When I was first preparing to the leave the US for Africa,  I had the pleasure of working on a biography of the legendary Nigerian drummer, Babatunde Olatunji. One afternoon Baba and I were together and I was explaining to him my plans for setting up a Yoga Studio in Bamako, Mali and offering free classes (my wife Tama is an experienced Yoga teacher).  Baba who was on kidney dialysis at the time became very serious and clear and said do not give anything away for free. People have to pay for it. Africans have to pay for the classes. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. What was the harm in giving something away for free to people who don’t have economic resourses? Now I understand. Everybody has something to offer or exchange for something they need or want. There is value and sustainability in that.

Master Musician and teacher Lamine Soumano
Master Musician and teacher Lamine Soumano

The original concept for instruments for Africa began when I first came to Mali to study music in January of 2003.  I was taking courses with very talented musicians, who had been playing and performing for decades yet could not afford a quality instrument. Coming from the United States, I am aware of all the unused musical instruments stored away in closets and attics across America.  If only we could find a way to get those instruments out of storage and into the hands of musicians and schools in West Africa.

Instruments4Africa will receive donations of instruments to distribute to the master musicians in the Mentoring Program and other related programs.

Point here to Listen to Anamist Hunter Music from the region of SikassoSenofu women from the village of Niamala in the region of Sikasso in Mali. Home of one of our pilot projects and the festival of Koumantou.
Senofu women from the village of Niamala in the region of Sikasso in Mali. Home of one of our pilot projects and the festival of Koumantou.

Another priority of I4A is to support traditional arts in the village.  As economies in West Africa liberalize and life becomes more expensive for the poor, young people are forced to leave their villages and go to the cities in search of work and money.  As West African cities grow and increasingly become centers of wealth and influence, there is less and less value put on traditional culture. More and more young people in cities and villages have access to global media.  Watching TV has increasingly taken the place of participating in community activities like music and dance.

Without a formal education, young people migrating to cities like Bamako, Mali often end up working as servants in people’s homes, transporting heavy loads across the city on foot, or sitting (or sleeping) in front of someone’s house as a security guard 24 hours a day.

Often these jobs pay less than a dollar a day.  During certain times of the year villages are noticeably void of young men and women between the ages of 13 and 30.  As this trend continues and young people become part of urban culture, there are fewer and fewer people for the village elders to pass their traditional culture down to. I4A will sponsor young men and women to remain in the village and study their traditional art forms in village conservatories.  It only takes a few dedicated students and teachers to keep alive traditions that go back thousands of years.  We also want to connect Mali to the global community by bringing in students and professors, musicians and scientists from abroad, to exchange in our village conservatories.

The argument has been made that traditional culture also holds communities back, keeping them from modernizing and competing in the modern world.  Those of us who have been involved in traditional arts understand their value.  There is a large global community interested in this knowledge, there is revenue potential in its development, and most importantly there is an inherent value in this living and functioning history.  These rhythms, dances, and oral histories, which have developed over millennia, are priceless.  They hold together the fabric of life and give meaning and joy to people’s lives.  These customs are not just relics of the past, but possibly the key to a sustainable future.

Traditional culture is presently alive and well in Mali. As challenging as life can be here, there is a strong presence of hope and joy that I don’t feel in places where traditional culture is weak or absent. Malians have a dignity that can only come from knowing who one is, and where one has come from. Traditional culture is an endangered species.  Once that knowledge is lost, it is gone forever.  As a result our world is less diverse and we are all more vulnerable to physical and psychological dis-ease.