An Explorer of a New Frontier in World Music

"What we are hearing hasn't been affected by James Brown or Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan," Jack Carneal says of the Malian music he's promoting.
"What we are hearing hasn't been affected by James Brown or Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan," Jack Carneal says of the Malian music he's promoting. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Cherkis
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Last December, Jack Carneal was in a typical end-of-semester panic. A lecturer in Towson University's English department, he had a stack of 80-some papers to grade. At his rehabbed North Baltimore house, he was also doing Mr. Mom duty: making breakfast for his two young boys, shuttling them off to school, picking them up and making sure dinner was ready when his wife returned from her job in the federal government.

But one distraction loomed over everything else. Within the past year, Carneal had sprouted another career: He had joined the ranks of a growing number of amateur ethnomusicologists.

Last year Carneal, 40, had started a little label called Yaala Yaala, dedicated to releasing records by Malian musicians. His goal wasn't far from that of a humanitarian organization: He wanted to release the music and return all profits back to the musicians. What began as a hobby now hovered between a job and an obsession.

Almost in spite of himself, Carneal's ambitions were growing. They now included an expensive trip to Bamako, Mali's capital. He got cold feet. "You know, this is a terrible idea -- this whole label," he told his wife, Chris. "Maybe I should just bag out of this trip."

The trip amounted to a $2,000 gamble. The sole reason for the excursion was a pitch meeting with Yoro Sidibe, a "hunter's musician." Sidibe, who's around 70, is the sage of the genre, an expert songwriter, hunter and medicine man, renowned in the West African bush as well as in bustling marketplaces. He had released dozens of cassettes. Carneal wanted to persuade him to join the digital age.

While living in Mali in 1999 and 2000, Carneal had heard the tapes: Sidibe's alpha-male vocals; the stubborn, loping beat; the thumping preacher's intensity. It mattered little that the lyrics were a blur or that Sidibe's donso music aims to incite hunters to kill. Carneal was hooked.

He had played drums for indie bands, most notably Palace Music. To his ears, this was dance music, only dance music whose roots can be traced back centuries and is thumbed on a donso ngoni -- a large spike harp made of calabash gourd, bamboo and fishing wire.

He had in mind a number of songs for the CD that would become "Yoro Sidibe." These were daunting songs -- 15-to-25-minute epic tales containing verse after rumbling verse without a single chorus. They might be hard sells for an American audience, but that's the point.

"What we are hearing hasn't been affected by James Brown or Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan," Carneal says. "You really get a sense that there are still a lot of secrets among the men who are playing this music."

Carneal's sentiments are in keeping with a new legion of part-time field recorders. In the past few years, punk rockers, publicists and record shop owners have been casting ears and eyes around the globe on the hunt for unheard, non-Western sounds.

Craving authenticity amid the tape hiss, underground recorders are shunning the peace-and-harmony vibes of world music for a more warts-and-all style. Retro videos of African funk bands have found circulation on YouTube. Old cassettes are being digitized and zapped into the blogosphere.

And indie labels are providing a reliable pipeline for the raw and the unrefined. Carneal had put out a set of his own field recordings and two unauthorized reissues of tapes he purchased in Mali. But working with Sidibe would be different.

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