Ingrid Monson: Tuning in to Neba Solo’s Music and Culture of Change in Mali
Two men from Mali smile at rich applause as they briskly hammer rustic wooden marimbas. Their music fairly bubbles, bright and buzzy, in highly infectious, interlocking rhythms. The leader sings with heartfelt warmth, the joy and humor in his voice belying the urgency of his messages: “Please tolerate others!” “Vaccinate your children!” “Treat women as equals!” “Don’t destroy our heritage!” “Don’t practice bribery!” “Beware of sex predators!” and “Don’t kill the children! They’ve done no wrong.”
The scene was Radcliffe Gym last November, and the singer was Neba Solo, a visiting scholars performer, thanks to Ingrid Monson, this year’s Suzanne Young Murray Fellow. Solo is the subject of Monson’s Radcliffe project and her book in progress, “Kenedougou Visions.” The man of the hour, he is also a man for his people in war-torn Mali.
But the show almost didn’t go on. “Since Mali’s government collapsed last March,” Monson explains, “the infrastructure has failed, Islamist forces are making havoc, and travel has become difficult, treacherous.” Monson scuttled her planned year of research in Mali; passage to America was a rocky odyssey for Solo—a cultural icon and voice of change in Mali—and his brother and bandmate, Siaka Traoré.
Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard University since 2001, is enjoying a distinguished career as an ethnomusicologist. She earned her musical spurs playing trumpet in classical and then jazz orchestras. A keen ear for Miles Davis and Charlie Parker drove her to tackle bebop at the New England Conservatory. “Learning bop in jazz ensembles was tough but inspirational,” she says, “and exposed me to salsa, klezmer, and world music.”
Working in various bands made Monson aware of “the importance of ensemble interaction” and “how culture informs different ways of organizing bands.” After earning her PhD at New York University, she taught and wrote while at the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis. Her book Freedom Sounds (1998) brought her to Harvard first as a visiting professor and later as the inaugural occupant of the Jones chair. “I did not want to reduce jazz scholarship to technical issues,” Monson says, “since large parts of the story are community, race, culture, dignity, emotion, honor. I always wanted to find that balance between musical substance and its deeper meaning: struggle, unity, harsh debates on civil rights.”
“Ingrid Monson is a remarkably diverse scholar, musician, and educator,” avers Tom Everett, the director of Harvard’s Bands and jazz advisor to the Office for the Arts. “She’s respected for her published writings and research in African, African American, jazz, and American social/political musics. Her performance experiences have earned her unique perspectives and insights into those subjects.”
Neba Solo is a riveting singer-storyteller, a hypnotic performer and virtuosic improviser on his handmade five-foot balafon with buzzing gourd resonators on a raked frame. The balafon is one of Mali’s signature cultural instruments, heard at births, weddings, dances, and funerals nearly as often as the ngoni and the kora, Mali’s famous stringed instruments. As artist and artisan, Solo crafts balas in breakthrough designs (pentatonic, not heptatonic, with extra bass notes) and sells them to a growing cadre of fans and emulators.
Although Solo’s impact outside Mali doesn’t match that of Salif Keita or Ali Farka Touré, he has toured France, China, South Korea, and the US. His music connects to the blues, and his political messages in lyrics of discontent resonate with those of Woody Guthrie, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown.
“Solo’s an iconic bandleader like [the jazz bassist] Charles Mingus,” explains Monson. “He composes brilliantly, plays many instruments, knows his band’s capabilities, and jazzes up traditional music with expanded bass lines and virtuosity. He also has a keen political awareness. Solo’s cultural tradition is to exhort people to ‘do the right thing,’ promote common justice, tell the truth, and join forces in national unity, and he accomplishes it with tunes that exemplify unity through interlocking rhythms and counterpoint.”
Solo has exerted his cultural voice with songs of gentle protest, attempting to shore up Mali’s eroding, imperiled culture. His no-nonsense lyrics (sung in his native Senufo, Bamana, or sometimes French) candidly condemn bribery, habitat destruction, and dishonesty, and praise AIDS education, vaccination, and political integrity.
Monson studied balafon with Solo while in Mali in 2005 to help inform her research. “It was not like jazz, and this made me humble. . . . I didn’t have time to practice enough to perform well, but playing the music helps me explain the music: how the musical patterns work. Solo had me play a loop pattern and he’d improvise over it, vary it, slowly, one to the next.” Malians quickly identify the sets of patterns with specific groups: cultivators (farmers), acrobats, clowns. In an ideal performance, Solo would add professional dancers in his own fast, synchronized choreography, its gestures giving the music a singular visual unity.
Solo’s concert at the gym prompted vociferous applause and a particularly lively question-and-answer session. “I’m grateful that Radcliffe offers such a stimulating environment for the arts and scholarship,” says Monson. “Few institutes have that perspective or offer such unstinting support.”
Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine, Boston Musical Intelligencer, and New York City Jazz Record and teaches at Berklee College of Music.