Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa (review)
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Research in African Literatures 32.2 (2001) 198-199

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Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa

Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa, by Eric Charry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. xxxi + 500 pp., plates, figures, maps, transcriptions, glossary, bibliography, discography, videography, index.

From the early thirteenth century to the sixteenth century, the Mande (or Mali) Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in West Africa, at its height covering the area from the western Atlantic coast to Gao in the east and Timbuktu in the north. The descendants of Mande peoples include the Maninka (in Mali and Guinea) and the Mandinka (of Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau). These peoples have long had a rich history of musical traditions. In his book, Mande Music, Eric Charry provides a comprehensive study of the music cultures in this region. [End Page 198]

Mande Music is based on a wide variety of sources, from the author's own extensive field research in West Africa (Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, and Guinea) to an impressive collection of early Arabic and European historical writings and travel accounts. The book itself is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter summarizes current research on Mande history, culture, and society, providing an important historical framework for the following chapters. Chapters 2 through 5, respectively, cover the four major spheres of Maninka and Mandinka music culture that serve as the focus of this study. Chapter 2 discusses music related to hunters' societies, sung to the accompaniment of the simbi (seven-stringed calabash harp). Chapter 3, the longest and most extensive chapter, covers jeliya (the music of jelis, hereditary musicians). This includes music played on the bala (xylophone), koni (lute), and kora (harp), associated with rulers, warriors, traders, and other patrons. Drumming related to life-cycle, agricultural, and recreational events is the focus of chapter 4, in which the jembe, dundun, and tangtango traditions are explored. Chapter 5 looks at modern urban electric groups, which are largely dominated by guitar-playing jelis. Chapter 6 is a discussion of Mande musical terminology, and in chapter 7, Charry offers a personal view of his fieldwork experience and related issues. These chapters are supplemented by several appendixes, including a comprehensive key to vocalists, musicians, and their instruments, a list of Syliphone recordings, and an extensive discography.

The four main chapters (on hunter's music, jeliya, drumming, and modern electric groups) each cover the following topics: historical and performance contexts, instruments and their repertories, tuning systems, playing techniques, and styles. Noteworthy is Charry's discussion of musical instruments. The history, construction, playing techniques, and tuning are all covered in great detail, and maps charting the distribution of instruments are particularly informative.

This book is especially significant because of its historical emphasis. Charry's use of numerous historical sources, both written and oral, is exhaustive. An important collection of historical sources from the eleventh to the mid-nineteenth century is provided in Appendix A. While historical work is too often neglected in the study of African musics, Charry's work should be an example for others to follow.

The book might have benefited from more discussion of Mande musicians themselves, as people and as individual personalities. Although Charry includes some discussion of his own fieldwork experience in chapter 7, the book as a whole tends to focus on instruments and history, lacking some of the personal depth that helps to bring musical ethnographies to life. However, this seems to have been a conscious choice on Charry's part, and should be respected. Overall, Mande Music is a much-awaited addition to the study of West African musics, and will surely be an indispensable reference for many years to come.

--Patricia Tang

Patricia Tang is completing her dissertation in the Department of Music at Princeton University.