Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The British Library’s ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song‘ (ends 18 February), is an engrossing and rewarding introduction to this vast region of 340 million people, 1,000 languages and 17 nations. Despite loving the music of Fela Kuti, Toumani Diabate, and Ali Fark Toure et al, markontour had hitherto failed to understand the regional and cultural connecting lines between these great artists. This exhibition shows how their homelands of Nigeria and Mali, along with their other west African neighbours, are culturally united by a shared love of story-telling, of which these great artists are simply modern expressions.

It was through Toumani Diabate, for example, that markontour was introduced to the delicate, heavenly sound of the kora, a banjo-like instrument which the British Library explains originated in West African and for seven hundred years has been used by Griots (storytellers, both male and female), to accompany their performances.

Drumming is also used to tell stories. Indeed the exhibition has on a display a fascinating dictionary of drumming, translating beats into multiple West African languages and English.

The tale that has dominated the output of many Griots, whether using kora or drums, or just voice, is the epic tale of Sunjata, founder of the 13th century Malian empire. Demonstrating that stortellying pervades all art forms in West African, this hero’s escapades also make it into the vibrant, patterned cloths that epitomise West African dress.

The farbics on display are stunning, but there aren’t many, and so markontour also managed to fit in a return trip to the Africa Room (25) at the British Museum, which provides a little more detail on how fabric designs are used to convey cultural, political and status messages.

From proud feudal African empires, the exhibition inevitably moves to the devestating period of European imperialism and slavery. West Africans such as Touisaant L’Overture, who were captured and shipped to the West Indies and Americas to toil in chains on sugar and tobacco plantations, gain deserved prominence for leading rebellions against their oppressors. This includes Queen Nanny of the Maroons, who was said to be able to deflect British bullets with her ample backside.

Inevitably, markontour spent a good chunk of his time at the exhibition in the Fela Kuti shrine, enjoying the strident album covers and reading the protest letters of this great activist-singer, who managed to combine genre-defining music with defiant socialism. His typed letter to General Babangida, railing against the impact of the Structural Adjustment Programme on Nigeria, seems incredibly relevant still.

It is music, however, that dominates this show and from Fela we move to Ali Fark Toure, who adapted West African lute techniques to the American electric guitar, being influenced by legendary Mississipian bluesman, John Lee Hooker, to produce some of the most wonderful blues ever to recorded.

‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ providers a wonderful taster to an extraordinary region and culture, but ultimately it leaves you wanting more, namely a reason to visit Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and the rest at first hand..


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