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Preservationists, Artists Work to Revive Traditional Ivorian Music 


The West African country of Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) has long been a musical hub, attracting artists from across the continent as well as producing its own talent -- like international reggae star, Alpha Blondy. The country's civil war and the disappearance of cultural traditions are taking its toll on the country's musical heritage. But from the northern village of Tarato, Lisa Bryant reports on new efforts to revive traditional Ivorian music.

Siloue Adama, 45, is one of two balafon makers in this small village, skirting a tarmac road. On a recent sunny morning, he sits on a wooden bench, testing sounds produced by different, hollowed-out calabashes. The good ones are tied under the wooden chords of the balafon with strips of cowhide. The finished instrument looks like a giant xylophone.

Speaking in his native Senofo dialect, Adama talks about his craft. Balafons need a special kind of wood, he says - and the gourds must be just right to produce a sweet sound.

Each chord has a special name. For example, the biggest chord at the end of the instrument is called the 'mother' of the balafon.

Adama said he once earned a decent living making balafons and playing them during harvests and at village festivals. But that changed when civil war broke out in Cote d'Ivoire, in 2002,splitting the country in two. He said people didn't have the money to pay for the instruments - and were fearful to gather in places to listen to them.

Traditional instruments like the balafon are threatened by another phenomenon: Urban migration. When Ivorians and other Africans leave their villages, many are also leaving their musical heritage - usually an oral one - behind.

Even those who stay are turning to hipper DJ music, mixing Western and African sounds.

The trend might be irreversible. But Guillaume Zadi is determined to document the country's musical heritage, and to promote it. So a few years ago, he launched the Ivorian Center for Research and Documentation of African Musicology in Abidjan.

Zadi's Website features instruments, songs and dances from across Cote d'Ivoire. Collecting the information is a painstaking effort.

When Zadi goes to a village, he says he documents what instruments are played locally and how they're made. He scouts out musicians and dancers - and even if they're not there, he tries to get an account of the village's musical traditions.

A few blocks away, Cote d'Ivoire's National Music School, is trying to preserve Ivorian music in another way.

Jean-Claude Nguessan, head of the African music department, says the school is trying to write down local music. He believes that's the best way to preserve it.

But not everybody agrees with this idea. Madeleine Leclair, a West African music specialist at the Museum of Quai Branly in Paris, says putting traditional music to paper doesn't work.

Leclair says writing down the music fails to catch its nuances. Besides, she says, African music is closely tied to local rituals, whether its preserved will depend on whether the rituals continue.

Still, there are some encouraging signs.

Prominent African singers, like Mali's Salif Keita,showcase traditional instruments in their albums. Other instruments and sounds are being blended into Western style music. And some organizations, like the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, are classifying endangered instruments as part of mankind's cultural heritage.

In Cote d'Ivoire, new festivals are emerging - like one in the southern town of Gagnoa, promoting ethnic Bete music.

And in the north, local music expert Roger Soro describes regional balafon contests, pitting villages against each other - just like a football match.

Soro says these contests have given the balafon a new role: As an instrument that brings people together, after five years of war.


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