By Rebecca Philip ’19
As my Dartmouth career nears its final terms, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to fill my fall schedule with experiences that I’d never find elsewhere. One such experience was The Language-Music Connection, a class taught by Professor Laura McPherson, Professor Ted Levin and Mamadou Diabate, balafon master. Through weekly lessons with Mamadou, we learned about the tradition of the balafon, a xylophone-like instrument that is native to Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. The fact that the tones played on the balafon can be used to represent words, and thus allow the artist to speak to their listeners, adds layers of complexity to the art. Mamadou taught us a few phrases in Sambla, the language that provides the framework for balafon speech, and showed us the relationship between the intonation of the language and the musicality of the instrument.
As you can imagine, students in this class had no experience with this musical tradition. In fact, this class was the first instance of the balafon tradition and Sambla being taught in a college setting. Mamadou was incredibly patient and encouraging as students initially stumbled over Sambla and balafon phrases, constantly reminding us to keep trying to improve. He was happy to see students who replicated phrases perfectly, but he was just as enthusiastic when students pushed through their struggles to make a solid effort. He always emphasized the importance of understanding the language, both spoken and played, over the ability to perfectly construct a musical phrase on the balafon. He made us comfortable with his jokes and infectious smile. He was always approachable, supportive, and personable, patiently guiding about thirty beginners through basic lessons in a musical tradition he is renowned for.
The first week that he gave us an evaluation, Mamadou told us that we would each have to play certain greeting phrases on the balafon in front of the entire class. There was no sheet music, no dictionary of phrases — just our own skills of recall and muscle memory. For many students with varying musical experience, linguistic backgrounds, and points of entry to this tradition, this task seemed doomed for failure. I remember nervously whispering to other students, asking if their memory was as bad as mine (theirs were, which was comforting). However, through short anecdotes and motivational speeches, Mamadou reminded us that if we’re afraid, we can’t do much. He wanted to see us try, even if a musical disaster was imminent. Eventually, we became competent in the tasks he expected of us. But by our last week in the balafon lab with Mamadou, we had yet to see him play the balafon outside of teaching us phrases and short songs.
When Mamadou & Percussion Mania took the stage on November 7 in Spaulding Auditorium, the entire performance was captivating, from the blurring speed of Mamadou’s mallets to the sentimental, heartwarming subjects of his compositions, such as one piece written for our mothers. The performance also closely approximated what I had learned about Mamadou’s personality and values. He joked with the audience, daring them to understand Sambla phrases on the balafon, teasing our habits of sitting still during concerts, and mischievously eliciting more audience participation by playfully pretending that the audience seemed uninterested in the group’s performances. Through my interactions with Mamadou in class, I saw that he values encouraging young people. This was clear on stage as well through his interactions with two Dartmouth student musicians he invited on stage. He gave them an outlet to put their heart into the music, eventually inviting Noah, a Dartmouth undergraduate and talented saxophonist, to an energetic improvisational battle. He continually expected the audience to engage with the culture and music that he and his fellow artists embodied on stage. As he ended the concert, he celebrated the idea that there is Sambla in Burkina Faso, and now, there is a little Sambla in Hanover, New Hampshire through each and every individual in the audience. I’m sure Mamadou will be happy to know that we’ll all take a little bit of Sambla wherever we go from here.
Rebecca ’19 is a Music and Neuroscience double major from New York. After graduation, she plans to attend medical school and continue her involvement with music in any way she can.