Monday, May 4, 2009

Dog song from old Mali, all on my own

Funny the things we remember about ourselves.

I remember as an undergraduare philosophy student undertaking an original reading of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The professor didn't think I contributed anything to the understanding of Wittgenstein, but he gave me a good grade anyway.

"I like how you were just willing to take this thing on, on your own," he said.

I think that's the way to go. I try not to be awed by difficult works or the classics, I just try to take them on, on my own.

In this spirit, I suppose, I tried to set to music a passage from Son-Jara (or Sundiata). This is exactly like trying to score part of The Iliad or The Odyssey or The Bible - taking on a classic epic, all on my own - except this is a West African epic from the ancient empire of Mali, more than 750 years old.

Actually, it takes if anything more cheek to try to score Son-Jara, because unlike the ancient Greek epics, where the bardic elements (the melodies and song structures) have disappeared, Son-Jara remains a living, breathing epic tradition. I used to run around with a young jali named Sankung Susso, and like any jali worth his salt Sankung could sit down with his kora and sing the entire damn epic.

But I wanted to take this thing on, on my own, so I just sat down with my guitar one day and scrapped together a song in my own quirky folk idiom. I tackled just one minor episode from the epic, a weird little dog story. An online study guide offers a pretty good synopsis of what goes down here:

He and Tuman each sacrifice dogs to try to win the favor of the gods. Son-Jara's dog = "Tomorrow's Affair". Dankaran Tuman's dog = "Younger Leave Me Be". These dogs exemplify their different philosophies. Son-Jara is very patient; Dankara Tuman is only concerned about the moment. Son-Jara's quality is that of a superior leader. As a result of the sacrifice, Dankaran Tuman gains the upper hand and Son-Jara is exiled. The beginning of a hero quest - he must make his name in a far away land. This expresses one of the main themes of the poem: "what sitting will not solve,travel will resolve".
I freely adapted John William Johnson's translation of a text of the poem performed by Jeli Fa-Digi Sisoko. As I type out that name, it occurs to me that Sankung and I know this jali's family. When I used to run with Sankung, he was staying at the home of Fred Onovwersuoke with a Mandinke fire eater and drummer named Sisoko.

Johnson's edition of Son-Jara is in print and well worth possessing. It is based on Sisoko's performance on March 9, 1968 in the town of Kita in modern Mali. The performance lasted four hours! My song, performed with Heidi Dean and Tim McAvin, is more like three minutes.

Free mp3

"Dog song from old Mali"
(Trad., Chris King)
Three Fried Men

Listen for the bit about pulling out the dog's teeth with pliers. I was listening to this song on Sunday morning while driving my six-year-old daughter to Sunday school. She asked what were pliers, and I described them. She immediately asked if the next time she had a tooth that was "wobbly" if I would pull it out with pliers!


Charlotte Hess' photo of people and a dog on a street in Bamako (Mali) is from the Digital Library of the Commons Image Collection.

No comments: