Music of Mali wafts into a Chicago public school

Chicago Tribune

by Howard Reich

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Many musicians have performed for students at Smith Elementary School, on East 103rd Street, but none quite like the visitors who appeared Monday morning.

For they brought with them music of their homeland: Mali.

They came to Smith in the company of eminent flutist Nicole Mitchell, who years ago worked as a teaching artist there and at other Chicago Public Schools. Mitchell left Chicago in 2011 to teach at the University of California at Irvine, but she has returned to this city often and long has dreamed of collaborating with Malian counterparts.

Thanks to a $35,000 grant from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and support from several Chicago arts organizations, Mitchell and the Malian musicians will play the world premiere of “Bamako*Chicago Sound System” on Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, during the Hyde Park Jazz Festival (in a joint presentation with World Music Festival Chicago).

And from the inception of this project, Mitchell was determined to bring the Malian musicians — and the faraway culture they represent — to Chicago schoolchildren.

So as students from second through sixth grades streamed into a multipurpose room at Wendell Smith, they began to encounter unfamiliar tones, words and ideas.

“Where is Mali?” asked Christine Taylor, director of Reach Teach Play Education Programs at the Ravinia Festival, which helped organize the school visit through its Guest Artists in the Classroom program.

“What continent?” continued Taylor. “Somebody? Anybody?”

One brave student said, “Africa,” prompting flutist Mitchell to build on the lesson.

“Where is Africa?” she asked. “Say yes or no: Is it down the street? Is it in Chicago? Is it in Illinois? Is it in the ocean? Is it really like an hour away, very close? In the suburbs?”

The students offered a cascading chorus of “no’s,” whereupon Mitchell introduced Ballake Sissoko, a master of the kora (similar to a harp); Fatim Kouyate, a singer; and Fassery Diabate, who plays balafon (unfortunately, his marimbalike instrument was still in transit, so he played a guitar).

As soon as Sissoko began to coax ethereal, otherworldly notes from his kora, the room fell to a hush, the students riveted at the sight and sound of a man plucking strings on an instrument not often encountered by American kids. Diabate duetted on guitar and Kouyate began to chant, ancient West African musical culture resonating in the here and now.

When the Malian musicians finished their first song, the kids applauded enthusiastically.

Speaking through a translator, vocalist Kouyate told the youngsters that she began her journey in music when she was “about 12 or 13 years old — I was very young.”

Kora player Sissoko chimed in, explaining (through the translator) that Kouyate’s “mother and father were big musicians in their village, in their town. It was a tradition, the type of singing was passed down.”

Music runs in the bloodlines of Sissoko, Diabate and Kouyate, too, as flutist Mitchell explained to the students.

“You can learn music in your church, or you can have music lessons,” she told them.

“In Mali, they have a tradition — we call it the oral tradition. Can you say that? … We have a tradition called the griot tradition. Can you say griot? … You have a responsibility to carry the memories of the people before you. That’s very special.”

Then Mitchell riffed along with the musicians, her jazz-inspired flute improvisations dovetailing seamlessly with the rhythms and melodic structures of Mali.

When Mitchell finished, one of the students asked a tough question.

“How long has jazz been around?”

Mitchell illuminated the origins of the music, in the late 19th century, and explained that jazz musicians “have the tradition of improvisation. Can you say improvisation? That means we kind of make it up as we go along. And they (the Malian musicians) also use improvisation. So we can bring these things together through the improvisation.”

As the session came to a close, the students streamed past the musicians, ogled the kora, asked questions, buzzed among themselves and hurried back to class.

“It’s important that our students come in contact with other people from other cultures,” Principal Tiffany Brown said afterward, explaining why she welcomed Mitchell’s Mali project to the school.

Her mission, Brown said, is “making sure that we create opportunities of hope. How do you do that? Through exposure. How do you become more tolerant and knowledgeable of people in other cultures? Through exposure.

“It’s important that they see people that live in other countries, and some of the cool things that they’re doing.”

For flutist Mitchell, the session “was like a dream come true to be able to bring these musicians here. It’s kind of like a return or a homecoming, to be able to bring this amazing experience. I feel there may be a few students that maybe were transformed by the experience.”

As Mitchell studied their faces, “I was reading joy, questions or curiosity. … It’s almost like you’re seeing people that look like you, but they don’t talk like you, and your brain is trying to understand how that works. The realization is that the world is a very diverse place.”

Kora virtuoso Sissoko found the experience “magnificent,” he said through the translator.

“Here in America, there are a lot of cultures. But they (students) are not exposed to many cultures outside of America. … This broadens their horizons, and it’s very, very important.

“And when you learn this at a young age, it’s a really, really important thing.”

Will these students remember this morning a few days or weeks from now? Might there be “a few students that maybe (were) transformed by the experience,” as Mitchell put it?

Principal Brown was sure of it.

“The kids were involved,” she said. “After the song was over, kids actually were singing the song afterward. … I know my students. They’re going to have lots of conversation during lunchtime.”

And, perhaps, during many lunchtimes to come.

“Bamako*Chicago Sound System” will be performed at 3 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; free; for more information, visit www.hydeparkjazzfestival.org.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.