Music News
9:52 am
Sat April 20, 2013

An American In Mali, Teaching The Country's Sounds

Originally published on Mon April 22, 2013 8:33 am

Numbers are down at the American International School in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

In just over a year, the country has witnessed a rebellion, a military coup and the occupation by Islamist fighters of the desert northern region, recently largely liberated in a counteroffensive by French-led forces. Despite the troubles, the school is open and classes continue.

Teacher Paul Chandler is taking his combined class of 6th- and 7th-graders through their early paces, learning the Malian music they'll be performing at the annual school concert.

"We're teaching Malian music but specifically Maninka music," Chandler says. "And we're using heptatonic balafons. A balafon is a wooden xylophone, pretty much. It's an African xylophone, but it's wooden, it's hand-carved."

Fousseiny Diallo, 14, has been studying with Chandler for three years.

"The first time I played balafon was in the school, so I like it," Fousseiny says. "I don't feel lonely when I see my friends playing balafon."

Chandler says the wealth of Malian culture makes it a real pleasure to teach his young students. He invites professional Malian musicians — guitarist, arranger and composer Lamine Soumano and drummer Siaka Doumbia — into the classroom to help with lessons.

"Each semester, we focus on music from different regions of Mali — music from the different ethnic groups of Mali," Chandler says. "But we're also going to do a medley or a fusion piece with music from the North, Tamashek music from the Tuareg."

With the current problems that have shaken Mali to its roots, Chandler says, the idea of mixing the music has added poignancy.

"We always like to experiment with the different musical traditions in Mali," he says. "But you know, this semester it seemed even more relevant that we should really fuse music from the North and from the South, and kind of put that together and focus on the similarities."

It's been a decade since Minnesota-born Chandler, who was raised in Nebraska, left the U.S. and headed to Mali to study music.

"It's interesting. The longer I stay here, I realize that, well, Nebraska is quite similar to Mali in lots of ways, actually," Chandler says. "The river here is the Niger River. I grew up next to the Platte River — mostly agriculture. And around Bamako, it's mostly agriculture. And even though from the outside Mali seems very different, I think what's important is that people are the same everywhere."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a decade since Paul Chandler, who was raised in Nebraska, up sticks, left the U.S. and headed to West Africa, to Mali. He'd fallen in love with the music and now Mali is his home and he's teaching children at the American school there how to play the music of his adopted country. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton sat in on his class.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

PAUL CHANDLER: Here, you guys - every little sound is - I don't know what you're doing with the tape there. Put the tape down, buddy. Thanks. You guys ready? All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Numbers are down at the American school in Bamako, the capitol of Mali, a country that has in just over a year witnessed a rebellion, a military coup and the occupation by Islamist fighters of the desert and northern region recently, largely liberated by a counter-offensive by French-led forces. Despite the troubles, the school is open and classes continue.

The teacher is taking his young students through their early paces, learning the Malian music they'll be performing at the annual school concert.

CHANDLER: My name is Paul Chandler and I'm the music teacher at the American International School of Bamako. I've been here since 2003. I came here to study music and got a job teaching music and I'm still here ten years later. This is the sixth and seventh graders. It's a combined class. We're teaching Malian music but specifically Maninka music and we're using heptatonic balafons, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF A BALAFON)

CHANDLER: A balafon is a wooden xylophone pretty much. It's an African xylophone but it's wooden. It's hand-carved and - can I get somebody to play the balafon for me? Fousseiny, play the balafon for us. Play what you just learned. Play what we're working on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BALAFON)

CHANDLER: That's Fousseiny Diallo, who's been here a few years, good musician.

QUIST-ARCTON: Fousseiny is 13 years old and he's been studying with Chandler for the past three years. What's good about it?

FOUSSEINY DIALLO: Everything. The first time I played balafon in the schools, so I get - I don't feel lonely when I see my friends playing balafon.

QUIST-ARCTON: Paul Chandler says the wealth of Malian culture makes it a real pleasure to teach his young charges. Chandler invites professional Malian musicians, guitarist, arranger and composer Lamine Soumano and drummer Shaka Doumbia, into the classroom to help him with teach the children.

CHANDLER: Each semester we focus on music from different regions of Mali, music from the different ethnic groups of Mali, but we're also going to do a medley or a fusion piece with music from the north, Tamashek music from the Tuareg.

QUIST-ARCTON: With the current problems that have shaken Mali to its roots, Paul Chandler says the idea of mixing the music has added poignancy.

CHANDLER: We always like to experiment with the different musical traditions in Mali, but, you know, this semester it seems even more relevant that we should really fuse music from the north and from the south and kind of put that together and focus on the similarities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mali's very far from Minnesota.

CHANDLER: Yeah, it is. It is. I was born in Minnesota, I grew up in Nebraska. But, you know, it's interesting. The longer I stay here I realize that, well, Nebraska's quite similar to Mali in lots of ways actually. I grew up next to a river and the river here is the Niger River, Niger River, and I grew up next to the Platte River. Mostly agriculture and around Bamako it's mostly agriculture.

And even though from the outside, you know, Mali seems very different, and I think what's important is that people are the same everywhere. Although, you know, Malians like country music. I know they really like Kenny Rogers. I was very surprised by that.

QUIST-ARCTON: But for now the focus is Malian music and back to the class learning the latest composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

CHANDLER: OK. OK, excellent job. Good.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.