Tuesday, July 7, 2009

'Long forgotten words or ancient melodies..'

Salieu Suso is from The Gambia in Western Africa and has been playing the Kora, a traditional stringed instrument, since he was eight years old. He has an established reputation as a Griot or djeli - poet or storyteller - and has been an official MUNY artist since 2007.

As I came up to speak with him, he was talking to a guy called David, a guitar player who, coincidentally, had just finished his PhD on African music. "I've written about you, and I've never met you until now," David told him, with obvious excitement.

David told me that Gambian music and musicians started showing up in New York in the 1990s and that there is now a thriving African music scene that brings them together.

I bought Salieu's CD 'The Source of Goodness' and watched him play for a while. I'd never seen a Kora in the flesh before, although I'd heard it on albums by Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

Salieu gave out a flyer with the CD, where he writes about his 21-string instrument - the strings used to be made of braided antelope hide - and I'll just quote from it here, since it's a pretty good description:

"The Kora is made from half a gourd or calabash with a hardwood post that runs through it to which the 21 and anchor strings are attached to the playing strings to an iron ring bored through the base of the Kora's hardwood neck. The calabash is covered with a cowhide that is stretched over the open side of the half calabash, and then left in the sun to dry tight and hold the hand posts in place."

The soundhole was where the royalty and other audience members would put their coins when they were pleased by a performance.

There's a video here of Salieu talking about and playing the instrument.

I noticed it was amplified, using I guess, a guitar-type pickup inside, and it made me think of how inter-connected ethnic stringed instruments are, regardless of where they emerged; for example the Celtic harp, and then the connection to the Bouzouki that traditional Irish musicians like Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny have made in recent years.


I was meeting some friends for lunch in midtown today, so I played at 53rd and Lex on the uptown 6 line. I found a nice spot, the acoustics were perfect and the people were very good-natured. One guy asked me in great detail about the capo I was using, and another guitar player who was done for the day told me the "downtown platform's better, man.."

Someone else asked if I gave lessons, and still another person dropped a lucky clover charm in the case along with some coins. I had a really good time there. I played for about an hour and three-quarters straight and at the end there was $8.72 in the case.

That brings our running total over $50 - $50.89 to be exact, which means that I'm finally ahead of the the cost of my Metrocard! Also this week, I learned that I've passed 1,000 visitors, and - encouragingly - the average time that people are spending on this blog is just under seven minutes.

This is great because if you assume that returning visitors are only reading the latest post, then people who are coming for the first time are reading a lot of pages. Or watching a lot of video. Either way, I'm very grateful for the support and happy you're here.

Today's Songlist:

Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
The Rising - Bruce Springsteen
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Barricades Of Heaven - Jackson Browne
Every Breath You Take - The Police
May You Never - John Martyn
You're The One That I Want - The Beautiful South
Life In Technicolor - Coldplay
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Tonight Will Be Fine - Teddy Thompson
Crazy Love - Van Morrison
The Ties That Bind - Bruce Springsteen
The White Hare - Seth Lakeman
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Secret Garden - Bruce Springsteen


A friend of mine, former bandmate and former FT colleague in London had his first busking experience on the Underground today. Before he went out he Tweeted that it was the "scariest thing he's ever done," so I really hope it went well. Maybe we can organize some kind of transatlantic video busking linkup like Bowie and Jagger did for Live Aid.


On this day in 1989, it was announced that for the first time CDs were outselling vinyl albums. I'm going to write - probably this coming weekend - about how we learn about and consume music today and what it means for those who make it, sell it, or just listen to it.


Whatever you might think about Michael Jackson or today's memorial ceremony, when his young daughter breaks down when talking about him, you're reminded that we often lose sight of who's really affected most by this sort of loss.

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