A review from The New York Times, 4 August 2000
In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali
Reviewed by Ben Ratliff
"IN GRIOT TIME: STRING MUSIC FROM MALI" (Stern's Africa). Appreciating studio-made popular music from other countries can be like hearing a language you're not very familiar with; each particular culture's aesthetics of instrumentation, electronics, mixing and pop appeal present obstacles to understanding foreign music on its own terms.
That's why "In Griot Time," the companion CD to Banning Eyre's new book of the same name Temple University Press), does American ears such a service. The book is an earnest account of Mr. Eyre's seven-month stay in Bamako, Mali, where he had an apprenticeship with the guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Mr. Tounkara has transferred the sound of traditional Manding string instruments like the kora and the ngoni to the regular guitar.
Both the book and CD argue that Malian music is the greatest music in Africa, and they do it not just with polished, commercially available work, but with the author's own field recordings of musicians in private performance or in lesson-giving mode. The fact that it carefully uses both sorts of documents is at one with the book's tone of painstaking honesty. There's a section in which Mr. Eyre humbly wonders if his interest in Malian music is corrupt, since he seems to prefer it alone and out of context, rather than with the obligatory electronic drum machines heard on Malian recordings.
The CD begins with a privately recorded 40-second excerpt from a song called "Sunjata," an important piece of music to Malians, about the first king of the Manding empire. This is Mr. Tounkara's style in a nutshell: a loping, folkish picking rhythm, then a fast, delicately plucked cascade of notes. His playing is later heard alongside the hard, leathery vocals of Yayi Kanouté, in a duet with a ngoni (a six-string harp), and as part of the studio-clean but complexly elastic Super Rail Band, Mr. Tounkara's group since the 1970's.
Mr. Tounkara is the constant element running through the disc, but there are a series of departures: segues from rough-diamond rehearsal sequences to impeccably arranged album tracks by Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, and Kandia Kouyaté, and the brooding, lovely, pentatonic guitar music of Ali Farka Touré. Intelligently sequenced, the disc has a mode of persuasion that's similar to the music, light but commanding. It's enough to jump-start an interest in Malian music, if there is within a person the slightest possibility of doing so.