Scoring Malian Music

Scoring Malian Music

The only difference between the music of Bach and the music of Toumani Diabaté is that Toumani’s music does not exist in the type of score format that allows another musicians to actually play the music themselves. Bach’s music has come down to us in the form of scores, some hand written by Bach himself, which give indications to a musician on how to make the sounds that Bach had in mind. The Manuscript Score is a very broad form of score as its range of possibilities is rather wide.


Vihuela Tablatures

Similarly the old vihuela music from the 1500’s was published in beautiful tablatures that represented the six “courses” of strings on the vihuela as horizontal lines and the frets of each strings as numbers placed on these lines.

In the times before recording these published scores of the music by the vihuela composers of Spain were disseminated throughout Europe, in editions of thousands of copies. This was the way to share music. It is incredible to think that human beings have made this way of sharing musical thoughts, just on a piece of paper. You put the piece of paper in front of somebody with the an instrument and the ability to read the map, and voila! the music is heard. And the beauty of this system is that there is no “definitive” version of the piece. the piece exists in a realm of possibility.


Interpretation and the Composer

Manuscript Scores eventually went beyond just a means of sharing music. Reading these scores became a whole tradition in itself, called “interpretation” and this tradition became more and more a part of European musical life and generated that dubious character called “The Composer.”



Today the recording has become the primary means of disseminating music, although Manuscript Scores of all types are still very popular and widely shared in various ways. So the realm of possibility has narrowed slightly: the differences between one person’s “performance” of the work (now digitally reproduced as a Digital Score) and another’s is merely due to the kind of music system they play it on, when they choose to play it, how loud they put the volume, their own subjective reaction to the music…the list is also long, of course.

Today a “Composer” can generate a Manuscript Score AND oversee the making of the Digital Score, thus ensuring the “ideal” vision of his or her work. But I would argue that this misses the point somewhat. Personally I think that the whole beauty of a work of art is in its indeterminacy, the chance aspects of how it will be played, viewed, listened to etc. Imagine having Monet behind you at the Louvre telling you how to view his painting…unspeakably irritating.


Recordings of the Kora Music of Mali

The kora music of the Mandé people of West Africa has been shared person to person in a kind of direct transmission. The Griot people have a whole social structure that guards and passes on this tradition and its music.

Toumani Diabaté’s father, Sidiki Diabaté was the first musician to release a kora recording. So for the first time Kora music was shared in way similar to the old vihuela scores, or Bach’s music. So there are now “scores” of kora music in the form of recordings of the actual sound of individual performers: Digital Scores. The possibilities of these scores are not as subtle and diverse as the scores of 500 years ago, the Manuscript Scores of the “composers” of Europe, but these new scores can be turned into music in the same way (in this case just by pressing a few buttons).

We could argue that this has had a good or negative effect on Mandé music. We can argue this somewhere else, at another time. But what it does mean is that the sphere of influence of this music has widened to the four corners of the spherical globe. Today I am just as likely to be “influenced” by the Manuscript Scores of musicians from Renaissance Spain as I am by the Digital Scores of music from the recordings of the contemporary griots of West Africa. So be it.


Scoring Kora Music

So my response has been to create Manuscript Scores from the Digital Scores of Mandé musicians so that this music can be played by guitarists. I have used the format passed down from the vihuela masters, just as Sidiki used the format of the modern recording engineers to create his own score. My hope is that this score will enlarge the realm of possibility once more, because low-tech is a wonderful thing.


Derek Gripper