Saturday, February 16, 2013


Music in Burkina Faso is a mix of many ethnic groups and languages. There are over 60 ethnic groups spread across the country, speaking Gur languages (related to the Mossi languages), Fulani, and Mande languages. Because of the large number of ethnic groups, they tend to use French as a lingua franca, and much of modern popular music is sung in French.

The kora is an instrument that has mostly been used by the djeli: a person who is a historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician, especially in West Africa. They’re sometimes called a griot (pronounced GREE-oh) and sometimes called bards. The kora originally had seven strings, but later it increased to twenty-one. In its construction, there are some variations of course; however, it tends to be shaped more like a banjo, but it sounds closer to a harp. It can almost be tuned to play major and minor scales that are key to Western music, as well as the Lydian modes (as in medieval music). By moving rings up and down the neck, it can change the “key”. I really like the sound of this instrument. I already own an mbira from Zimbabwe, now I want one of these next. 

Another stringed instrument that is common to this area is the n’goni. It’s able to produce fast-playing accompaniment or melody lines. Some historians believe this instrument may be an ancestor of the banjo, having been brought over by Mande people during the slave trade to North America. Another instrument that also may be related to the modern banjo is the xalam, a skin-covered lute. This guy in the video is playing the n'goni, and he's so amazing to listen to. I want one of these too. 

The balafon is especially popular in the Mande-speaking areas of Burkina Faso. The balafon is a wooden percussion instrument, similar to a xylophone or marimba, and can have 17- 21 keys that are played with rubber mallets (I wonder if there’s something special with the number 21 in West Africa?) It can either be fixed-key (attached to a frame using resonators from a calabash or other gourd) or free-key (the musician will place the keys on any padded surface). Depending on the musician’s cultural background, the balafon is either tuned to a tetratonic [consisting of four notes per octave], pentatonic [having five notes per octave, as if you played only the black keys on a piano – but not The Black Keys, who tend to use heptatonic scales], or heptatonic scales [the most common scales, having seven notes per octave, pretty much the basis of Western music]. This video also highlights the bara drum (in neighboring Mali, the bara is the same as the bendré drum listed below).

The djembe drum is made from a single piece of wood, usually from the caïlcedrat or lenke tree. The city of Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city, is the main city that manufactures djembe drums. The bendré drum is also played in Burkina Faso. It’s made from a gourd with a head of goat skin or sheep skin. The drummer creates different sounds by striking different areas of the drum head (the center vs. the outer edges).

There is a large museum called the National Museum of Music in the capital city of Ouagadougou. Opened in 1998, it has several hundred musical instruments on display in its collections. 

As far as popular music goes, there aren’t too many artists that have made it big even in the Pan-Africa world of music. One that comes to mind is reggae musician Bingui Jaa Jammy. He has a song on the Putumayo Presents African Reggae CD that I have (a great album, by the way!). I only kept coming up with the same few songs when I did a search, and I was disappointed I couldn’t find a CD. I’m a huge reggae fan, and I’ve been really into African reggae since I found that CD.

The other musician I came across is Hermas Zopoula, whose sound has more of an African pop sound mixed with some flavors of traditional instruments and styles. I found the album Espoir on Spotify, and it’s not bad. I kind of like it.

Dancing is highly integrated into Burkinabé theatre traditions. It’s mostly tied to spiritual rites and ceremonial dances. The dancer is dressed in costume, most likely of a specific spirit, and many times it depicts a story regarding that spirit or a particular event. Most of the times, people will just wear some aspect of traditional dress that is identified with their specific ethnic group. Some dances can be quite acrobatic and take a lot of physical dexterity and/or strength. Sometimes the dancers will affix rattles or metal shakers onto their ankles so that when they dance, it accompanies the dance and accentuates the percussive basis of their music.

Up next: the food!

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