Transmitting the Balafon in Mande Culture: Performing Africa at Home and Abroad

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Williams, Joe Luther
Robertson, Carolina
This dissertation examines the role of balafon performances in the transmission of Mande traditional knowledge about music and culture and how this process affects the formation of identity. My study focuses specifically on the Susu and Malinké peoples of Guinea, two ethnic subgroups of the Mande of West Africa. The Mande balafon is a heptatonic traditional xylophone. Its origins are traceable to the Sosso Bala, an instrument believed to date back to the founding of the thirteenth-century Mande Empire of Mali. The Sosso Bala is still preserved in Guinea as a national treasure and symbol of the unity of the Mande peoples. Mande balafons are played by members of the <em>jeli</em> caste of hereditary musicians and oral historians, who have traditionally passed down knowledge of musical and cultural heritage among the Mande. Today, balafon performance is an important aspect of identity formation among the Mande, both in Africa and in the diaspora. Drawing upon African philosophy and performance studies, I examine how Mande <em>jeli</em> performance serves as a context for the creation of a contemporary African identity that balances the twin obligations of preservation of cultural heritage and maintenance of individual subjectivity. I also address issues of interconnectedness in African artistic performance and how they are reflected in the rhythmic structure of Mande music. Transcriptions of selected pieces from the <em>jeli</em> repertoire contribute to my analysis of how key elements of Mande society are revealed through their music. Fieldwork I conducted in Guinea informs my research into the historical origins of the Mande balafon and the shift in emphasis on development of the instrument from the rural Mande heartland to Guinea's urban capital, Conakry. My field work in the United States focuses on the work of my teacher Abou Sylla and his preservation and dissemination of Mande musical culture through inherently African, interactive teaching methods. I also examine how Abou, by taking his students with him to Guinea, facilitates a cultural tourism experience that serves as a context for the transmission of identity from himself to his students, reinforcing a type of community he is building through his workshops.