Music

A Big Heart in Africa

Who could question music’s life-changing, transformative power? Music is memory. Nearly anyone can recall a time that a song brought on a comfortable smile; conjured tears of sadness; or when the pulse of an album shared at top volume in a dorm room created a cement bond. Sometimes the stakes are higher. Songs may prove to be the weight in the balance that can tip an entire culture toward survival. Likewise, the absence of songs may create a vacuum capable of bringing on a culture’s eventual destruction.

Paul Chandler is an American ex-patriot who co-founded and runs Instruments for Africa, (i4africa,) with his wife, Tama Wali.

i4africa cofounders Paul Chandler and Tama Wali.
i4africa co-founders Paul Chandler and Tama Wali.

Since 2007 the non-profit organization has pursued goals toward cultural preservation, education, and reconciliation in the West African nation of Mali. For i4africa, the stakes are extremely high. They organize events that bring people together to share artistic expression, culture, and history, emphasizing Malian’s similarities and their long-standing tradition of tolerance. i4africa‘s recent work has special relevancy due to the influence of extremist ideologies which threaten Mali, especially in the north of the country.

Chandler grew up in Nebraska, living there until his early-20s. He then traveled widely in Central America, South America, Europe, and Asia, while living mostly in California, Texas, and British Columbia. He has lived in Mali since 2003, initially working as a teacher at the American School in the capital city, Bamako.

Chandler, who is a fine musician, was exploring his own fascination with the expertise, worldwide influences, and deep traditions that are found in Malian music. While improving his skills on guitar, he also began producing concerts in his newly adopted city. Soon after settling in Mali, Chandler opened a recording studio, started a record label, (Studio Mali,) and he has worked to develop deep-rooted relationships with many of Mali’s most accomplished musicians.

Chandler’s devotion to music and his enchantment at Mali’s many rich musical traditions propelled him and he seized the chance to synthesize his Studio Mali work with the work of his non-profit organization.

The i4africa logo features a simple heart stamped in the center of a sturdy, majestic Baobab tree that is spreading its wide, wild, and generous limbs. The symbol of the sacred tree reflects the way that many who know Chandler feel about him – he is contemplative, stately, kind, and big-hearted.
The i4africa logo features a simple heart stamped in the center of a sturdy, majestic Baobab tree that is spreading its wide, wild, and generous limbs. The symbol of the sacred tree reflects the way that many who know Chandler feel about him – he is contemplative, stately, kind, and big-hearted.

The scope and reach of Chandler’s work is impressive. From the i4africa website:

“We work to empower [people] through academic and cultural educational opportunities. We organize events and create spaces that bring people together with the common goal of mending the social fabric of today’s Mali through shared artistic expression, culture, and history, emphasizing Malian’s similarities and their long-standing tradition of tolerance. [Chandler] has produced events and organized projects in Mali for National Geographic, NY Times, Carnegie Hall, USAID, Johns Hopkins/Bloomberg School of Public Health, US Department of State, UNICEF, APE Artists Project Earth, ABC, National Museum of Mali, Ministry of Culture (Mali), ICRISAT, and BONO’s non-profit organization DATA.”

Musical Pauls - Chandler and Hewson.
Musical Pauls – Chandler and Hewson.

Mali is home to nearly 15 million souls, it is landlocked, and desert landscapes predominate the nation’s north. The Niger River is Mali’s bloodline, it cuts the shape of a scythe across the center of the country and creates a de facto border – northeast of the Niger River few towns dot the map, indicating the harsh dry conditions for living.

The bulk of the population is found in the southwest, closer to the capital city. Bamako is an ancient river community; now a growing, cosmopolitan city, (home to about 2 million people,) located at a critical division of the Niger River’s upper and middle valleys.

About 90% of Malians practice Islam, and of those a majority are non-denominational Muslims. The country’s cultural traditions are closely tied to music and dance, and, as noted earlier, Mali enjoyed a longstanding reputation of tolerance and peace among its diverse peoples.

A number of complicated political, social, and economic factors have conspired in recent years to change the cultural landscape and erode the ethos of tolerance. These factors include population growth; regime change in neighboring Libya; the availability of inexpensive goods from China – and especially the proliferation of religious extremism. Conditions are considered less stable and more dangerous, and extremism threatens the flow and continuity of people’s lives by censuring the practice of the nation’s cultural and musical traditions.

Riders at a Malian cultural festival.
Riders at a Malian cultural festival.

After about ten years of teaching, Chandler left his position at the American School in Bamako to focus even more on promoting and producing cultural festivals and the other work i4africa was undertaking. In 2011 the Bureau of Cultural and Education Affairs awarded Paul Chandler a research grant titled: Preservation of Endangered Musical Traditions and Essential Related Art Forms in Mali. In 2013 he was awarded a grant to produce peace and reconciliation cultural festivals in the northern regions of Mali.

He has also made a documentary film called It Must Make Peace. The preview (linkable below) is absorbing and beautiful. In it, Chandler and his fellow filmmakers highlight and explore the unifying magic of music. Winnipeg-based Director of Photography, Brian David Melnyk, creates gorgeous frames for the shots of the musicians. The filmmakers lend the proceedings a mature and patient gravity; they  demonstrate that the nations’ songs and dances provide cultural traditions so rich that they are essential to life’s rhythms and continuity in Mali – from its cities to its tribal villages. One interview subject explains that by looking back and learning traditions, people can find a way forward:

“If our children know their culture, they won’t get lost…. If you follow the footsteps of your forefathers you can’t get lost…”

It Must Make Peace Trailer (2016 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

“If our children know their culture, they won’t get lost…. If you follow the footsteps of your forefathers you can’t get lost…”

It Must Make Peace Trailer (2016 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

The clip directly below features a passionate and revealing interview with musician Afel Bocoum. It helps to paint a picture of the general conditions for traditionalist musicians in Mali, and in addition to Bocoum’s guitar playing, you can also see and hear a variety of Malian players perform with traditional instruments:

I Sang a Lot for Mali-Afel Bocoum (2015 – Directed and Produced by Paul R. Chandler.)

i4africa’s work serves multiple purposes. First, the festivals themselves offer people a gathering place to perform their rituals and traditions. Additionally, they continue to teach younger generations the songs and dances of their people. And they give those gathered to perform at the festival, but who are otherwise unfamiliar with other musical and dance forms that may exist in their home country, a chance to witness Mali’s spectacular variety of dance and song. These traditions can be expected to help people understand one another and ultimately keep peace.

Festival International de Djenne.
Festival International de Djenne.

The festivals also support youth and women’s associations and hold peacemaking, community-building workshops.

It Must Make Peace debuted in Geneva, Switzerland in February 2016. It has been screened recently in Bamako, and also at the Festival International de Djenne, (which i4africa helped to plan and hold.) Plans for making the film available for world/U.S. audiences are underway.

If you would like to learn more or would like to make a contribution, link to i4africa’s Web site here: http://i4africa.org

20 April 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.