Ouagadougou Journal 3: Traditional Music

In the early part of January of 2016, I had occasion to travel to delightful Burkina Faso in West Africa, located just below the Sahara desert and just above the equator. Long a bastion of peacefulness, stability, and welcoming generosity among it’s neighboring countries, Burkina went through an uncharacteristic stretch of political upheaval in the past 5 years. There was also the matter of the horrific terrorist attack aimed at ex-pats which occurred at a downtown Ouagadougou hotel the evening after we safely departed, which was orchestrated by outsiders. Yet, the predominant mood I encountered was one of strong positivity and sincere friendliness. The Burkinabé believe in the their future, are proud of their national demeanor, and have good reason to be. This is one of a series of reflections occasioned by my visit there.


Twilight was a special time in my little corner of Ouagadougou. Stealthily the workaday riot produced as the net effect of all the surging and clashing desires of the city’s populace became magically calmer. It had been present with such relentless intensity and duration, since soon after sunrise, that one easily forgot how unnatural it was. Now, furtively at first, but then with a prolific confidence, the awesome beauty and alive silence of the natural setting reasserted itself. For me too, a natural break came from the day’s chores. I usually spent this period under some unknown tropical trees, on a veranda awaiting dinner and observing “Africa” manifesting around me. The transition to darkness was quick so close to the equator, making the moment seem more delicious for it’s fleetingness. Large yellowish bats would arrive, maybe a dozen or so in my immediate area. They didn’t seem to come from anywhere; they just grew out of the scene. At first I doubted their color as a trick of the twilight, so scant the available illumination, and so quick and erratic their movements. They glided above the water of a pool, sometimes skimming the surface, hunting their unseen insects. Shortly strange clicking staccato bursts, almost metallic accompanied their swooping. If one passed near me, it’s yellowness intensified. But when they rose high above towards the leaf cover I could make out their fantastic shape and size. I took in this spectacle without boredom each evening for as long as permitted. This was the first native music of my Burkina evenings.

bfins2kora musiciandjunoj3

In my immediate vicinity, darkness descended like a thick blanket with an alive abruptness after dinner. Sounds of motor vehicles receded into the distance and occurred less often, as though the thickness of the sub-Saharan atmosphere was interfering with my perceptions. For the first time in maybe 12 hours, an individual’s footsteps could be heard, perhaps a passerby walking home, freshly discernible because there were not a thousand nearby others. And then a coolness would come, very different from the blazing daytime. A lovely breeze flitted about, sometimes reaching my face or grazing a window curtain. A voice might happen, calling somewhere. There was music in that too. Knowing nothing of these alien languages made it more possible to listen to their purely melodious qualities. The voices were rich, coming not just from the head and throat, but from the heart, lungs, and stomachs. Sometimes one would pass by who was relaxed and joyous enough to sing. Maybe he was self-soothing. A tune commonplace and familiar to him, but utterly enchanted and otherworldly for me. Then, after maybe an hour of this deepening nightfall, the distant strains of music would arrive. You couldn’t tell for sure from where. Sometimes it felt localized and other times part of the air, travelling. Sometimes I would believe it a distant radio. But with further concentration I could piece together the melody, the rhythm, the emotion, knowing it was a live musician or two somewhere. And I would listen for an hour or two. Always a little different, always true and unpretentious. Bold, declarative, teasing, joyful, celebratory or impassioned, plaintive, sensual, serious and concentrated. The first night I think it was some type of flute, the tuning and spacing just off enough from western expectations to make my ears hear again like it was the first time. Another time it would be a female singer, beckoning and soulful. Once a gorgeous stringed instrument, like a harp but not like a harp, percolated through the night. And almost always the beating drums, like voices unto themselves, conspiring and whispering and urging together, sometimes astonishingly quick and novel in bursts, their loudness rising to rifle shots and falling to deep beats felt rather than heard. For the first week all I did was enjoy these pre-sleep concerts. During the second week I began to see how this music connected the generations, reinforced the community sensibility and helped to quell the soul’s longing frustrated by difficult endless days of work and city strife.

Music is in the Burkinabe heart. Even it’s still beloved revolutionary ex-president, Thomas Sankara (who was assassinated in 1987), was a musician among other things, and talented enough to compose and render the nation’s national anthem on an electric guitar. Modern western instruments are easily blended with traditional tribal ones in contemporary Burkina Faso. In truth, the indigenous musical instruments of west Africa seem to easily cross borders. Their popularity is universal, making it difficult to cite a specifically Burkinese drum or instrument. The three indigenous instruments which I most frequently encountered around Burkina Faso are the djembe drum, a large stringed lute-like instrument with an enormous round calabash body covered with goat skin, called a kora, and a family of wooden xylophones known as balafons.


Djembes are enormous powerful hand drums shaped out of a single piece of wood, a hollowed log cut from a few kinds of tropical trees. They have a pleasing shape, wider at the top, perhaps 14 inches in diameter. The sound from the various drum strokes projects sharply out the bottom of the drum (they are roughly two feet tall), which is tapered to half or less the diameter of the top. Players tilt the drum slightly away from them, sometimes supporting it with their knees, such that the opening at the bottom of the drum is exposed and not flush to the ground. These drums are loud and primal, and boldly decorated. Millions are sold, made, and played in America and Europe each year as well. The playing surface is usually goatskin. I’ve come across mini djembes, perhaps a third of the size of the real thing, in the streets of Ouaga; one of which has become a favorite toy of my toddler. Djembes are the all-purpose party drum in Burkina Faso. It produces three distinctly different tones once one has learned the technique: a booming bass produced with a dull flat palm bounce near the center of the drum skin, a higher pitched punch produced mostly by the top half of the hand closer to the drum’s edge, and a loud terse sharp slap made by cupping the palm slightly while smartly striking the very edge of the drum head. There are variations on all of these… but these three form the basic vocabulary in numerous sequences and mixtures behind the hundreds of rhythms and improvisations within west African music. Layered cross rhythms are the rule in this music. Sometimes as many as three or four complimentary polyrhythms weave and intersect in surprising pulses. Also frequently used are sets of djun-djun drums to form an underlying bass foundation. They are larger, sometimes made from old oil barrels, covered with cow hide and beaten with short cylindrical sticks to produce a hypnotic steadying pulse, permitting (or compelling) the audience to dance and the solo djembe improvisers to ‘find home’. These ensembles, which can spring up ad-hoc around the city, are sensational to listen to close up, and ethereal to hear from a distance.

arc balafonbf drummerskora detailbalafoners bf

Whereas the djembe is basic and straightforward, the stringed kora, or n’goni depending on dialect, is intricate and delicate sounding. Although the volume is loud due to the enormous round calabash forming the sonic heart of the instrument, it is capable of extremely agile rapid melodic phrases. When you first hold a kora it feels inefficiently designed; there seems to be no practical way to access the strings for plucking while supporting the instrument. There are 21 of them ranging vertically outward from the instrument, instead of horizontally along the face of it (as with a guitar), in two parallel groups. They are usually nylon fishing line nowadays, or wound metal harp strings, but traditionally were formed of dried antelope tendons. Two sturdy rods protrude from the base and understanding them solves the mystery: one grips them in each hand using the the three final fingers of each hand. This steadies the kora erect in front of the player, but facing outwards towards the viewer, while freeing up his two thumbs and index fingers to play the strings. There is no fretting; each string produces one tone but tuning can be changed by sliding leather straps between each string either up or down the long neck. The alternating pitch sequence of the strings, right, left, right, left, permits rapid scales. One of the things which most fascinate about ethnic instruments around the world is how they solve design problems as sculptures in space in such novel and characteristic ways. The kora uniquely and beautifully exemplifies this. It sounds a bit like a spastic ringing harp.

The final musical instrument I’ll describe is the balafon, which can be found across Mali, Ghana, and even west into Senegal. There is one similarity between koras and balafons, namely that the sounds they emit are quite unexpected given their appearances. Aside from this they are very different instruments. Balafons are xylophones with usually three octaves worth of wooden keys. The keys are carved from various tropical hardwoods and cut roughly to the correct size before being tuned with the artisan carefully hollowing out a groove on the underside of the key. This raises the pitch, so the wooden slabs must start out tuned a little lower than the intended note. The keys are arranged on a simple wooden frame, normally rectangular but sometimes arched (which facilitates solo playing). If arranged flat, horizontally, the instrument can be played by two or even three musicians: one per octave. The wooden keys ‘float’ above the frame upon taut strands of animal hide, secured by thin cord, allowing them to ring out without dullness when struck by simple wooden mallets. The tips of these mallets have balls made of strips of glued rubber, allowing them to bounce off the wooden keys enroute to their next target. To amplify the volume and support the resonance, each key is provided with a tuned gourd hanging beneath it. The size of these gourds are calibrated to the note produced by it’s key, and sometimes musicians will tune a gourd by melting a little wax into it’s interior. This entire contraption makes for a surprising buzzy almost electronic sound when the balafon is well-played. When several players are working on the same balafon, the cross-melodies can be intricate and dancibly rhythmical. Musicians will often sing to accompany themselves, and balafons also frequently appear in ensembles with various drums. Villages will always have a few on hand for special ceremonies or celebrations.

bfins1bf ensemblebobo dbfins4

Before leaving the country I visited an extensive artisan’s center where a large shop was devoted to making and selling handcrafted musical instruments of very good quality. Very interesting to see hundreds of instruments in various stages of manufacture, all from natural materials using basic tools. The artisans were happy to answer any questions and even to jam with you as you tried out their creations. One guy patiently demonstrated a favorite bass line for me to reproduce on a set of booming djun-djuns. He repeated it five or six times till I got it and then chimed in with his djembe lead phrasing. His friend then added some backup djembe in a funky counterpoint. It was a real thrill to hear and feel how these traditional rhythms are layered together. The prices asked are heartbreakingly paltry for their gorgeous handiwork, knowledge and tradition — although one does have the issue of shipping large unwieldy items home to think about. Bobo Dioulasso, a smaller city located about 200 kilometers west of Ouagadougou, is the cultural and artistic ‘second’ capital of the country. It has the best and most varied musical manufacturing shops. It’s also has a different climactic feel and landscape from Ouaga, and is known for it’s native architecture. Finally, a French company, established by immigrants from Burkina Faso, provides Burkina-made instruments on order shipped to Europe and North America.


A couple of sample videos for Burkinese music…

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      1. I was raised to that music, I spent my childhood in Africa, first in Guinea Conakry. The village behind the house played music every night… Then in Kenya. Other music… 🎶

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