A Composer for Every Country: The Gambia

When looking at The Gambia on the map, most people start with the obvious question: How the heck did Gambia and Senegal's borders end up with way they are? The answer, like most nations in Africa, has to do with meddling European powers. In this case, Britain and France were in conflict over the use and colonization of the Gambia River, it being an excellent way to establish trade farther in the West African region. Eventually, Britain won out, but France retained control of Senegal. And that's how you end up with *gestures broadly* this whole situation.

What's most curious to me is the difference between the perception and importance of national borders between these two countries and the USA. Particularly in recent years, border control in the USA has been a sore point in politics, and crossing from one country to into the states can be a hassle at best. One thing that became clear while reading, for a lot of Gambians and Senegalese, the border between the two countries fluctuates between permeous to non-existent. One local historian said in an interview that the borders are the result of European powers imposing differences where none existed, and the lines drawn up do not reflect any true ethnic or cultural boundaries.
True enough, The Gambia has a lot in common with Senegal. I suspect differences are becoming more pronounced in the cities, which are more under the sway of differences in local governance, but in rural populations, a good deal of trade, socialization, and intermarriage continues across the national borders. The Gambia, like Senegal, has a tradition of griots, musical families which operate as witnesses for important religious and historical events, conflict mediators, and carriers of family history. The common instruments are the same: the kora, djembe and dunun drums, and the dundun "talking drum." Heck, the way they decant their tea is the same. Incidentally, the way they pour their tea is also the same as Mauritania, and I'll be curious to see how far that tradition traveled.
One tradition I found in Gambia, but not Senegal (doesn't mean it's not there, I might have just overlooked it) is the "kanyaleng." These are women's music groups which started as support groups for women suffering from infertility, miscarriage, or the death of a child. In addition, kanyaleng provide performances for marriages and other important gatherings. One interesting part of kanyaleng history was their role in helping prevent the spread of ebola into The Gambia during the 2012-13 outbreak. A number of these groups were employed by health organizations to help communicate the transmission, symptoms, and treatment protocol of the disease.
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My composer for today is Sona Jobarteh (b. 1983). Growing up travelling between England and Gambia, Sona was born into one of the five griot families of Gambia. She studied kora first from her brother, Tunde Jegede, and then, at 11, convinced her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, to give her a full education in the kora. From what I have read, and what Sona confirmed in one interview, the kora is traditionally a male instrument. She also studied Western music, including cello, harpsichord, piano, and composition, at the Royal Academy of Music, the Purcell School of Music, and SOAS University of London. Afterwards, she returned to playing the kora, which she performs internationally.

A Composer from Every Country: Senegal

Making our way south along the West African coast, we go from Mauritania to Senegal. Like every country in Africa, the borders of Senegal are defined by colonial history. If you've ever looked at a map of Senegal and wondered how Gambia got where it is, well... blame England and France. Old French trading posts still dot the Senegal River, although their purpose has largely been lost due to the transition from boating to highways for moving trade goods. While the country still has a number of traditional tribes living inland from the coast, desertification and a huge spike in population are pushing many people to the cities.

There are a couple of musical strands I've explored so far. The first is music sprouting from the creative cauldron stewing traditional tribal musics, brought by migrants entering the cities, and various forms of Western music. Hip-hop, pop harmony, choral music, even Cubanismo have all been blending with tribal musics to create their own new hybrids. One very popular genre, called mbalax, is an electronic pop style descended from sacred music of the Serer people, called Njuup. Kind of wild to think that music that had a central place in circumcision rites has metamorphosed into electronica, but I've seen enough odd transitions in my global trek already I'm not really surprised.
The other strand is the tradition of the griots (or gewel, in the Wolof language). Like Mauritania, the griots are hereditary musicians. They serve as family historians, conflict mediators, war chanters, and bearers of news. Their role is deeply spiritual. Griots are present at births, weddings, and funerals, and serve roles in a variety of other religious services. Unlike Mauritania (for the time being), the social class boundaries of the griots is easing, and many griots are marrying outside their class.
That last point is just one sign of traditional musics adapting in the face of great change. Like the majority of Senegalese, griots face enormous economic difficulties and many have been exploring other avenues of performance for the sake of survival. A number of griots have developed international careers, becoming concert performers. This has led to a number of genre cross overs, with griots performing with jazz and European classical musicians. There has also been a widespread search for new definitions of what it means to be a griot, for new ways to adapt the traditional function of the griot identity to a country undergoing dramatic social change.
One of these griots is Ablaye Cissoko. A singer and kora player (the kora is a kind of harp... or maybe the harp is a kind of kora, depending on how you look at it), Mr. Cissoko has performed in many countries across Europe. One of his shows, "Le Griot Rouge," tells the legend of the man who invented the kora. He has also collaborated with trumpeter Volker Goetze on three albums and a documentary, titled "Griot," and has also played with Montreal-based ensemble, Constantinople, playing traditional Persian music. He's a busy guy, is what I'm saying. The song I'll share, Souma Manone, is the first track on the album, Djaliya, with Ablaye Cissoko playing with Volker Goetze and François Verly.
If you're interested in what other music Senegal has to offer, you might check out sabar drumming, used to accompany the sabar dance. 

A Composer for Every Country: Switzerland

Approaching Switzerland, it occurred to me that the US view of the country is rather negative. Swiss bank accounts, a broil of conspiracies surrounding the Knights Templar, they only have half a flag, and, worst of all in America, the Country of Neutrals. Maybe that's not just the US view, but outside of watches and cheese, the default view of the country from here Stateside is not especially flattering. Still, it's hard to argue with results. Switzerland is ranked highest in nominal wealth per adult, according to... wait a minute. *flip flip flip* According to a list compiled by Switzerland? Not exactly helping your case there, Swisslanders, but numbers don't lie, I guess.

Among other things, Switzerland stands out for NOT having a bloody revolution during the 19th century because their leaders were remarkably proactive in drafting a democratic constitution. This came in response to a comparatively minor conflict called the Sonderbundskrieg, in which Catholic cantons within the Swiss Confederation fought against increasing state centralization. The response was the creation of the Swiss Federal State in 1848, creating a government inspired largely by the USofA, with the greatest exception being their constitution can be totally rewritten, in full, basically at any time. Turned out to be a necessary trait later in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution wholly changed the structure and workings of society in Europe.
Culturally, Switzerland is interesting because so many different nationalities are attracted to the area, and different cantons in the Federation have different European leanings, depending on geographic location. Recognizing the complications that could arise from language barriers, students in Swiss schools are required to learn a second language beyond the official Swiss German, resulting in an exceptionally high bi-lingual rate. The government is also required to communicate in all the official languages (German, French, and Italian). 
This cosmopolitanism is as much a reflection of geographic centrality as it is an outgrowth of Switzerland's largely neutral status with regards to war and European politics. This neutrality made the country particularly attractive to intelligentsia looking for a haven during the first half of the 20th century. James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin made Switzerland their home, as an example. Other artists, perhaps less famous, ended up in the country as well: Herman Hesse, Tristan Tzara, and Paul Klee are prominent examples.
So Switzerland has a lot more going on than shady bank dealings, is what I mean. My composer for today is Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), not to be confused with German philosopher, Ernst Bloch. Known today primarily for compositions inspired by his Jewish heritage, Bloch was also a prominent teacher and education administrator. He was (takes a deep breath) the first composition instructor at the Mannes School of Music in New York City, the Music Director at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Music Director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the founders of Music Conservatory of the West, and summer lecturer at University of California, Berkley. That's... quite a mouthful. He was also a rather prolific photographer. In 1941 Bloch settled in Agate Beach, Oregon, where he lived for the rest of his life.
The piece I share here is In Memoriam, written in memory of pianist and founder of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Ada Clement.
If you're looking for a longer length piece, it is impossible not to recommend his rhapsody for cello and orchestra Schelomo, a musical meditation on the life and character of King Solomon.

A Composer for Every Country: Mauritania

Mauritania: Land of Poets, Land of Sands. The modern-day borders of Mauritania are the product of French colonization in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. At the time, around 90% of the population were nomadic tribes, and while that culture is slowly shrinking, a good chunk of the population remains so today. As far as governance, the country is ostensibly democratic, but Mauritania has suffered a number of coups since the end of colonial French rule, the most recent being in 2008 when General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz orchestrated the arrest of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

The country's reputation, if it is known by anybody outside of Africa at all, is marred by its poor human rights record, and Mauritania remains one of the few countries where slavery, while technically illegal, is still practiced. The culture remains very traditional, with deep religious roots in Islam and the population divided by castes. Natural resources, like iron and petroleum, are mined, but much of the population lives at a subsistence level, fishing or shepherding, and the country remains fairly poor.
It's a country easy for Westerners to project onto, I think. Because electricity is scarce outside of the larger cities, and because nomadic people are generally difficult to find, it's rather hard to get to get a ground level perspective through reading. Trying to learn about Mauritanian music is a good example. There's not a whole lot of information about the musical culture beyond the broadest strokes, in large part because Mauritanian music hasn't been codified, and is still an aural tradition. Musicians, called griots (gree-oh) are part of the low caste called the iggawin, and the practice of music is passed down through families. Griots provide music as both entertainment and for ceremonial purposes, like weddings, but also act as messengers and commentators. They are often feared or hated, possibly because they can publicly ridicule people who do not pay for their services (whether those "services" wanted or not, it sounds like).
I've got to say, here in America we musicians have tried everything short of begging to earn a living. Maybe we should learn from the griots and start throwing daggers? When all else fails, mock mercilessly until they pay you to go away.
Now, where was I? Right. The music of the griots hasn't been codified, so learning about it is rather amorphous. Their music comes in four different "modes," but from what little I've been able to find, they would probably be better described as "melody types." Each mode is associated with a particular mood: kar, associated with joy; fagho, provoking anger and used in war chants; signim, to arouse a "sensitive" feeling (I haven't found a good explanation for what this means... contemplative, maybe?); and beïgi, associated with sorrow or nostalgia. I should note, these are how the modes are described by educated musicians in Mauritania. They may or may not apply to musicians of illiterate cultures, but who's to know? Apparently, nobody has talked to them, so far as I have found.
On top of this, there are several styles of playing: Al-bayda, coming from North African moors (the Bidan); Al-kahla, coming from the Sub-Sharan moors (the Haratin); and I'-gniaydiya, which mixes the two. These styles and modes can be mixed and matched to taste, although I am sure the details of what mixing is "acceptable" are nuanced.
Because there's not really a music industry in Mauritania, and because arts are generally not a budget priority, there aren't really composers in the way Europe or America would define a composer. Not in the sense of a profession in which a person notates music for an ensemble. Music of the griots is quasi-improvisatory, using a stock of familiar melodies which are riffed upon, altered, or referenced. That said, there are a couple of Mauritanian musicians who achieved some international reputation. My composer for today is one of them, a woman by the name of Dimi Mint Abba (1958-2011).
Born as an iggawin to musician parents, her father, Siday Ould Abba, is notable for having composed the Mauritanian national anthem. Her mother, Fire Mounina Mint Eida, played the ardin, a 14-stringed instrument related to the West African kora. Dimi recorded very little music, just two albums, and most of her reputation rested in North Africa. Still, she did make it up to Europe for a few performances. Unfortunately, she died at 52 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accident on tour in Morocco. The song I'm sharing is "Mauritania, My Beloved Country," an ode to a difficult, even inhospitable, and yet strikingly beautiful part of the globe.

A Composer for Every Country: Liechtenstein

Whelp. I have to offer an apology. To Luxembourg. When I wrote about Luxembourg (a post still in backlog on my Facebook profile), I made reference to "The Mouse Who Roared." In retrospect, this was unfair to Luxembourg, and a totally unwarranted comparison. For that, I'm truly sorry.

And now... I have to apologize to Liechtenstein. The only reason I used "The Mouse Who Roared" on Luxembourg and not Liechtenstein is because I kind of forgot Liechtenstein existed. This in spite of me looking at a map of Europe every day for a month to make sure I didn't miss any countries in this project. I could blame my awful geography education in the American school system. I could blame the fact that Liechtenstein is literally an order of magnitude smaller than my home town of Houston, Texas, every time I saw it on the map I thought it was just, like, a Costco parking lot.
Of course, size isn't everything. When it comes to countries, culture is the thing. And Liechtenstein's culture is.... German. It's basically Germany. But! There are some cool facts about Liechtenstein. Like, the entire reason the country exists is because the Liechtenstein family bought the area from the Holy Roman Empire to obtain a seat on the Vienna Diet in 1719... and then promptly ignored the area for 100 years, not visiting again until 1806. Also, the last time Liechtenstein was part of a military conflict was the Austro-Prussian war, when they sent 80 troops out and 81 troops came home. The 81st dude was an Italian who I guess was really good at making friends? In any case, the country currently doesn't have a military. Pretty gutsy.
I'm not sure how I would feel if my country was always represented by the same two easily Googleable factoids, but the country hasn't given me a whole lot to work with. Even looking for composers, I came back with, uh. One. Just Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901). He was a famous organist of his day, being a child prodigy who served as church organist in Valduz at the age of 7. In addition to being an excellent organist, he also became a prominent teacher, numbering composer Engelbert Humperdink and and Richard Strauss, as well as conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, as his students. Honestly, a darn good track record.
The movements linked below are from one of twenty organ sonatas. His goal was to write a sonata in every major and minor key, but alas, he did not finish the project before his death. If you like it, you might also try one of his two organ concerti, a rather uncommon genre, to be sure.