Ingrid Monson, a Harvard jazz scholar and ethnomusicologist with the lofty title of Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music, owns a collection of balafons — the West African instrument that looks like an oversized, rustic xylophone, with gourds fixed under the wooden keys to supply resonance. They come from her research trips to Mali, where the balafon has a long history as a traditional music mainstay.
Her choice of balafon, however, is one that jelis, or griots — the hereditary musician caste closely associated with Malian tradition — do not favor. Their balafon, the one of the great medieval Mande empire and its heirs, is built on a heptatonic (7-note) scale. Monson’s are of the humble pentatonic (5-note) variety, a country cousin long scorned in Mali’s cultural elite.
That has changed now — thanks in large part to Neba Solo, a player who has brought respect to the rural balafon of his Senufo ethnic group, and also innovated, building balafons with added keys for bass parts and inventing new tunings to interact with a host of modern instruments.
Solo is a singer as well, unusual for a balafon player. His group, with his brother playing a treble balafon beside him, plus percussionists and dancers, is perfectly poised at the proverbial intersection of tradition and modernity. It makes sense deep in the Senufo countryside with its villages of mud huts and age-old ritual life, and also in the concert halls or at society weddings in Bamako, the fast-growing national capital.
Solo, 43, born Souleymane Traoré (Neba is the name of his village), has earned national medals in Mali, but is little known outside the region. His albums are locally released and hard to find. He has played in the US before — including a visit to Harvard in 2006 — but with a plethora of Malian superstars on the world-music circuit (Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté to name a few), Solo and others remain obscure.
“Mali is a place that is full of people like him!” says Monson. “But for want of management, or business sensibility, they aren’t heard on the major world stage.”
On Monday, Solo, accompanied by his brother and a percussionist, gives a rare concert at Harvard’s Radcliffe Gymnasium. Preceding it is a talk by Monson, who has worked with Solo for many years. She studied balafon with him for six months in 2005, in the provincial town of Sikasso where he lives, and accompanied the band as they played all over Mali. Her balafons are all his hand-crafted creations.
They have also done many hours of interviews — about Solo’s career, Senufo culture, the balafon, and more, all leading to a book that Monson is now completing, and that she will preview in her talk.
“It’s partly about the music,” Monson says, “and partly about what it means to be a rural Malian with no education, and become a person who modernizes a tradition.”
On the phone from Sikasso, Solo says working with Monson — who basically turned up in his world out of the blue a decade ago — has been a galvanizing experience.
“When I see someone who takes the trouble to come from so far away to conduct research on our music, it encourages me in my own work,” Solo says. “Especially when you speak about Harvard, and its reputation. It gives me strength to continue.”
“And it has brought me a lot of knowledge as well,” he adds. A trumpet player and scholar of jazz and other genres in their social context, Monson was no ordinary student. “She came to learn balafon and research Senufo music and Senufo life itself,” Solo says. “To understand the balafon and its place in daily life.”
That place is, in a word, central. “The balafon is always there,” Solo says. “It’s at baptisms, it’s at weddings.” A folk instrument at root, it appears at any Senufo festivity. “Village playing is not like a formal concert,” Solo says. “In the village people dance any way they want. You can change things around, it’s always a party.”
As modern Malian music took shape after independence, influenced by jazz, rumba, and rock, it took time for the balafon and other traditional instruments like the kora and ngoni to be readmitted to urbane respectability — with the pentatonic balafon at an added disadvantage.
Indeed, Solo credits his own inspiration to a reggae epiphany — the time in his late teens when he heard Alpha Blondy’s song “Jerusalem,” and wondered why the balafon couldn’t play a similar bass line.
“I asked my father for permission to make a new balafon, tuned the way I wanted,” Solo says. “But with respect for the balafon, because we can’t let go of what we’ve achieved already.” Permission was granted, and the rest is history — or will be, so long as recordings circulate and projects like Monson’s help document the work.
Today, Malian artists face new problems as the country is in crisis, recovering from a coup while its northern half is occupied by violent Salafi groups that deem music, and much else, impure. The Senufo region is away from the war zone, but the volatile situation affects everyone. As Solo says: “The elephant is big, but if he hurts his foot, his whole body feels pain.”
For Monson, who had to cancel a trip to Mali last summer due to the conflict, watching this crisis unfold, and seeing her friend weather it, offers bittersweet insight.
“As an ethnomusicologist you go and do the work, the place looks peaceful and wonderful, and then it falls like a house of cards,” she says. “But here’s this person on e-mail, teaching himself GarageBand . . . all these parts of modernity are there too.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.