[The following article appears in the Fall 2010 print issue of Worldview, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association (I love getting to write about my friends)]
by Joshua Berman
Adam Klein, a singer-songwriter from Georgia, stood on a flat rooftop in northern Guatemala. His lean, tall figure, bushy hair, and pregnant guitar cast a silhouette against the Milky Way. He sang and played and searched for words. I sat at Adam’s feet with pen and paper, trying to help as he composed a ballad about don Fernando, the ancient foreman on the bridge project where we were working that week.
“O Fernando … on a fateful morning/ there was a heavy sun/ in the peaceful sleepy town/ Without a warning, they rounded up everyone/ and they cut all the people down….”
Adam and I were in Rabinal, in charge of fifteen students from Georgia who were asleep downstairs, exhausted from lifting stones. It had also been an emotionally exhausting day, the 25th anniversary of the “fateful morning” in Adam’s song. We had visited the graves of massacre victims and attended an indigenous ceremony for their spirits, swathed in copal incense and soft prayer, wondering how such an atrocious act of genocide could have occurred in such a peaceful setting.
At the end of the day, our students needed sleep; I needed fresh air; and Adam needed to write. Only by describing what he had seen in his soulful, slightly pained voice, could he begin to process it. Indeed, Adam’s art is not only influenced by, but actually formed by his travels, trip leading, and volunteering, a cycle that has pushed and pulled him across the globe for nearly a decade. But no single place played as big an influence on his music as Mali did.
A few years before we met up in Guatemala, Adam served in the Peace Corps in Africa. His site, as luck would have it, was in one of the richest musical corners of the world, the Segou region of Mali, seat of the Mande empire and its musical and storytelling tradition.
“I’ve always been moved by Mande music,” says Adam. “It’s a powerful expression of the sounds and the feeling of Mali, which has such a beautiful, rustic aesthetic. Mande music captures the experience of being in Mali and I wanted to share that.”
“When I was a volunteer,” he says, “I wrote songs in Bambara about development issues.” The songs were played as public service announcements on the radio and had a decidedly pop flavor. That experience tapped Adam into Mali’s music scene. As a folk singer from Athens, he discovered that acoustic Mande music was not so different from the country and Americana styles with which he was most intimate.
In short, Mali exploded Adam’s musical boundaries. His first three albumsâ€””Distant Music,” 2006; “Western Tales & Trails,” 2008; “Wounded Electric Youth,” 2010â€”are each, in varying ways, offshoots of his time in Mali, drawing poignant, dusty parallels between the U.S. south and the drought-stricken Sahel. Still, these albums are American, not African music.
Part of Adam’s adopted Bambara name, “Kouyate,” is one of the handful of designated surnames inÂ Mande culture’s griot caste. Griots, or djeliya, are storytellers, poets, historians, and musicians, all rolled up in one.
“The griot,” adds Paul Oliver in Savannah Syncopators, “has to know many traditional songs without error; he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable. Although they are popularly known as ‘praise singers’, griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.”
Adamâ€”known as Lassine Kouyate in Maliâ€”was fascinated by the djeliya, not only by their performance skills and musicality, but by the mere existence of a wandering minstrel class that had existed for thousands of years.
“I always wanted to go back and record an album of Mande music,” he says.
The Mande Sessions
In February, 2010, after a successful fund-raising effort on kickstarter.org, he got his chance. Adam traveled to Bamako, Mali’s hectic capital, where, in a studio next to a giant baobab, he gathered some of the country’s finest musicians and praise singers, and laid down twelve songs, most of which were recorded in a single take.
The result is an album named Dugu Wolo, recorded and produced by Malian engineer Baba Simaga and Adam’s independent label, Cowboy Angel Music, and named after the village of Dougouolo where Adam served in the Peace Corps.
The other instruments and voices on the albumâ€”including performances on the ngoni, kora, tama, calabash, and njarka, or horse-hair ï¬ddleâ€”are pure ear candy, as are the spoken-word griot performances by Solo Tounkara and Aiche Kouyate.
Adam is not the first Western musician to explore Mali’s renowned musical scene (Taj Mahal, Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt); nor is he the first to bring a documentary filmmaker with him to capture the cultural interchange (Bela Fleck in Throw Down Your Heart).
He is, however, the first Western musician to write and sing in Bambara, the language spoken by six million people and the lingua franca of Mali. Singing in the native tongue, he explains, helped convey the raw, rustic power of Mande music.
The ballad of Don Fernando
About six months after that rooftop silhouette night in Guatemala, Adam sent me a completed track of the song whose birth I’d witnessed:
“O Fernando … lines carved in his face and his weary eyes/ tell a starving pain no one should bear/ such a beautiful place/ who can know the disguise/ spirits in the rain and the mountain air…. You are alive. You are yet alive.”
It was a heartfelt, tear-in-your beer country song, accordion drone and pedal steel flourishes behind the sad lyrics. And for a moment, don Fernando was sitting there with me, recounting his family’s history like a proud, campesino griot.
* * * *
JOSHUA BERMAN (Nicaragua 1998â€“2000) is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher based in Boulder, CO. His website is joshuaberman.net.
Adam’s website is www.cowboyangelmusic.com. He is raising funds to produce a documentary film, tentatively entitled “The Mande Sessions,” from the footage shot during his trip. DONATE TO THE FILM PROJECT ON www.fracturedatlas.org