by Lisa Feder, Ph.D., Amir Shpilman, and Kerstin Wiehe
of Manding Grooves, s.a.s.u and KulturKontackte, e.V
On June 19, 2021, Sweden-based Manding griot filmmaker, Dani Kouyate encouraged
African-based griots to find innovative ways to communicate their talents in the global
environment. We believe our project helps answer that call. The time is ripe for musicians
from both European and African heritages to collaborate in mutual respect and a common
passion for musical innovation.
Opera Manding is a project that carves the path for Manding musicians from West Africa to collaborate and play with classically trained European and other global orchestras and ensembles. The project will be an intensive process between the Guinean Ensemble Instrumental (EIG) in Conakry and a Philharmonic Orchestra in Germany. In an 18 month process we will collaborate, compose, rehearse, and perform several new arrangements of traditional Manding pieces and some new pieces for a concert series based on elements of both cultural heritages. The finished project will enable future generations of European and African oral musicians to collaborate, using our blueprint for musical and social engagement.
Project In Brief
Within the 18-month timeframe, this project will produce several concerts, a musical score,
as well as written and audio-visual documentation of how to create a successful cross-cultural
collaboration around art between resource-rich and less-resource-rich cultures. In
doing so, Germany and Guinea will be setting a prime example at their national levels that
detail the hard work required to have truly fair collaboration. On the micro-level it will include
testimonies of humility, patience, self-cultural awareness, a willingness to misunderstand
and be misunderstood, to reformulate views. These are part and parcel of the path to
establish respect, confidence, and trust in one another’s cultures. We expect our projects’
end results—the score and process documentation—will be used for many years by
European and American orchestras interested in collaborating with African musicians. We
already have a list of orchestras who are eager to engage upon project completion. Opera
Manding will set the stage.
Griots of the Mandingo ethnicity (called jeli in their language) are classically-trained,
hereditary musicians and oral historians. They play the kora and the balafon, among other
instruments, and they use extemporized singing. The music is intrinsically linked to their
oral history which extends back to the Malian Empire of 1235 CE. In West Africa, griot music
served a vital role uniting and uplifting their multicultural society toward the highest values: generosity, courage, humbleness, patience, and more. Griots are called on to mediate all important events in society from weddings and baby-naming ceremonies to major political events. They transmit their music orally from generation to generation.
When West Africa decolonized in the 1960s, the newly formed governments sponsored the
best of their regional musicians to form their national music ensembles. Under former
President Ahmed Sékou Touré, this movement was called Authenticit , during which the
national Ensemble Instrumental de Guin e (EIG) was born. The ensemble is directed by
the griots and includes representations from the major ethnic groups of Guinea such as the
Fula (or Peul) and the Sousou peoples. Today, the EIG is directed by Griot Sékouba Kandia
Kouyaté and includes 20 male instrumentalists. The EIG also works directly with the all-female
Choral National de Guinée made of 20 female griot singers/dancers. See example of EIG here.
The instrumental compositions of the EIG are cross-rhythmic, complex and intellectually
challenging. The instruments include the balafon (xylophone), kora (lute), dundun (drum),
tambim (flute), ninyeroo (fiddle), tuni (horn), and others, and most play in one key, and span
about two octaves. Today they are tuned to a diachronic (7-note) scale, compatible with a
European ensemble. However, they differ from European instruments which have seven
octaves, several keys, and are tuned to a chromatic (12-note) scale. Mixing these cross-cultural instruments and possibly the choir into one symphony will be one of the challenges and joys of our collaborative process.
German symphony orchestra
The orchestra who has joined our project is both a classical symphony
orchestra as well as an innovative leader among German philharmonics (for which they won
the Innovative Orchestra award in 2019). Their multicultural members are open and
enthusiastic to work with unusual and transcultural projects that involve direct exchanges
and encounters between different cultures. This orchestra is at once anchored to the local
community in their region and interested in experimenting with different cultures and
musical genres including jazz as well as invested in working with world musicians. All 75 musicians of this philharmonic symphony will take an active part in the various activities. They include 6-10
musicians as "Ambassadors" in our workshops in Guinea and in Germany, and will
contribute their expertise as classical orchestra musicians to the creative process. the musicians
will make the full orchestra available for our composers 4-6 times throughout 2023-2024
to test out segments of the score while it is under construction. This generous extension
of the orchestra for tryouts and experimentations in addition to the insets rehearsal
period prior to the performance will ensure a high quality end result of the composition.
The Artistic Collaboration
There are several artistic justifications for this project. There is little cross-cultural
collaboration between the most prestigious, classically-trained musicians from Europe and
Africa and yet both sides come from a long history of talents, skills, and innovations from
their respective backgrounds. Griot music tends to use a diatonic scale (balafon or kora for
example) and musicians play cyclical cross-rhythmic, syncopated melodies. Contemporary
Western musicians use chromatic scales, chord progressions, and they experiment with
microtones. European music is composed linearly, while Mande music is cyclical. Both work
with tension and resolution but in ways that affect the mind and body differently.
Furthermore, Guineans learn music entirely through oral transmission while Western
classical musicians rely heavily on written notation. Griot music features telling oral histories
and the griots are responsible for political critique and mediation in their culture. Our
musicians will work very closely together, to exchange their different approaches, to
challenge one another, and to ultimately decide on how to combine their talents in a concert
that honors and uplifts both of their mutual talents.
Combining these musical powerhouses, the Guinean and the German orchestras is not only cutting
edge for the advancement of culture at large but is also a way to tackle the sensitive topic of power with
the utmost respect. In the musical realm, no one culture is more advanced than the other.
They are extremely different in style and instruments, and both are the top in their
fields.Therefore, it is a location where people of otherwise unequal power vis-a-vis the
global market, can establish equal (and equally challenging) working relationships. The
actors agreeing to collaborate have a history of cross-cultural respectful engagement
through music. The artistic content, as well as the socio-economic interactions, will be
handled with great care, transparency, and sensitivity by top professionals who are
experienced in pushing the envelope in their respective fields. The leaders of this project,
anthropologist Lisa Feder, composer Amir Shpilman, and founder of KULTURKONTAKTE
e.V., Kerstin Wiehe are among the strongest in their respective fields to facilitate this project.
The Urgency of this Project
For almost 800 years griot music has been supported by and performed for the elite and
noble classes in West Africa. Despite the major shifts that have occurred in Manding history
from the Malian Empire (1235 CE) to European colonization, to national independence, to
the formation of expatriate enclaves overseas, griots pride themselves on their adaptability,
which has ensured the continuity of their essential role in society. However, for the first time
they are concerned that the pressures of globalization are degrading the core of Manding
music to the point of no return.
The best Manding griot musicians have left home for Europe and the USA to earn a living.
Once abroad, many develop Afro-Jazz bands and play in bars and small music venues, but
they struggle to earn a living. They often fail to reach a wide European audience despite
their musical expertise due to extreme financial pressures and other difficulties in shifting
cultures. Subsequently, their children may shift to more popular genres such as hip-hop
and reggae, often leaving their cultural values behind. Others are finding new career paths.
Those musicians who remain in Guinea complain that there is no future left in Manding
music at home, and no one left to teach the children through apprenticeship, as the previous
generations have learned. This generation may experience a tremendous loss in cultural
knowledge. Simultaneously, griots are sure that going global is the only answer to their
cultural survival. They are caught in a conundrum (Feder 2021).
The Opera Manding project, if it is funded, comes just in time to create a strong and viable path for West African oral traditions to merge into the global arena on equal footing.
Lisa Feder, Amir Shpilman, Kerstin Wiehe, January 2022
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