Bards of West Africa: The Griot Summit from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

The Summer Solstice brought a plethora of free performances in and around NYC, and the one I opted for was the Griot Summit at the Wave Hill Gardens overlooking the Hudson, in the Bronx. Who could resist getting away from the burning pavements of the city to saunter through bucolic splendor while listening to masters of the griot tradition?

For those of you who are not familiar with the term “griot” (or jali, or jeli, depending on where the griot is from) a quick explanation: the griot is the repository of the history of his or her people, knowing geneologies and major epic songs by heart. Descended through the family line, the griot is not just a musician, but a living library, an advisor, and sometimes, a gadfly. Understanding the function of the griot is a great way to gain insight into the culture of West Africa. But I have started my video with a good description, straight from the horse’s mouth, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

The day started out with the various musicians scattered around the grounds, so that you could catch solos and larger groups as they performed in lushly green walkways, formal gardens and woodland areas. Then they all gathered for a massive display on the main stage, to get everyone riveted, then up and moving. Personally, I was entranced and dazzled by the regal appearance of the griots. I guess I’m just a sucker for African Formal Wear; all those robes, headdresses and intense colors and bright white against dark skin knocks me out. I was also struck by the obvious musical links between what these musicians were conveying in its purest form, and the roots of our own American music, the glissandos, time signatures, the improvisations…it was all there to hear and mark as building blocks of the blues.

All in all it was an amazing gathering, and it was a tribute to Sylvain Leroux the curator, Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds, and the musicians, that it all came together so wonderfully well. After all, you can’t just assume that Jalis from Guinea are going to play well with Jalis from Burkina Fasso or Mali. But they certainly did here!

The day was hot, and this was shooting on the fly– no way to deal with the light, the sound, the terrain, so I will beg your pardon for the occasional visual burn, bumpy camera work, and some audio distortion.

The participating musicians were:
Abdoulaye Diabate (Mali), Toumany Diabate (USA), Tapani Sissoko and her mother (Mali), Yacouba Sissoko (Mali), Mamady Kouyate (Guinea), Makane Kouyate (Mali), Ismael Diarra (Burkina Faso), Abdourahmane Mangara (Gambia), Aissatou Kouyate (Mali), Famoro Dioubate (Guinea), Andy Algire (USA), Sam Dickey (USA), Bailo Bah (Guinea), Ibrahima Soumano (Guinea), Mmah Doumbouya (Guinea), Ayiba Doumbouya (Guinea), Bebe Camara (Guinea), Nagna Diabate (Guinea), Hasan Bakr (USA), Zoumana Diabate (Mali), Moussa Diabate (Mali), Anette Lipson (USA), Kewulay Kamara (Sierra Leone), Lankandia Cissoko (Senegal), Yacouba Diabate (Burkina Faso), Sylvain Leroux (Canada).

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