In Griot Time stands magnificently on its own as a sampler of Malian string music styles, but it works even better as a soundtrack. Don't look for the film at your neighborhood video store, though. The CD is the companion to the Temple University Press book In Griot Time, by author and radio producer Banning Eyre, who spent seven months in Mali studying the intricacies of Manding guitar music, which has roots curling back to the Thirteenth Century. While in Bamako Eyre stayed with the Super Rail Band's lead guitarist, Djelimady Tounkara, who, as the book progresses, achieves a strange kind of notoriety for a missed studio session that could well have made him a household name, at least in the homes of Cuban-music aficionados.
Tounkara is featured on several cuts, including the Rail Band's concert staple "Silande," which poses his microburst guitar solo against melodic rhythm-guitar figures derived from the kora harp motifs of griot praise singers. Praise singing, which chronicles the exaggerated attributes formerly of kings and now of wealthy patrons, is both the support and undoing of Manding musicians. The local economy can rarely keep a performer fed, and success abroad is a long shot. Only a few Malian performers, like Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Habib Koite, and Ali Farka Toure (each with a song apiece on this disc), have won an international following, so artists cleave to a few rich supporters. Tounkara had his chance to break away when he was invited to collaborate with Cuban musicians in a Havana session assembled by Ry Cooder. Because Tounkara's patron, Babani Sissoko, had just arrived in Bamako, Tounkara let the opportunity slide, and the Buena Vista Social Club took shape without him.
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"Silande," from 1986, marries Cuban song elements to local styles and is a compelling argument for the preservation of the classic Manding amplified sound. Other tracks grabbed on cassette recorder by Eyre point to a more diverse future. Lobi Traore is caught in concert, singing bluesy phrases through a spacey phasing device and playing demonic electric guitar into a Peter Frampton-esque voice box. It's a triumph of sheer excess in line with the flat-out passion that characterizes Malian music, personified here by Tounkara's niece Yayi Kanoute in a vocal performance crackling with neck-hair-bristling immediacy. Another highlight is Tounkara's duet with ngoni lute player Adama Tounkara, with whom Eyre also studied, and on "Lanaya" we hear the student jamming with members of the Rail Band. With two acoustic guitars blazing away, I can't say I can pick out Eyre. And that's certainly a tribute. In his book Eyre makes a convincing case for Mali as the most musically rich country in Africa. This intimately recorded disc makes good on his argument.