Music resident Mamadou Diabate connects language to music

by Mia Nelson | 11/2/18 2:00am

West African musician and music department resident Mamadou Diabaté tells the students in his Music 17.06 course “The Language-Music Connection” the origin story of the balafon, which is a wooden West African instrument similar to a xylophone. Diabaté said that the balafon was not created, but rather gifted. Legend has it that a man walked up to a bush and began conferring with spirits, who then gave the man the balafon and taught him how to play. Each time Diabaté plays the balafon, he commences with a few notes in homage to the ancestors and spirits who allow for his knowledge of the instrument. Music is integrally tied to the myth-history and cultural heritage of the Sambla people, a small West African grouping in Burkina Faso that is in possession of an endangered language and of which Diabaté is a member.

The Sambla language is an entirely oral tradition, wherein notes played on the balafon are actually words — the language is inexorably linked to the instrument. Linguistics professor Laura McPherson, who co-teaches the course with Diabaté, has spent five years attempting to create a dictionary and grammatical understanding of Sambla before the language disappears entirely. Because Sambla is a completely oral tradition, McPherson said her work would be the first grammatical dictionary of the language. Through her research, she also encountered the musical tradition of the balafon.

“The language is also the music,” she said, “A series of notes on the balafon can be equivocated to a word.”

A cross-listed course between the linguistic and music departments was natural, as McPherson said, “music and language is inseparable.” The class huddles around five huge balafons and plays notes while Diabaté calls out sambla words. They are learning a language by learning how to play an instrument.

Gabriel Zuckerberg ’20 said that this is the perfect class for him, as he is seeking majors in linguistics, neuroscience and music. Beyond his confluence of interests inherent in the class, Zuckerberg said he appreciates that the class is hands-on and activity based.

“Any musical tradition deserves to be understood in a human way,” he said.

Zuckerberg and his classmates have a palpable eagerness to engage with Diabaté –– many even came early to class to play on the balafon. Diabaté said that he is “happy the students ... want to understand, they want to learn.”

The musical tradition of the Sambla people is a relatively unknown subject in the United States. Diabaté said that this class is the first time Sambla music has been taught in an American university. Diabaté, who said he appreciates Dartmouth’s interest in the music and is eager to engage even more with the music department on campus, added that he was proud that he will not only perform at the College but also teach a class. According to Diabate, a general trend in American universities is that “music from Africa can come and perform, but not teach.”

Diabaté’s class adds diversity to the music offerings at Dartmouth. Zuckerberg, who is pursuing his own research with the Stamps Scholars Program preserving the liturgical and folk history of a disappearing and ancient Balkan Jewish community, said he believes that diversity in musical teaching is integral.

“Working with [Diabaté] and the other guests the class brings in helps us break down any thought we have of music having universals,” he said.

Through this active engagement with a tradition not in the western canon, Zuckerberg believes the class is learning that “music and language are beautifully diverse.” Zuckerberg also praised the class for allowing students to actually play Sambla instruments.

“Music teaching in the West says we can learn other musical cultures without actively experiencing their music in person and developing an intuition,” he said.

McPherson said that music and language are closely linked in many cultures, and that both use pitch and rhythm; however, Sambla is the “perfect case study to show how tightly [music and language] can be connected.” McPherson hopes that in exposing a group of students to the balafon, the Sambla language can be preserved.

“It’s like safekeeping it,” McPherson said.

Those in the Dartmouth community eager to learn more about the connection between the Sambla language and the balafon, as well as experience West African musical traditions, may come to Spaulding Auditorium on Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. Diabaté will be playing a plethora of percussion instruments along with his band Percussion Mania.