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Issue: March 2013

By Alexander Clark Campbell

Canadian artist Jayme Stone and Malian griot Mansa Sissoko performed at the Bonhard Theater back in April 2010. The concert and album they were promoting was meant to spotlight what the banjo and the African instruments upon which it is based still have in common, as well as to point up other similarities in music and musical styles that exist between Appalachian and West African music, not to mention the mythologies.

The guitar, the banjo, the kora, the ngoni, the oud, the saz, the sarod, the sitar, the harp, the goge, the fiddle, the zither, the lute and the lyre have come full circle — like belly dance slithering on the ancient roads and rivers — these instruments of the roads and the rivers, all intertwining, are like an Ohrwurm — not just an 'earworm' you can't shake off, but an Ouroboros that gigantic, mythic serpent that that encircles and devours the everything the earth even, in the end (I guess it ran out of food) itself so that it is always depicted circularly, looping back on itself and devouring its own tail.

Besides the legendary instruments themselves, and the World Snake, there is another, accompanying iconic figure here — the musician playing them (and traveling the world, playing them). Said musician is generally made out to be a man the World Serpent, the Ouroboros, is usually identified as an 'Earth Mother,' so I guess the men need equal time somewhere he appears in different forms, in different cultures, but among them is the classic, lone figure of a man with a guitar.

The man-with-instrument is musician, poet, social satirist, scholar, entertainer, comedian and jester; historian, traveler, romantic, teacher, minister then, too (a bit more sinisterly, perhaps?), a revolutionary adventurer, enigma — and (leave us not forget, however much it might seem to contradict the rest of the list) — scoundrel, wastrel, profligate, hedonist, vagrant — rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief.

Legend has it that Hermes invented the lyre out of a tortoise shell and cow-hide (stolen) from Apollo's sacred herd. Bluesmen in our very own American Southland not so long ago are said even by themselves, in some cases to have stood at the crossroads, supposedly selling their souls to the devil in exchange for their mesmerizing talent. Herms (ancient mini-obelisks to that patron of poets and thieves) also stood at the crossroads, marking the gateway to Hades. Perhaps they did serve as some sort of protection for travelers on the way to the Underworld — since Hermes was both the guide of overland travel and the guide of souls to the Underworld.

The god Apollo was considered in charge of your more high-tone music and art. There is that interesting myth that he overstepped the boundaries set by the even Higher-Up On High, by resurrecting a dead guy and in punishment had to spend a year herding the cattle of Admetus temporarily demoted, in other words, to Hermes' level.

So, perhaps Jayme and Masna (or some other musical musicologist) might do an album relating the fiddle to its West African counterpart, the goge. And why stop there? — make an album of the classical-sounding melodies of the Kora, and tie it to European classical music (or Persian or Indian classical sounds, for that matter). Here is another album idea for you — the Sundiata set to griot music. You could also do that with flamenco — since Black Africans were a common sight in Southern Spain by the 1700's. (However, Toumani already did that, with Danny Thompson and the flamenco group Ketama, composed of two brothers, Antonio and Juan Miguel Carmona, and a cousin, Juan Carmona, on the album 'Songhai.')

Alright, enough of that.

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