The three members of Malian group Trio Da Kali aren’t just powerful, versatile musicians. They’re also branches on the ancient family tree of the West African keepers of tradition and memory, called griots.
Just how does one become a griot? “It’s in the blood,” trio musical director Fodé Lassana Diabaté said, speaking via phone through a translator. “One can learn to be an artist, but one must be born a griot.”
Trio Da Kali will make its Boston debut at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in the South End on Tuesday, performing traditional Malian music and original compositions. The trio came to international attention with “Ladilikan,” last year’s collaborative album with Kronos Quartet that Bandcamp called “a natural blending of musically disparate, but emotionally potent, forces.”
The trio is composed of Lassana playing the 22-key balafon, a West African xylophone; singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté (no relation); and Mamadou Kouyaté, who plays the nimble string instrument called the ngoni. Lassana said that he had played music with the parents of the other trio members, and they had known each other “like a family” prior to the trio’s formation. However, they had not played as a formal group until Kronos Quartet collaborated with them, introduced by ethnomusicologist Lucy Durán.
Lassana explained that “Da Kali” means a promise or a pledge, and through their music, the trio members are keeping a promise to their heritage. All three come from the Mandé culture of southern Mali. Like most Malians, the musicians are Muslims, but according to Lassana, the griot tradition dates from “before religion.”
And so the subject matter of the songs on “Ladilikan” is broad, showing the roles griots play in their communities. It’s a griot’s job to know everyone’s business, he said. They can intervene in social situations such as politics and family affairs. “The role is to keep the peace, to bring joy, and to continue the tradition. The griots are there to assist in milestones. Say, someone dies or someone gets married.”
To “Ladilikan,” the trio brought a love song, a bittersweet wedding song, a joyous teasing song between in-laws, and a story song from the Epic of Sundiata, which tells of the life of the ancient Mali empire’s founding warrior-king. The album also includes an arrangement of the Mahalia Jackson song “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away,” which germinated when Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington observed Hawa’s physical and vocal resemblance to the gospel singer.
“I mentioned that, and the next thing I know, we’re all listening to Mahalia Jackson and Hawa is holding an LP with Mahalia Jackson’s picture on the cover,” Harrington recounted by phone. “[Hawa] said, in her language, ‘She’s my auntie!’ And she’d never heard Mahalia before.”
The album’s title track means “advice,” and it is based on another Jackson song, “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About In My Song,” which denounces hypocrisy. “The words of advice that we sing in our songs, let us put them into practice!” Hawa sings. Where Jackson swears not to get drunk Monday after going to church on Sunday, Trio Da Kali’s take delivers the rebuke, “You can’t pray on Friday, then go out on Saturday and chop off limbs and murder little children.”
This ominous line references the past few years’ proliferation of Islamist extremist activity in Mali. In 2013, Robin Denselow of the Guardian reported that music had been “banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali” that were then under the control of extremist groups. Most of that territory was in the northern part of the country, but Kouyaté’s father, the storied ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté, told Denselow that in the southern capital, Bamako, clubs were closed, public concerts were canceled, and few weddings took place.
Lassana said that marriage celebrations and music now fill the streets of Bamako each Sunday, but tourism to the region is still sparse. He was disappointed that two friends from overseas who had recently planned to visit him in Bamako canceled because they were scared to visit, and he expressed his frustration with the “fear-based” angle he perceived in press about the country. “The Islamists want to create fear, and we’re just giving into their fear if we keep depicting Mali as a scary, dangerous place,” he said. “They don’t want joy. They want the world to be sad.”
Trio Da Kali
With Balla Kouyate and Nathaniel Braddock. Presented by People of Rhythm Productions. At Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, 85 Newton St., Boston, April 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20, www.eventbrite.comZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.