By Banning Eyre (Temple University Press, 2000)
Journalist Banning Eyre is one of Connecticut's great unsung musical treasures; he and Sean Barlow are the driving forces behind Afropop.org, one of the best sources I've come across to learn more about Africa's various styles of music, as diverse as they are infectious. But Eyre is also a stellar guitarist in his own right. He has recorded with Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, perhaps the biggest band to ever come out of Zimbabwe and certainly one of its coolest (and Zimbabwe has a lot of cool bands). And he has performed with the Super Rail Band, one of Mali's greatest acts. The latter, however, is for a more direct reason: Several years ago, Eyre effectively apprenticed himself to Djelimady Tounkara, the lead guitarist in the Super Rail Band. He spent the better part of a year in Bamako, learning as much as he could from Djelimady about Mali's musical traditions, and venturing out to meet—and hopefully play with—as many other musicians as he could find.
The written result of his exploits is In Griot Time, a book that's part travelogue, part character study (of Djelimady and the many other musicians Eyre meets), and part love letter to the music that Eyre went to Mali to learn how to play. In the course of the book, Eyre freely acknowledges his debt to John Miller Chernoff's African Rhythms and African Sensibilities, perhaps one of the best books ever written about African music for a Western audience. The parallels between Eyre's experiences and Chernoff's are many. Both went to Africa—Eyre to Mali and Chernoff to Ghana—to learn to play music. Both knew that playing the music well required them to understand something about the culture and history that created the style in the first place, and both strove hard to immerse themselves as much as they could. Chernoff's immersion was perhaps more successful: He emerged from his experience with a book that reads in parts like a Rosetta Stone to understanding Ghanian drumming in particular and African music generally. As a musician myself, I am still learning from Chernoff's book, and it's been ten years since I read it.
Eyre's book, by design, doesn't have that kind of insight. Unlike Chernoff, he doesn't dwell on how the music is put together so much as what it was like for him to learn how to play it. While it seems clear that he played music for at least a couple hours a day, most of the book is about what happens to him when he's not playing music—the conversations he has with people, the things he sees and does, the other musicians he hears—all written with a clear eye, an astonishing sensitivity, and a willingness to wrestle with some difficult questions about cultural frictions and the legacy of colonialism. The result, I believe, is a much more accessible book than Chernoff's. Where Chernoff's book is perfect for people who already love African music—particularly other musicians who are trying to figure out how to play it—Eyre's book is just the thing to make people who don't know much about African music want to learn more about it. Its own effect on me has already been profound. Chernoff's book in some ways scared me away from trying to play African music even as it made me want to all the more. But it was Eyre's book (and Eyre himself, who I finally took a lesson from) that finally made me pick up a guitar and try to play. I know that I'll never play like either Chernoff or Eyre—let alone the African musicians they have played with—but In Griot Time gave me the courage to play with the required humility, and evident joy.