MFM Presents Music Is Essential Webinar #9 with Banning Eyre – Expanding Our Conception of the Guitar in Africa
Report by Dawoud Kringle
On Friday, April 29, 2022, MFM presented its ninth Music is Essential webinar with Banning Eyre (VOYAGERS guitarist, author, photographer, Senior Producer for the Peabody Award-winning public radio series Afropop Worldwide, and MFM AC member.) The title of the webinar was Expanding Our Conception of the Guitar in Africa. This was a continuation of Eyre’s previous webinar for MFM (Report: MFM ZOOM Webinar #5 with Banning Eyre (musiciansformusicians.org) ). Adam Reifsteck was the host and moderator.
Eyre began his presentation by mentioning that the previous night (4/28/22), Burna Boy, a well known Nigerian artist, sold out Madison Square Garden. This was a historic event, being the largest concert of African music in the United States to date. Eyre described it as a “watershed moment” in the history of African music in the US. Yet, he also pointed out that, owing to its incorporation of elements of hip hop, dancehall, and rock, it had diverted far from its guitar based origins in the 70s.
Eyre went on to talk about the history of the guitar in Africa. He mentioned that while the guitar was introduced to Africa as early as the 16th century, the greatest influx happened in the 20th century. He went on to demonstrate some early guitar styles that were popular in the mid 20th century. He also pointed out how much of the spreading of guitar through Africa was influenced by the movement of colonial labor.
He discussed how African American music such as funk and R&B, and Caribbean / Cuban music sounded to the ears of the African musicians as their own music coming home. There were differences throughout Africa; such as the Congolese being more attuned to the Cuban / Hispanic music, while the funk and R&B was more embraced by the Nigerians.
Some time was devoted to the more distant music history, such as that of the 12th century Malian empire. He spoke of the griot tradition. The griots were more than musicians and poets; they were also historians and social administrators. A great many aspects of this tradition has no parallel with Western civilization.
One important point one gets from Eyre’s presentation is that the role of the guitar in African music is of supreme importance. It is central to a great deal of African music, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. Some of this is due to the guitarist’s attempt to play parts from other instruments such as the kora, balaphone, and ngone.
Eyre devoted a lot of time to demonstrating guitar techniques from all over Africa in considerable detail.
After about an hour of sharing his encyclopedic body of knowledge, Eyre took questions from the attendees. The first question was about Eyre’s efforts to present and promote African music. The audience for this music is small, but very devoted. He pointed out that the further you get form the music that arose as a result of the slave trade and colonialism, the smaller the audience. Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi (MFM’s president) asked an interesting question: did Eyre ever reach a point where he felt he couldn’t go any deeper into African music because he is not African? Eyre replied that while he does acknowledge a limit, the more he works at it, the deeper he goes. He quoted an old Malian saying: “no matter how long a piece of wood floats in the water, it will never become a crocodile.” He went on to say that while he studies this music, and draws inspiration from it, in his own original music, he is not trying to be authentic. When asked about the origins of many traditional instruments from 12th century Mali, Eyre was able to trace the evolution of these instruments, and into the development of American instruments such as the banjo. He also pointed out that the more you get to places with greater Arabic / Islamic influences, the more you will find microtonality in the music.
It would be difficult, impractical, and ultimately a disservice to detail the immense body of knowledge, and very beautiful guitar work, Eyre shared in the hour and a half long webinar. It is recommended to check it out for yourself. You can find the video on MFM’s YouTube channel (MFM ZOOM Webinar #9 w. Banning Eyre Speaking on Expanding Our Conception of the Guitar in Africa – YouTube ). It is very obvious that Eyre’s immense and impressive scholarship is supported by innate musical talent, and a genuine love and empathy with this astonishing body of music.