Burkina Azza: The Griots of Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is one of the world’s least known nations, being wedged in between the more westernised Ghana, the prominent soccer nation Cote D’Ivoire, and the politically unstable Mali, it rarely garners a mention in common discussion, unless poking fun at its capital city Ougadougou.
However in this small impoverished nation, where literacy rates are at a disappointing low of 29%, there exists a certain style and flair amongst the its people, certainly in Ougadougou, a remnant of 60 years of French occupation. The women dress in elegantly cut, colorful cloths, and pay particular attention to the arrangement of their hair, and the men in smart collared shirts over slacks, whilst zooming about the city in throngs of asian-built motorcycles.
Despite the undeniable poverty of Burkina Faso, the city buzzes with movement and activity, and it takes some time to realise that the country is afflicted with a poverty we are not used to in the west. There are few homeless, and people appear to move with purpose, however through the dictatorial rule of President Compare, the people are left poor and hungry – whilst still working and struggling to survive. Despite the grim reality of live in Burkina Faso, people in the city are friendly, and the ingratitude and unhappiness that seems to pervade our western society is non-existent here, people are appreciative for their lives, their family and their culture. Within the region, Burkina Faso, and Ougadougou are known as artistic hubs of Africa – it is considered the home of African cinema, and is home to many talented painters, crafters, and of course musicians.
My time in Burkina Faso was mainly spent learning to play Djembe, from the master musicians of the group Burkina Azza. Burkina Azza hail from the northern region of Burkina Faso, quite close to the border with Mali, and are considered to be what is known in french as Jeli or Griot.
Griot is the name given to an artist, or artists, who are custodians of local culture and folklore. They are masters of the oral traditions, and are somewhat similar to the medieval bards and poets of Europe – except much more badarse. Griot artists are born into a Griot family, and it is their responsibility and duty to uphold the cultural history, beliefs and identity of their people, whilst moving into the future.
Griot artists are dedicated, and committed artists, who will continue to create, perform and preserve their culture their entire life, and are recognised as a valuable part of their society – and are supported financially through the community through gigs and donations. A Griot will not be the wealthiest members of African society, however unlike western artists, they will command the respect of the community.
Furthermore, Griots are virtuosic on their instruments, as they have spent the majority of their formative years, studying the techniques and traditions required to allow them to function as cultural leaders in their community.
Burkina Azza are in every sense, the true embodiment of the Griot, and perform their music with dazzling proficiency, control and passion – I’m very excited to be able to share my small selection of recordings with you!
Here is a short clip of Burkina Azza doing their thing, (courtesy of the African Drumming Youtube Channel,) and shows them playing several interesting instruments, including Djembes, Duns, a small talking drum (which is squeezed to raise its pitch) and my favourite, the Balafon.
The Balafon is not dissimilar the marimba and xylophones that most people in Australia are familiar with. It’s comprised of many tuned wooden bars, resting on wooden framework over several large gourds (these things again!) which allow the instrument to resonate when struck with wooden mallets. The Balafon has a deep and resonant tone which sings out when struck, and is probably one of those stereotypical African sounds you come to expect when listening to African Music.
Today we have one recording from Burkina Azza – which contains two separate, but related pieces.
Next time we hear from Burkina Azza, we’ll feature an exclusive interview with the band, and get to hear more about their back story, what it means to be Griot, and what their songs mean to them.
Notes on the Music
The music that Burkina Azza has created, is their own unique interpretation of traditional Burkinabe and Malian music. The pieces are not necessarily literal preservations of older pieces, but rather combines elements of groove, form and structure which are important in the music of this region, to create their own unique music.
Interesting to note with Burkina Azza, as with Salaka last week, that the performance is totally un-amplified, and lower dynamic aspects such as the vocals are required to rise above the thundering drums and Balafons. Burkina Azza features a female lead vocalist, who we can hear a little of, but when she gets going she can really belt it out. We’ll spend some more time focusing on her in the next post.
This music features many solos from different instruments, and these solos frequently incorporate a large element of showmanship, from rolling on the floor whilst playing, to playing instruments behind their head, Burkina Azza know how to put on a visual display, without compromising the music. Again, we’ll see more of this next post.
What will we hear?
This performance was given for the tour group at our private residence, in a quiet Ougadougoun street, but the sound spilling from the house drew young children and neighbours to the gate to watch.
At this performance, the lineup was as follows: Two Balafons, two Dununs, one Gankoqui, two Djembes and two Gourd Drums. I only know this through pictures, and remembering the actual performance, and it is difficult to hear the second Djembe and Gourd.
In the previous post, I defined some terms which help me listen to West African music, if you’re not familiar with this system, please check it out here!
One interpretation of these layers would be:
Layer 1: The Dununs and Gankoqui (bell) form the foundation of the groove, providing a simple pattern, from which the groove is based. This groove is simply crotchets on the Gankoqui until the Dununs are called into action by a call and response phrase at 1:16.
Layer 2: The intertwining phrases of the two Balafons, add complexity to the groove and fill out the sound of the band. It is difficult to differentiate the two parts for a lot of the recording, however one is louder and plays a higher pitched phrase, and the other in the middle-lower register.
Further to this is the addition of a large Gourd drum, which sounds very percussive, and strikes out a one bar repeated rhythm.
Layer 3: The instruments in the third layer changes often, at times it is the first Balafon, rising out of its repeated rhythms to play short solos, at other times its the master drummer Adama on his Djembe, others its the Gourd drum soloing, and of course the group vocals.
This interpretation of the layers may not sit with some listeners, and it might feel that the Balafon is the most essential to the groove of this piece. Let me know in the comments what you think!
A chronology of whats happening in this piece is available when listened to on the Soundcloud page. Comments will appear as the piece plays.
For Music Nerds
- The Balafons are tuned to the major pentatonic scale – despite this, I don’t grow weary of their sound, or feel that it is repeating excessively.
- Note the distinctly different sound between the Gourd drum and the Djembe – the gourd sounds dead, and does not ring out at all after being struck, whereas the Djembe’s tone is quite evident, and is a central feature of its sound. The Gourd solos at 3:43, and the Djembe at 3:56.
- In Djembe technique there are three basic attacks – Bass (deep sound), Tone (middle sound that resonates) and Slap (High Pitched sharp attack without resonance). The Tone and the Slap are produced through similar techniques, but the alternation between these two attacks is what forms the basis of most Djembe patterns, grooves and solos.
- It’s said that what differentiates the good Djembe players from the excellent one is how clear the difference between their tones and slaps are.
- Listen closely to how incredible the articulations of Adama (the master djembe player)’s strokes are at 3:56, and the continuous rolling effect that his solo phrases create…not to mention his rhythmic accuracy. Phwoar.
- Listen for the call and response phrases between the Djembe and Dununs at 1:16 and 6:14.
- The call and response phrase at 6:14 is also super disorienting, anybody have any ideas?
- I find it really hard to decipher where the pulse is in the second groove after 5:53 – I’ll think I’ve got it, then the bell will come in on what feels like the second triplet…weird.
If you’re interested in hearing/seeing more from Burkina Azza, you can find a whole slew of different videos at the following link. Enjoy!