Mali has musical heritage extending back centuries, and a vibrant contemporary music culture that bubbles up all over. There's American-inflected hip-hop. There's a grand tradition of Afro-Cuban dance music. Griots, also known as djelis, maintain a repertory of epic histories and praise songs. There's exuberant drumming, with dense polyrhythmic layers. Benyoro is a hybrid American-Malian band steeped in West African traditions but also willing to play with them, respectfully, a little. The group plays a free show at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas on the green in New Haven on Friday, June 20, at 6 p.m. The band's guitarist and ngoni player Sam Dickey spoke to CTNow about Benyoro and the group's self-titled debut, due out in early July.
Dickey, 25, just completed his masters in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan in Middletown. (When we spoke he was riding the Metro North back to Connecticut to retrieve his car before returning to Brooklyn, where he lives.) American musicians have long been fascinated by the music of West Africa, and much has been written about the West African roots of the blues and jazz. (The ngoni is considered to be something of a distant relative of the banjo.) Dickey's connection to the region goes back to childhood. He lived in Burkina Faso, which borders Mali to the southeast, for two years starting when he was four. Dickey's father was in the Peace Corps, and so he was exposed to the music and culture of the region. Upon returning to the U.S., Dickey's family routinely hosted West Africans. But as a young guitarist Dickey first gravitated toward jazz, attending Berklee College of Music. At Wesleyan he wrote his thesis on regional guitar styles and variations in West African music.
"I didn't go straight to playing West African music, but there was a lot of it around [growing up]," says Dickey. Eventually he started picking up some of the riffs and repertory. "I was trying to learn it off records for a long time."
In many areas of Africa, contemporary music has been inspired in part by lines and songs from traditional instruments that get transposed onto the guitar. This can make for layered interwoven and complex patterns, thick with polyrhythms. In Mali, music for instruments like the kora, a 21-string harp, or the ngoni (a lute), or the balafon (a wooden xylophone) sometimes get converted into meshed cascading guitar lines. The immense popularity of Afro-Cuban dance music in the '50s also shaped the sound of pop music all over Africa, and Mali has had some of the continent's best bands. Dickey, as a musician and a scholar, has soaked up these cross-currents.
Following a family visit to Burkina Faso at the end of 2009, Dickey made up his mind to head north to Mali after the trip. "I really wanted to go to Mali, because that's where a lot of amazing music comes from."
He stayed for seven months. Studying music and performing, taking lessons on ngoni and guitar from master players. "I met a lot of guys who I'd heard on records there," says Dickey. "I got to play with [kora giant] Toumani Diabate's band, which was amazing."
The band Benyoro took shape when Dickey was back in New York. (The name means "meeting place" in Mali's Bamana language.) In addition to Dickey's ngoni and guitar playing, Benyoro also features kora, bass and a lot of drums, with a kit drummer, someone playing the percolating accents of talking drums (taman), and another percussionist on djembe (a crisp-sounding goblet-shaped hand drum), krin (log drum), shakers and other instruments. This is music filled with cross-hatched syncopations over which the glassy lines of guitar and kora billow and intersect. The cyclical accompaniment string patterns are both funky and hypnotic. Listen for the tasteful openings that each player finds to interject energetic solo flourishes. If you're looking for monolithic power chords or relentless shredding, look elsewhere.
While thoroughly steeped in Malian music, Dickey also contributed a few original tunes to the forthcoming record. With a vast and rich traditional repertoire to draw from, the idea of adding original compositions required a leap of faith, and sense of confidence. Dickey says some of his Malian teachers encouraged him to bring his own American style to the music, to not stay resolutely bound to West African material and techniques.
"It's a tricky issue because composition in this tradition — the whole of composition as we conceive of it, doesn't really exist , or at least not in the same way," says Dickey. "It's more a process of re-arranging traditional pieces. … I've delved deep into the traditional repertoire and there's still a lot to delve into, but I'm also a composer. I came up as a jazz player. I wanted to challenge myself to try to write something that could be in that style. Or in some cases using that tradition and stretching a little."
Dickey says he thinks in the future other members of the band will contribute original compositions similarly steeped in the tradition.
"I'm trying to really do my homework and show my respect to the style," says Dickey. "At the same time I feel like if I've put in all my work, then I'm almost obligated to put my own spin on it."
BENYORO plays the International Festival of Arts and Ideas on Friday, June 20, at 6 p.m. in New Haven on the green at the Elm Street stage. Free. For more information go to artidea.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now