Arts, Culture & Media

Neba Solo: Mali's Balafon Master

Mali, in West Africa, is a country that's been called the new Afghanistan because it's become a new safe haven for Muslim extremists. Naturally, any talk of military intervention is heavily loaded. And yet, that's what's on the table right now. Today, the French foreign minister met with Mali's prime minister to discuss military plans to dislodge Muslim extremists from the north of the country.

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For a country where music is so central to life and entertainment, the crisis has quieted many musicians in a big way. But not balafon player Neba Solo.

If you look at a map of Mali, it's basically two countries. The conflict zone is two-thirds of Mali, all in the north. Muslim extremists have imposed Sharia law there. In the south, it's a different country.

Neba Solo's home village of Nebadougou is in the south, and he says that where he's from, there's no violence.

"Things are calm," he tells me. "There's no problem in Nebadougou, even though the troubles in the north do concern us."

Neba illustrates that concern with a proverb: the elephant – like Mali – is big, but even a problem in his foot will cause troubles for the whole body.

Some who know Neba Solo well would say that parable applies to Neba Solo too.

Ingrid Monson, an ethnomusicologist at Harvard Univesity, has been following Neba Solo's career for years.

When Neba Solo arrived in Boston this week for a performance and discussion of his music in Mali, Monson knew right away that things with him were not OK.

"The first thing I noticed is that he's lost weight," Monson says. "He told me that it's due to nervousness and fear for the future."

Neba Solo, born Souleymane Traore, is 43-years old. His instrument, the balafon, is a wood xylophone whose sounds are amplified by resonating gourds. It's played widely in Mali and across West Africa.

When his talents on the balafon became known, Traore took his stage name: "Neba," from his hometown of Nebadougou, and "Solo" because he can…like no one else.

Professor Ingrid Monson had been planning earlier this year to visit Mali and continue her research on Neba Solo. But the coup last March, and ensuing violence there, changed her plans.

So instead, she got Neba Solo to come to Harvard. The hall was packed, offering many an introduction to this incredible musician.

Americans also seem to be waking up to Mali's confusing and consequential situation, in part because Malian music appears under threat.

Ingrid Monson says right now though, music is one of the last concerns for the Malian government in the capital Bamako.

"The government is barely in control. They need to have an election, there are a lot of police on the streets in Bamako, there's a great deal of uncertainty, the worst part for people who are poor already is the price of basic food stuffs for living has gone way up and it's made life very difficult."

Despite the depressing situation in the south and the north of Mali, Neba Solo says music is not dead. It's the moment, the "right now" that is dead, he explains.

"There's no activity, nothing's happening in Mali," Neba Solo says. "And if there's no activity, there's no art."

He continues: "Me and other musicians, we're trying to pull together through the crisis. But the crisis also means that the ceremonies and parties that musicians typically get gigs for, they're not happening. So, we sit around with nothing to do."

Well, that's not entirely true.

Though he hasn't recorded it yet, Neba Solo has written a song Jenkafo, which means "reunite us."

In the track, Neba Solo sings to Malians to have confidence in the future of their country. Not just through talk, but through action.

He believes Jenkafo can make a difference.