstrels, skipping along the great bend of the Niger Delta, singing about the djinns and kings of Mali’s glorious past: Mansa Musa, who had so much gold he made gold worthless; Sunjata, the lion king, and others. And so these songs, which to me sound like what Martin Scorcese calls “the DNA of the Blues”, the roots of rock and roll and everything good that makes your feet tap, is like Beethoven to them: except Beethoven lived over seven centuries ago and didn’t write any of his music down, requiring instead that each generation of griot teach their children how to play the symphonies, with generation after generation adding their own genius to the mix. Thus!, there’s really something to Socrates’ dismissal of writing, because in Mali the classical tradition isn’t just alive and well—it’s life itself—while Beethoven and Bach and Mozart are frozen museum pieces, delightful but unevolving, mothballed and cotton-haired.
Just imagine how different life would be if some virtuoso cellist improvised on Bach’s Cello Suites, or if some great pianist pounded his soul into the black-and-white bars of Gershwin’s rhapsodies, rather than mechanically obeying the sheet music—as all those greats once did! The three B’s, Gershwin, Mozart, all of them improvised, but people don’t improvise so much anymore when they play their music, so the music is dead. In Mali, however, the rhythm of the ancients—that food of love—plays on.