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Week of December 23, 2003

Program 0351


London Jazz | Transcript | MP3

Joan Armatrading | Transcript | MP3

Berlin Philharmonic | Transcript | MP3

El Salvador Hip Hop | Transcript | MP3

Iran Composer | Transcript | MP3

South Africa Singers | Transcript | MP3

Senegal Storyteller | Transcript | MP3

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

PETE KING: We used to look to America all the time for jazz musicians. But not necessarily so now. You can get wonderful, young, talented players from any country in the world.

KEITH PORTER: This week Common Ground celebrates the holiday season with a sampling of the world’s music scene.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: From the jazz clubs of London to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and from the avenues of Tehran to the streets of San Salvador.

MICHAEL DIAZ: [via a translator] We want everyone to know that Pescozada was born here in El Salvador, and exists because of what happened here.

MCHUGH: We’ll hear how politics and pure human emotion influence harmonies that transcend geographic boundaries.

JOAN ARMATRADING: Where ever I go, people say “Hello,” and they kind of feel as if they know me because they know my music.

PORTER: Our special on global music—coming up next.

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London Jazz

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MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Music can be soothing, deliver a message, or be just plain fun. Music plays a part in every culture in every country and it can be a common language bringing together people around the world.

MCHUGH: This week we begin our global musical tour in Great Britain, where in the 1960’s the capital was known as Swinging London. These days you might call it the swinging, jazz capital of Europe. London has six full-time jazz clubs and many more that regularly play jazz. And, musicians say, the British jazz scene no longer simply replicates what can be heard in New York. Reese Erlich first filed this report from London earlier this year.

[The sound of Latin jazz from the Brazilian jazz band Samara.]

REESE ERLICH: Walk into a jazz club in London and you can hear just about any jazz style—straight ahead, traditional New Orleans, or Latin.

[The sound of Latin jazz from the Brazilian jazz band Samara.]

ERLICH: Steve Rubie is a saxophone and flute player who leads the Brazilian jazz band Samara. He also owns the 606 Club in South London. Visitors who walk down the narrow staircase into Ruby’s crowded south London club aren’t disappointed.

STEVE RUBIE: I spend a lot of time in New York. I go back and forth all the time. So I know that scene very, very well. And I would say that at the moment, I mean the scene in London, particularly—in England generally but certainly in London—is amazing. I’ve never known so many good players around as there are at the moment. That has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve got a number of really good jazz courses now, kind of catching up with American concept of actually, you know, youngsters being able to go and study the music properly.

[The sound of a jazz song, Guys and Dolls, played by the band, Celebrating the Jazz Couriers.]

MARTIN DREW: The name is Martin Drew, star of stage, screen, and labor exchange, leader of the free French women, and leader supreme, and all-England crab champion.

ERLICH: False modesty aside, Martin Drew really does have a lot to brag about. He is perhaps Britain’s most famous jazz musician. He’s been the drummer with the Oscar Peterson trio for 27 years and heads his own band called Celebrating the Jazz Couriers.

[The sound of a Martin Drew jazz drum solo.]

ERLICH: Drew has played with many great American jazz artists. Without doubt, he says, through the 1970s, America had the best jazz groups. But not anymore.

DREW: But things have come a long way. There are lots of fantastic players everywhere you go. I mean, I go out to a place called Croatia, that would be joint called Zagreb. People say, “Zagreb, where the hell is that?” They have some sensational musicians there. I mean, they really have. I mean throughout Europe. In Russia and all that, some amazing musicians. I mean, you know, America has, obviously has a lot of, a lot of the most of the best, obviously. But I have to tell you they have a lot of the worst as well. And I’ve played with a few of them.

[The sound of Ronnie Scott welcoming people to his jazz club.]

ERLICH: Ronnie Scott’s is London’s best known jazz club. Scott was a fine saxophonist and his partner, Pete King, now owns the club. King says British musicians used to only imitate jazz greats such as Charlie Parker.

PETE KING: We used to look to America all the time for jazz musicians. But not necessarily so now. You can get wonderful, young, talented players from any country in the world. Now, America has led that field for many, many, many years and is no doubt is still leading it. But being pushed for certain individuals on certain instruments for no undue terms.

[The sound of the song, Bye Bye Blackbird, being played by a jazz ensemble.]

ERLICH: Ronnie Scott, who died in 1996, was also famous for his dry wit.

RONNIE SCOTT: We’re negotiating to present a great American quintet, which is co-led by the fantastic American tenor sax artist Stan Getz and the wonderful violinist Stuff Smith. And they’re known as the Getz Stuffed Quintet. [laughter] The old jokes are the best, I always say. [laughter].

ERLICH: So, next time you’re in London, check out the lively jazz scene at the 606 Club, Ronnie Scott’s, Selena Jones’s, or one of several Pizza Express franchises. Yes, you heard me, Pizza Express. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in London.

[The sound of the song, Bye Bye Blackbird, being played by a jazz ensemble.]

SCOTT: Thank you very much indeed and goodnight, everybody. Goodnight.

[Musical interlude]

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Joan Armatrading

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PORTER: Joan Armatrading is one of Britain’s musical icons. She’s been recording for over 30 years, has twice been nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist, and has been honored by the Queen of England. Joan Armatrading is widely considered one of Britain’s most influential performers. She was the first black female singer/songwriter to truly compete with white female singers. She was born in the West Indies and brought up in the industrial city of Birmingham. This past fall, on tour in the US to promote her latest album, Lovers Speak, Joan Armatrading talked with Nina-Maria Potts at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theatre during a sound check- about her music and her sense of self.

PORTER: Joan Armatrading is one of Britain’s musical icons. She’s been recording for over 30 years, has twice been nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist and she has been honored by the Queen of England. This week she is our Global Citizen Profile. Joan Armatrading is widely considered one of Britain’s most influential performers. She was the first black female singer/songwriter to truly compete with white female singers. She was born in the West Indies and brought up in the industrial city of Birmingham. Recently on tour in the US to promote her latest album, Lovers Speak, Joan Armatrading talked to Nina-Maria Potts at Washington, DC’s Lincoln Theatre during a sound check about her music and her sense of self.

[With sounds from the sound check in the background]

POTTS: What does global citizenship mean to you? You tour and perform everywhere. Do you feel part of a global community, and if so what does that mean to you?

ARMATRADING: I suppose I do, because as you say I do a lot of traveling and I’m known in a lot of countries. And I think it’s that known in places that can make you feel as if you belong. Because where ever I go, people say “Hello,” and they kind of feel as if they know me because they know my music. It kind of makes it a bit closer I think, and that would apply I would say to all artists, or performers, all authors—again, people who have a certain connection, so when you go to the place—and also I get lots of letters from people all over the world, so I’m constantly being connected to people in different countries to the one that I live in.

POTTS: In times of crisis, what do you think the role of the musician should be?

ARMADRADING: Well, first and foremost, just a person who’s concerned. The role of a musician isn’t necessarily to bring a message. You just have to be who you are. If your message is political then put that out there; if it’s just a message of love and peace then, you know, put that out there. And if it’s a message of “just have fun,” then that’s what you should do. And that’s the role of the musician, to be truthful, first and foremost to themselves, and then they can put that message out to other people. What I do is write about people’s relationships person-to-person, which obviously involves love; it could be conflict; could be just having a laugh; could be, you know, all sorts of things. But it’s how when two people are in certain situations, how do they deal with each other.

POTTS: You write about as you’ve just said, the universal and the personal. Do you get different responses in the States from, you know, say other parts of the world?

ARMATRADING: No. People in America or Britain, Germany, Holland, Australia, Japan, wherever—if they hear a song like The Weakness in Me, which talks about somebody who kind of finds themselves in a situation of being in love with two people and not being able to decide which of those two they should be with—everybody says the same thing if they’ve been in that situation. It doesn’t matter whether their first language is English or Spanish. They say, exactly the same thing. And that’s actually the great thing about music and writing lyrics, that it’s expressing people’s emotions.

POTTS: Has the Internet changed your relationship with your listeners at all?

JOAN ARMATRADING: The Internet has been absolutely brilliant, I love computers. I’ve always been very, very into computers, since the early ’80s. And the Internet allows for much better communication from the people who enjoy my music, directly to me. I mean they would be able to write letters anyway; they used to, would write letters and come and see the shows and get their stuff signed and everything. But this way there’s a quicker backwards and forwards communication, they can write an e-mail and get a response.

POTTS: How do you get your news?

ARMATRADING: Well, in America, you’ve gotta really have to search for it. [laughing] Because, you know, you have to, if you want world news that isn’t kind of American-focused, then you have to search for it. But the Internet is a great place for getting news, because you can just go anywhere, just go to any country, look at what, you know, they’re saying about different situations around the world, and that’s, the Internet is really is the thing that I think is, that is the global community, that really does bring people together, allows people to find out about all the different cultures that are there, all the different problems and joys in the different societies. I’m pretty sure it can help people to come together better.

POTTS: In terms of your own global concerns, looking at the world today, what matter most to you?

ARMATRADING: Children are very, very important. And you hear that all the time and you think, you know, “Why do people say that?” But it’s ’cause it’s true! [laughing] It’s ’cause it really is true. And you see little children, and that total innocence and the fun and love of just being here, you just think that’s something to protect and nurture, and help to grow up to be good people. I don’t have children of my own, but I do absolutely love children. And obviously that we would have less violent conflict. I don’t say there’s conflict at all—you know, no conflict at all, because you need a bit of tension sometimes. But that the violence sometimes it’s, it’s just really hard to understand.

POTTS: Can you tell me the story of your first guitar?

ARMATRADING: My father had a guitar that he used to play and he didn’t want me to play it, so he used to hide it. And then I saw a guitar in a pawn shop and it cost three pounds. And I said to my mum, “Can I have it?” And she said, “Well, she hasn’t got any money. Would the woman in the shop exchange it for two pram strollers,” they call them there. So the woman exchanged the two strollers for the, for the guitar and that’s how I got my first guitar, which I still have.

PORTER: This week’s Global Citizen, Joan Armatrading, spoke to Nina-Maria Potts in Washington, DC

[Musical interlude]

MCHUGH: The Berlin Philharmonic’s new leader, next on Common Ground.

[Musical interlude]

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Berlin Philharmonic

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MCHUGH: Think of Germany and you might think of beer and bratwurst. But you should also think of classical music. The country of Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn takes it music more seriously than most. So when the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra chose a foreigner over a year ago—Sir Simon Rattle of Britain—to be its new musical director, there was an outcry. Now, there is celebration. From Berlin, Common Ground‘s Simon Marks reports.

[The sound of Herbert von Karajan directing Mozart’s Requiem for the Berlin Philharmonic.]

SIMON MARKS: When Berliners think of the Berlin Philharmonic, this is the sound that comes to mind. The city’s famous orchestra, under the direction of former conductor Herbert von Karajan, in this recording of Mozart’s Requiem offers a glimpse of the musical skill and artistry for which the 120-year-old group is known.

[The sound of Herbert von Karajan directing Mozart’s Requiem for the Berlin Philharmonic.]

MARKS: The Berlin Philharmonic was founded in 1882 by 54 musical rebels—artists who left another orchestra to protest the autocratic rule of its musical director, and who set up shop on their own. So the Berlin Philharmonic has always prided itself on its independence, and over the past century it has become established as one of the world’s leading orchestras. Today, it suddenly has a new creative leader.

SIR SIMON RATTLE: I had a very musical family—my father had a professional jazz band for a while. But these were people who loved music of all types.

MARKS: His name is Sir Simon Rattle, and as the accent implies he is not German. The Berlin Philharmonic turned to the 47-year-old Brit earlier this year after the unprecedented decision by his predecessor to retire and pass on the baton. Something unheard of in the orchestra’s history—most conductors have viewed the post as a lifetime commitment. Sir Simon Rattle has become in the space of just four months, the city’s biggest star. Enormous advertisements shouting “Welcome Sir Simon” hang from hoardings all over the city, and German concertgoers have come to be enthralled by his style. He’s a lot more approachable, less formal, and less orthodox than many of his predecessors.

SIR SIMON RATTLE: These first weeks have been the most astonishing musical experience of my life. I had no idea that it could work at such a level and work with so much joy. We’re just all very happy people at the moment. I mean this was always at least a 10-year commitment, but all of us are thinking in the long term.

MARKS: And to German ears, that’s all new. Sir Simon Rattle has instituted changes that include turning the orchestra into an independent foundation that’s less reliant for funding on the city’s government. He’s given pay raises to the orchestra’s musicians. And, horrifying traditionalists, he’s ended a practice in which artists were banned from speaking during their auditions.

[Sounds of the Berlin Philharmonic playing the William Tell Overture.]

MARKS: He’s also vowing to play a little bit more German music, and a little bit less of Italian classics like the William Tell Overture by Rossini. He’s not the only foreigner making waves here. California’s Kent Nagano conducts Berlin’s less well-known Symphony Orchestra. Local journalist Gurtrud Hohler says the arrival of both musicians is immensely important for Berliners.

MARKS: [interviewing Hohler] A big deal for Berlin?

GURTRUD HOHLER: A big deal. For that Rattle, and before him Nagano, are prepared to come to us, that means they think it is good to be here like to be in New York or Paris, and therefore the Germans are very proud.

[The sound of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.]

MARKS: The Berlin Philharmonic plays an enormous social role here. It was the orchestra chosen to play at the Brandenburg Gate during the recent ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of Germany’s post-Cold War reunification. In a city where people take their music seriously, they are now turning out in large numbers to welcome the orchestra’s new conductor, and to help write the next chapter in the history of one of the world’s great musical institutions. For Common Ground, I’m Simon Marks in Berlin.

[The sound of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.]

MCHUGH: Coming up next, Central American hip-hop.

[Musical interlude]

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El Salvador Hip Hop

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PORTER: It’s been more than a decade now since the end of El Salvador’s gruesome civil war. While no corner of the country was left untouched by the conflict, the area of Chaletenango, about 50 miles north of the capital, San Salvador, was especially hard hit. Chalate, as the locals call it, saw the worst fighting during the war, and is still struggling with its after-effects. While many Salvadorans, especially young people, try to forget about the war, one group of musicians is reminding people that the battle isn’t over. Clark Boyd first profiled the group Pescozada last summer.

CLARK BOYD: In old-school Spanish, a pescozada is an honor given to a knight by a king or queen. But in back-street Salvadoran slang, the word takes on a whole new meaning. When you say pescozada here, you’re talking about a punch or a slap in the face. And if you’re from Chalatenango, you might also be referring to El Salvador’s most notorious rap and hip-hop trio.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: [reading a translation of the song’s lyrics.] “My neighborhood is dark. Darkness is my reality.” That’s the opening shot in Pescozada’s relentless lyrical attack on the many ills currently plaguing not only Chaletenango, but all of El Salvador. True to their name, Pescozada pulls no punches on its debut album.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: [reading a translation of the song’s lyrics.] “My little neighborhood El Salvador,” the group says, “in reality is in great pain.” Pescozada traces the roots of that pain back to the 12-year civil war, which left some 70,000 people dead and countless more missing. All three of Pescozada’s members grew up in Chalatenango. Luis Escobar is Pescozada’s oldest member at 27. He says he remembers the bloody spectacle of the war quite well.

LUIS ESCOBAR: [via a translator] I remember it was horrible. You saw people quartered, people looking terrible. Soldiers left some dead guys hanging at the door of my house once. And I remember we all wanted to get out. We opened the door of our house, and when my mother went out—ping—a bullet went into the wall. Everyone was saying, “Oh my god, they’re going to kill everyone.”

BOYD: At age 13, Escobar says he was already writing lyrics about the war, and getting his first taste of American rap and hip-hop. Lighter stuff, he says—Vanilla Ice and Naughty by Nature. In 1997, five years after the war ended, Escobar teamed up with a neighbor of his, a kid called Michael Diaz, who was also into writing lyrics and rapping. Soon, they were joined by Mario Arteaga, and Pescozada was born. One of the tracks they laid down was called Soledad Obligada—or Forced Loneliness—which tells the tale of a young kid whose parents disappeared during the war.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: [reading a translation of the song’s lyrics.] “I would like to have you close, I would like to see you smile,” the tune goes. “But all I have is this forced loneliness.” Twenty-year old Michael Diaz, or Devil Star as he’s known in the band, echoes the feelings of many Salvadorans when it comes to the topic of the civil war.

MICHAEL DIAZ: [via a translator] Remembering the war I don’t believe is the healthiest thing to do. I think the healthiest thing to do is think about what it was like, so that it doesn’t repeat itself. The important thing is that there be a culture of peace, and that we learn from the errors. And if the war was an error, then we need to learn not to commit the same mistakes.

BOYD: El Salvador has had peace for a decade now, but as Pescozada points out, all is not well in the country. Illiteracy remains high and education levels remain low, especially in Chalatenango, where a whole generation of young people were either killed or learned how to fire a gun instead of how to read a book. Murder and armed robbery are commonplace. The economy is stagnant and farmers can barely afford to plant their fields. And meanwhile, says band member Luis Escobar—or Fat Lui as he’s known—the government pats itself on the back.

LUIS ESCOBAR: [via a translator] They’re not paying attention to the labor groups. They’re not paying attention to the things that matter—the bread and butter issues for Salvadorans. We know our government has been elected, and yes you see the results, but the results are not necessarily benefiting our people. So people are getting frustrated.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: Pescozada pours that frustration into the title track from its album, Dias Oscuros en el Barrio, or Dark Days in the Neighborhood.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: Many here applaud Pescozada for speaking out at a time when so few people will. Others say that the band is giving a bad image to El Salvador, and that the group is offensive. Pescozada admits that telling their version of the truth can have its down side. Radio station owners are often too scared to give the band air time. They worry that listeners will complain, or worse, that the government might try to shut them down.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: Pescozada’s Devil Star says that they don’t just want to be some sort of angry teenage protest group, but that they want to keep letting people know that there are issues here in El Salvador that need to be dealt with. And, he promises, the group won’t change it’s style or its message.

DIAZ: [via a translator] There are a lot of groups who are just going out for fame, or just for money. And we want everyone to know that Pescozada was born here in El Salvador, and exists because of what happened here. We are happy with what we’re doing. That’s the way that we live. We love this, and if we make it big, great. But if not, that’s fine.

BOYD: As the trio likes to tell anyone and everyone who is listening, “It’s our way and no one else’s—100 percent.”

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

BOYD: For Common Ground, this is Clark Boyd in San Salvador.

[The sound of one of Pescozada’s recordings.]

MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

KRISTIN MCHUGH: I’m Kristin McHugh.

KEITH PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, our special global music edition continues, with a modern twist on traditional Iranian music.

ALIREZA MASHAYEKHI: I have always been a modernist, always interested in new things, but one thing that has been interesting for me is multicultural music.

PORTER: Plus, a famous South African singing group’s junior edition. And, Senegal’s musical storytelling tradition.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: Griots means a storyteller and some people call it a working library. And then some people call it ugali(?) in our language, because Griots is a French word.

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Iran Composer

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KRISTIN MCHUGH: In recent years, music from Iran has spread to the West as some Iranian musicians left home after their country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 to produce pop music in cities like Los Angeles. At the same time, musicians of traditional Persian music have been touring the world, reaching new audiences. One Iranian who has been combining the old with the new for more than three decades is Alireza Mashayekhi. He’s one of the first composers of modern music in Iran. As Roxana Saberi reports, Mashayekhi’s music is reaching listeners across the globe.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

ROXANA SABERI: If you ask Alireza Mashayekhi what the aim of his music is, he’ll tell you it’s to express different cultures.

ALIREZA MASHAYEKHI: I have always been a modernist, always interested in new things, but one thing that has been interesting for me very much is multicultural music.

SABERI: Mashayekhi was one of the first composers to advocate modernism in Iran’s music society. He’s been working more than 35 years to create a language that unites various cultures through his music.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

MASHAYEKHI: We all are somehow multicultural in this world. We are not like 300 years ago. Now a person who lives in a multicultural world needs a multicultural language and music is actually the best place to reach this language because music is a nature, something international to begin with.

SABERI: Mashayekhi grew up in Iran, studying composition, piano, and Iranian music. He later continued his studies in Vienna and in the Netherlands, where he focused on electronic and computer music. Today his compositions include pieces that are directly inspired by Iranian music, like this piece, Chahargah II.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

SABERI: It combines the tar, a traditional Persian stringed instrument, an orchestra, and computer-generated music. But he also composes pieces that are not directly related to Iranian music, such as his Symphony Number 6.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

SABERI: Mashayekhi says since he first started combining Persian traditional music with what he calls noise, his music has been overall, well-received. That was more than 30 years ago, in Europe.

MASHAYEKHI: Afterward it was followed by many other pieces of mine, using different sources for a common language. Nowadays a lot of composers are doing that.

SABERI: Today 63-year-old Mashayekhi oversees an orchestra in Iran, which features traditional Persian instruments playing modern music he has written. Many of his more than 400 pieces have also been performed by other orchestras in Europe and in the US, like at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Mashayekhi’s music is also reaching younger generations. He helped found an organization that introduces modern music written by young composers, both in Iran and abroad. And he teaches composition to Iranian university students like 22-year-old Sin? Fal?’sede.

SIN? FAL?’SEDE: I think he’s the only teacher who teaches his students modern music and his idea and gives them a way that they can compose ourselves, not Mr. Mashayekhi’s style, not another’s style, their styles.

SABERI: But while his music has attracted many fans, Mashayekhi admits, it has also found critics. They believe traditional Persian music should be left alone.

MASHAYEKHI: Many people do not feel easy with me and my work but that doesn’t bother me. I mean, I believe in that what I do, and history has been on my side. I myself have been 40 years trying to make new music, and I am very pleased with the result.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

SABERI: It’s his responsibility, he says, to help bring different cultures together, to unite people around the world through the language of music.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

SABERI: For Common Ground, Roxana Saberi, in Tehran.

[The sound of music composed by Alireza Mashayekhi.]

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South Africa Singers

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PORTER: Over the years, international audiences have grown to love the sounds of South Africa’s acclaimed a cappella music group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has helped to popularize and internationalize a type of music that dates back to early 19th-century Africa. This summer, music lovers in the United States heard from another set of singers who hope to follow the same path. Judith Smelser caught up with them in Washington, DC.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

JUDITH SMELSER: It’s lunchtime in Washington, and the joyful sounds of African music fill the air at a small outdoor concert.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

SMELSER: This group calls itself the Junior Mambazo Singers, after the Grammy Award-winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The older group has grown in popularity around the world since the singers accompanied Paul Simon on his landmark Graceland album in 1986.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

SMELSER: The two groups are related by more than just their name. Junior Mambazo’s lead singer, Nkosinathi Shabalala, is the son of Black Mambazo leader Joseph Shabalala. The younger singer says his father’s success in the US has given him a big head start.

NKOSINATHI SHABALALA: I think this is a very good start for us, especially with, we have got the background. Because Father has been in the US for many years. He’s got a lot of fans. So I’m starting, I’m not, I’m starting form somewhere, not anywhere. That make me a little bit know that there’s something is going to happen.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

SMELSER: This type of music originated in the 19th century, when many South African Zulus were sent far away from their homes to work in diamond mines. After a six-day work week, the miners would unwind on Saturday night by forming groups and singing.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

SMELSER: As time wore on, the music spread across the country, and intense competitions began to spring up. Groups faced off against each other with the winner often getting a goat as a prize. This tradition continues in earnest and Nkosinathi says there are more than a thousand a cappella groups in South Africa today, but now they compete for money instead of livestock. And he says the younger generation is likely to carry on the tradition.

SHABALALA: Now, what’s interesting me, also the young, young generation from the schools, the high schools and primary schools now, you can get the students doing this kind of music, which is very good for our generation because we don’t want this music to be forgotten by the young generations.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

SMELSER: This summer was the first time the Junior Mambazo Singers have performed in the United States. They sang mostly at churches and small outdoor concerts like this one—a far cry from the major venues that Ladysmith Black Mambazo plays. But it is a start. And it’s not just about the performing for this group. The musicians also wanted to help Americans learn a little more about African culture. Nkosinathi Shabalala recalls one particularly rewarding experience.

SHABALALA: The first day when I came here, we go visited some of the schools, primary school, primary school then. I’ve got an opportunity with the three guys to teach the people this kind of music and to teach them few words in Zulu, so that one was express me a lots.

SMELSER: Nkosinathi says he’s also been able to dispel some misconceptions about Africa.

SHABALALA: A few guys they are asking us our homes, “Hey you have fighting, hey, the country’s fighting a lot, why you fight?” But those who got the time to visit our country, there’s not only that fighting. It’s a nice country, but it’s different here and there, but all most, most of the things are the same.

SMELSER: Most Americans will never get the chance to visit South Africa, but now through the music of two generations of Shabalalas, they can get a small taste of the country without ever leaving home. For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser in Washington.

[Sound of music from the South African musical group, the Junior Mambazo Singers.]

MCHUGH: Coming up next, Senegal’s musical storytelling tradition. You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

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Senegal Storyteller

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MCHUGH: Morrie Kaba-Key-Ah-Tay is a seventh generation musical storyteller from Senegal who now lives in Chicago. Known as Griots the storytellers pass on a lineage of tales and history through songs. The Griots are so important to their culture, when one dies it’s been compared to a library burning down. Ed Hoke has more.

ED HOKE: Key-Ah-Tay is known throughout his country of Senegal and other parts of West Africa for his virtuosity with the kora, a 22-string West African lute harp. His job as a kora player meant that he was made available to play at many social functions, including parties, weddings, funerals, and initiation ceremonies. While being brought up in his native village he received training from his father, who in turn was one of the links to the other Griot ancestors in his family. It was during this time in his life, from the age of eight, until his coming out concert at age 14, that Mr. Key-Ah-Tay learned how to honor chiefs and visiting dignitaries with his artistry. By way of performing circumstances, Morrie Kaba-Key-Ah-Tay became stranded in Chicago with $45 in his pocket in 1995. Like so many other talented artists before him who found their way to the US, he was here with only a small bag of clothes and his instrument on his back. This is his story.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: Griots means a storyteller and some people call it a working library. And then some people call it ugali(?) in our language, because Griots is a French word. So an English word, probably storyteller. What we do is not just only story tell. We have a lot of things to do beside talking the story to the people. There is a role for the entire family of the Griots; what we represent is a lot.

HOKE: Morrie’s father was a kora player, as was his grandfather, on down the ancestral line. To the Griot, and generally most people of West Africa, music and daily life are inseparable. Music is an integral part of social activities and even helps people to energize while they’re working. In this sense, music serves the purpose of a kind of functional art that values and honors any activity. For Morrie Kaba, it’s always there.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: It means the course of life all the time. The first day you came to visit your family, and they heard “Edward came,” it’s my job to take my kora to come say hello to you, to play something for you. Oh, you will get a lot of respect from people after I leave. It’s something you cannot tell them by yourself. When I tell them that, then they will believe it. So that’s our job.

HOKE: The Griot makes his livelihood by singing about everything from generations-old moral tales to new pieces about village chiefs or perhaps the host of a party who’s hired them.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: The original songs, most of them not dancing song. The kora was not that type of instrument. So all of them have their own kora player. Always they are to play the tekerio(?). Everything you need in your life. You want a wife—they were the ones who is responsible to go find a wife for you. Anything you need. You need kids. Or your kids’ clothes and yours. Everything. They are responsible for that. Your job was just to stay at their house in the compound, to play music for them and learn their story up for them when their great, great fathers come in. So you gonna pass that story to your kids.

It was in my mind, “I want to come to United States.” I always thinking about going to Paris, because I have for more than 50 fans in my hometown. We all know each other, we all grown up together. They all live in Paris know. So they be talking, we be writing letters together. So finally I get to Poland, because all my best friends, they all left.

HOKE: By chance he met the daughter of a dance company director who just so happened to be looking for a kora player for an upcoming Stateside tour. Passing an audition with flying colors, Key-Ah-Tay the Griot was shortly on his way to his first US tour.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: After we finished working over the Chicago concert center, it was great. And then we do a Chicago public school program here for six months. After that, those people was not good people for us. This is the reason we all stay here. We cannot leave because after nine months work here in the United States, for 20 people and the people who were managing the group, they pay us $45 each.

HOKE: [now interviewing Mr. Key-Ah-Tay] So the company director was paying you guys $45 each?

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: Yes. To save their money, because they pay a lot of beers, a lot of telephone things; communication, flyers, the transportation to go town to town. Bring all those beers. Finally there is no money. With the food. So we have $45 for, to the contract brought us here, that’s what we make. So we cannot go nowhere. We stay involuntarily. We cannot go nowhere with the $45.

HOKE: Morrie Kaba-Key-Ah-Tay had a challenging time after being stranded in a big Midwestern city with brutal winters. Trying to make ends meet he took a variety of low-paying service jobs, but communicating in English was a problem.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: But finally I say, “Okay, since I’m here, you know, the best thing you do, you don’t have no choice, to learn English.” Cause that’s what everybody speak. So we start learning, and listen some cassette, watching the comedians on the TVs all the time. So we become speaking to the people. Finally I say, “Okay, so I like Chicago, so I’m gonna stay here.” We like it. We have some friends and then people like us. You know, bringing us some coats, some boots to wear. So finally we became a family of African people in Chicago. I feel like it’s home here now. Yeah.

HOKE: The base of the kora is made of a large calabash gourd, coming from the squash family. Think of it as a flesh-colored butternut squash the size of a fat pumpkin. The calabash after being sun dried and hollowed out has been used for centuries in West Africa to carry liquids and grains, and also for a variety of instruments, including the kora.

HOKE: [now interviewing Mr. Key-Ah-Tay] Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what we’re looking at here.

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: This is an African harp. You can call the kora an African harp. Yeah, because this is the only instrument similar to the harp in Africa. And the strings are nylon, used to be skin. Now we use nylon for the strings. And then it’s a long pole called kano(?). That was a manikolonga(?). It’s a very strong wood.

[Mr. Kaba plays the kora.]

HOKE: To watch Morrie Kaba play his kora, it’s as if you’ve been transported to Senegal—the market close at hand, bustle of the streets, the smell of the ocean. He plays the instrument with his hard-as-steel thumbnails while holding five-inch long wooden pegs placed on either side of the bridge of the instrument. Morrie Kaba’s expression while his thumbs pluck out a soul-touching song is one of peace and exhilaration. His eyes closed, the music comes out of his hands as an extension of his life.

[Mr. Kaba plays and sings.]

MORRIE KABA-KEY-AH-TAY: Certain people love each other like a family, must love each other like a fan. We must love each other in this world. So that’s what this song is about.

HOKE: Our guest today has been kora master and Chicago resident Morrie Kaba-Key-Ah-Tay. For Common Ground Radio, I’m Edward Hoke.

[Musical interlude]

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security

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