Sambla Rhythms Bring African Language to Life

December 4, 2018

On Monday, November 7, 2018, Sambla balafon master Mamadou Diabate and his band Percussion Mania were invited by Florian Lionnet and the Princeton Program in Linguistics to give a concert in Taplin Auditorium. Prior to the concert, Mamadou gave a demonstration of the Sambla xylophone in Florian Lionnet’s “Languages of Africa” class, taught that day by guest-lecturer Laura McPherson (Dartmouth College).

Mamadou demonstrated how the Sambla language can be imitated on the balafon to transmit precise messages, a fascinating form of language surrogacy studied by McPherson. The students learnt how phrases as simple as “thank you” or as complicated as “be the first to give 10,000 francs to the balafon!” can be played on a xylophone and understood by people who practice the Sambla language and culture.

Professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College Laura McPherson delivers a guest lecture in Florian Lionnet’s “Languages of Africa” class

Taplin Auditorium was full for the band’s performance that night. A diverse crowd of faculty, visiting scholars, staff members, and students gathered to attend this African music concert, a rare event on campus. With two large xylophones, a West African percussion set, a guitar, and a bass, the band took the public on an enthralling rhythmic and aesthetic trip to West Africa. Between each song, Mamadou would address the public with humor, presenting the next song in French, with McPherson translating to English.

Students were invited to join the band on stage and dance to the music

The performance was impressive: the xylophone players were at times so fast that the mallets used to hit the keys could barely be seen. After a few songs, the public followed Mamadou’s invitation to stand up and dance, and the second half of the concert saw an entranced crowd dance to Sambla traditional rhythms, and sing along with the band in the Jula language. Mamadou even invited three students to show their particularly elaborated dance moves on stage on one of the songs. The event was a rejoicing cross-cultural communion achieved through music and dance. The band said afterwards that this was the best audience they had during their US tour. The concert was also particularly appreciated by the students. “I didn’t expect to have as much fun while learning so much at the same time!” said one student in Lionnet’s class.

Mamadou Diabate and Percussion Mania with Florian Lionnet (front left) and Laura McPherson (front right)

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