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REVIEWS of Master Fiddlers of Dagbon

Nils Jacobson, All About Jazz
James Burns, Musical Traditions Web Services
Pharoah S. Wail, Amazon

Review by Nils Jacobson, Managing Editor, All About Jazz.  <http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=8560>

Top 15 Jazz CDs of 2001.  Nils Jacobson, Managing Editor, All About Jazz.  Jazz Journalists Association Library. <http://www.jazzhouse.org/library/?read=jja11>

John Miller Chernoff, a man with many hats, has been a sociologist, African drummer, and cultural anthropologist. His seminal book, African Rhythm, African Sensibility, remains required reading for anyone interested in the connections between traditional drumming and culture in West Africa. With Master Fiddlers of Dagbon, he assumes a role as documentary historian. Chernoff recorded a traditional fiddle performance by master musicians from Dagbon, a traditional state in northern Ghana. The disc comes with incredibly informative liner notes, which bear almost as much interest as the music itself. (And it's a welcome third part in Rounder's series on the master musicians of Dagbon.)

You may wonder what relevance African string music shares with jazz. But just consider those bleak four centuries of the African-American slave trade, and the commonly asserted view that jazz is an African-American art form. Musical traditions preserved over six centuries of paternally-inherited chieftancy in Dagbon have very deep roots and are not easily forgotten. The master musicians of Dagbon also inherit their position from their fathers. Dagbamba drummers use the "talking drum" to perform aural histories documenting several generations of ancestry.

The tunes on Master Fiddlers predominantly feature the one-string bowed lute called the goonji in Dagbon. Compared to the American fiddle, there's a world of difference; but one key feature shared by both is that they are not even-tempered instruments. (That means they offer notes "between the notes.") The fiddlers in this ritual performance play repeated short motifs, often in unison—interspersed with vocals, shaker polyrhythms, and other sounds. An emphatic sense of call-and-response predominates everywhere. Otherwise, the music organizes itself largely around texture. Many simultaneous layers flow in parallel, and any changes in these musical strata appear deliberately in response to gestures by other players or vocalists. Improvisation plays an important role here, though it's much more gradual and deliberate than what we expect in jazz. Changes in the pattern of themes, the juxtaposition of instruments, and vocal progressions occur over time in a very dynamic sense.

Some listeners might find this music repetitive, inflexible, or primitive; but those unfortunate few must not have paid close attention to the earthy but sophisticated forms of musical communication that predominate in this document of Dagbamba musical culture. Provided you're willing to listen, and in a sense, get involved, Chernoff's Master Fiddlers offer a tremendous depth of emotion, a wonderfully interactive pattern of musical exposition, and a profound sense of intoxication. One feels strains of the African musical traditions which have permeated the musics of the Western Hemisphere, most palpably felt in the roots music of Haiti and Cuba. But also in jazz, too.

Review by James Burns, Musical Traditions Web Services <http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/dagbon.htm>

Master Fiddlers of Dagbon

Rounder CD 5086

The new release from Rounder, Master Fiddlers of Dagbon, is a valuable addition to the world music catalogue.  Cover pictureIt is not only well produced, and will delight the casual world music listener, but also gives enough background information in the CD booklet to satisfy the musicologist.  It is the first major commercial release of the fiddle music of the Dagomba people.

The Dagomba people, properly called Dagbamba, but referred to in much of the literature as Dagomba (as I will refer to them here), inhabit Northern Ghana in an area they call Dagbon.  The main town shown on the maps of Ghana is Tamale, and this is where the music was recorded.  They are a very strong and proud people with a history extending back at least 700 years.  Their culture has been preserved and passed down orally amongst the drummers, Lungsi, who are the griots of their people.  The Dagomba migrated from northern Nigeria all the way to Mali, and slowly made their way down south through Burkina Faso, where their relatives the Mossi people stayed, and in to Ghana where some groups also split off to form the Nanumda and other related groupings.  They set up their capital at Yendi where the Yaa Naa resides as the Paramount Chief of Dagbon.  Originally the Dagomba had no instruments, only singing, but during the time of Naa Nyagsi the first drummer apprenticed the Lunga, commonly called the talking drum, or hourglass drum, and brought drumming to Dagbon.  Later they absorbed the Gungon, a large bass drum, from the Kotokoli people, who live in present day Northern Togo, and thus the present day ensemble of Dagomba drumming was formed.

Rounder Records has released two excellent CDs of Dagomba drumming: The Master Drummers of Dagbon Vol 1 & 2.  The important thing to grasp from this incorporation of instruments is that although many tribes play these drums, the Dagomba have evolved their own styles of playing them which are unique.

More recently, compared to the talking drum, the Goonji (pronounced gon-jay) was similarly introduced into Dagbon.  It arrived in the early 1800s from the Guruma people of Burkina Faso.  The Guruma people have always been closely connected with the Dagomba, and indeed a Guruma elder has a place in the circle of elders around the Yaa Naa.  Interestingly enough, the drummers and goonji players have different stories of when and where the goonji was introduced, with the drummers claiming they know history more than the goonji players, a claim which may very well be true.  For Dagbon is traditionally a caste society, with people born in to hereditary occupations like drumming, blacksmithing, butchering, and soothsaying.  The drummers have always been connected with the chieftaincy because the first drummer was from the Yaa Naa's family.  All of the drummers today can trace their lineage from this family, and have always been in charge of preserving the history.  In what they believe is a mystical ability, a drummer can recount not only the entire history of the tribe, but amazingly the entire lineage of every family.  This is remarkable when you consider a chief could have 30 or more children and those children have their own children and so on.  The goonji players, however, have never had this task, and their music is more social than historical.  As such, Goonji players often sing in Hausa, which has become a lingua franca for Muslims living in Ghana.  In a town like Tamale you can find areas with many different peoples - Mamprusi, Gonje, Mossi, Sissala, Yoruba, as well as many other tribes, and Hausa has become the medium of conversation rather than Dagbali (Dagbani), the language of the Dagomba.  Thus, while the drummers have always been attached to the chief and through him to the Dagomba people, the goonji players play for members of other tribes and thus sing in Hausa as well as Dagbani.  This has given the Goonji players a more widespread appeal, and they have become quite popular in recent times.

The Goonji is a one-stringed fiddle with a calabash resonator covered with skin.  It is bowed with a curved bow, strung with horsehair, or in some cases the artificial hair used in weaving women's hairstyles.  It is played by many tribes throughout West Africa with similar playing styles, the only variation usually being the construction of the instrument.  It is played in an ensemble of two or more goonji along with accompaniment from Zaabia, which are rattles made from a gourd with the seeds sealed inside rather than strung outside.  The musicians can be called to play at funerals, festivals, weddings, outdoorings of babies, or any occasion for celebration.  The rhythms are all based on a 1-2 feel allowing anyone to dance comfortably to the music, and the Hausa lyrics ensure its widespread acceptance.  Compared to the dance drumming, which has many changes and beats, the goonji music is much more accessible to the non-Dagomba listener.  The music itself is formed around praise names of chiefs.  The fiddles will play one part on the praise name over and over while the singer will improvise, and the lead goonji player will play variations off the main phrase.

The music was produced and recorded by John Chernoff, a long time authority on Dagomba as well as other styles of African Music.  Indeed his book African Music and African Sensibility (1979) is often used as a textbook for African Music classes.  He has always shown the highest levels of scholarship in anything he produces.  To this day people talk about him in Tamale, where he lived and studied in the 1970's, and praise his command of the language and music.  He also produced the Master Drummers of Dagbon CDs for Rounder Records.  He always gives well-researched historical and cultural backgrounds for the music, as well as relevant transcriptions of the music.  He chooses to record the music outside rather than in a studio to give it the feel of a live performance.  The music on this CD is excellently recorded and gives a very authentic sound.  In short, it is a valuable addition to the catalogue of Dagomba music, and will likely cause even the casual listener to spontaneously begin to dance.

James Burns - 19.10.01

Review by Pharoah S. Wail (Inner Space) on Amazon.com:  April 30, 2003

5.0 out of 5 stars

Master Fiddlers of Dagbon (Audio CD)

Far too underappreciated and little known

It saddens me to see that the sales ranking of this disc is so low. It in no way reflects the power of this music, it only reflects the fact that this disc is not well-known.

This is not Afro-pop or Worldbeat. This is not African music for the people who think that Graceland was excellent "African music". This is the real deal. The only aspect of this music that could be considered as having "Western influence" is just the fact that the music was recorded at all. I don't say this to hurt anyone's feelings, I just say it to make that clarification. American's generally think of "African music" as being just electric Afro-Pop. This is a much stronger and more powerful music. Traditional music. This is music for people and community, not for Billboard Charts.

The American mainstream tends to only think of a handful of mainstream singers, and drumming, when it thinks of "African music", but that isn't even remotely a complete picture. What you have here is an ensemble of one-string fiddlers, vocalists, and rattles. The effect is hypnotic and invigorating all at the same time. Also, these are not Western violins with one string. These are fully African instruments, sort of larger cousins to the more famous njarka violin that Ali Farka Toure plays so well.

Ghana is such a musically rich country. This cd, as well as Master Drummers of Dagbon Volumes 1 and 2 (all recorded by John M. Chernoff) should be required purchasing for anyone interested in any sort of West African music. I received this as a gift a couple months ago and have been in love with it ever since.

This disc has some of the most kaleidoscopic music I own. This ensemble has a way of working into a groove, then one fiddler (or more) changes the way he is approaching that groove and it just changes the aural picture of the entire ensemble. On one hand, this is the essence of earth music.. community music... you can feel the energy of the community and culture that these people have created over hundreds of years. You can almost feel their soil between the toes of your bare feet. Yet on the other hand there is still almost a "symphonic Parliament" (Parliament the band, not the British political body) aspect to this music in the way that the pieces have movements and rhythmic shifts.

I don't know how else to say it. You can change the sound of this music just by the way you listen to it. Focus here and it sounds one way, focus there and it sounds another way. Kaleidoscopic is really all I can say. There is always a new perspective from which to listen inside this fascinating music.

West Africa has a huge body of excellent fiddle musics and this is most definitely one of the premiere recordings illustrating this. Sometimes I am able to intently focus on everything happening on this cd, and other times its ryhthms just float me off to daydream land. In a serious moment, George Carlin said that all people should be encouraged to just daydream for an hour everyday. This cd certainly puts me in that place on occasion. There is something about the texture of this music, the moderately ancient rhythms (just a couple-hundred-year-old tradition), and the incredible tone of these fiddles that just makes it supremely easy to transcend your own reality and get to that space where everything is just perfect.