In an effort to make some petty funds for a return to Mali, I am currently working to help with marketing and branding for my parents, who handcraft high quality furniture and pottery.
My parents are not business people. They have had to learn, teaching themselves budgets, strategy, and marketing based on necessity. They have made a really respectable swing at it, building a company from their art, with a customer base, web store, and retail locations. But really, my parents are artists. My father trained in hand crafts in college, before moving to the US and apprenticing in the traditional manner. He has been named Vermont Woodworker of the Year, has won awards for his designs, and judges furniture annually for the Royal Dublin Society in Ireland. My mother started making pottery at the age of 16 in Australia and then apprenticed for years with England’s most famous potters. She has made pieces for an impressive list of celebrities, which includes the United Nations, Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-Moon, and the Obamas. She has also regularly been commissioned to make diplomatic gifts for both the Obama and Clinton administrations, including Bill Clinton’s gift to former Pope John Paul II.
But they would never tell you that. My parents come from a tradition of training and apprenticeship, a culture of remaining humble about staggering work. And so their company remains in the shadows, unable to keep up with machine-made plates and the marketing teams that are allowed by the costs cut in mass-production.
In Mali, this is a new(er) struggle. As globalization continues and artists begin to see the need to attract the attention of the Western world – either as prospective students, audience members, or key-holders to international gigs (and visas) – the structure of traditional artistry is dissolving. Internet access, proficiency in technology, and appetite for Western money are shaking an artistic structure upheld for generations in Malian society.
Mali is a culture of hierarchies. The jokes go that Keitas are kings, Coulibalys are slaves; but more importantly, elders are kings. Your age, in comparison to others, defines your rank. Your elder is undeniably more worthy than you, and demands your respect. In the arts, as well as most Malian trades, the hierarchy of worth is clear: more experience, more talent, more work. Malian craftsmen, singers, musicians, and dancers spend years mastering their talent, gaining the skills and diligence to make them a valid artist in their community. Artists apprentice for as much time as necessary with a “master” in their field – living, breathing, and meticulously training with their teacher. It may be years before the master finally believes that the student has grown fully – a “master” him(her)self– at which point they are initiated into the profession.
An important support of the artist’s infrastructure is the djeliw (Bambara) or griots (French), an entire social class of storytellers who are born into the delicate and invaluable role of keeping Malian history. They are the gatekeepers of the stories, the traditions, the ancestors that are the ground on which we walk. And this means that they also control Mali’s most important advertising: for if you are worthy, a griot will know your story. Your job is to be skilled, to do the work, to achieve; their job is to make sure the community knows of your accomplishment.
But now, with the globalization of Western culture into Mali, and globalization of Malian culture outside of its borders, the griot threatens to be rendered useless. Users of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs find not only access to a wealthier consumer (the tourist or international market), but a platform of free speech, where anything can be said – including self-promotion. As the world grows into itself, the youth are rendered powerful, and the computer-illiterate (or simply illiterate, of which there are many in Mali’s elderly generations), powerless. Mali’s young are rising up, becoming their own griots. Many are bypassing the apprenticeship process and traditional pathways, paving a new golden road to fame.
This tension is most apparent for Malian immigrants to the United States. The American ideals have always been every man for himself – the faster, the richer, the better. And as a political system, we conquer, for in this the individual finds freedom. But for new arrivals, traditionalists of structured artistic systems, freedom can be crippling.
My dance teacher left Mali 20 years ago to pursue work in this country. During his youth in Bamako, he became known as one of his quartier’s finest dancers – and then his district’s finest, and then his city’s finest, until finally, he was known throughout Mali as the most exciting and talented dancer of his time. He attended Mali’s national arts championships (Biennale) multiple times, winning the title of Best Dancer in 1988, and leading the Bamako team to various victories. Now, in the United States, he teaches one to three dance classes a week, with a handful of students. Each student pays $10-$15, of which half goes to space rental and another 25 percent or so goes to paying drum accompaniment. He refuses to make posters, send emails, or make a website. His class has remained at about the same size for years.
His contemporaries, however - younger drummers and dancers whom he helped find work in this country - have overtaken him by miles. Equipped with iPhones, websites, Facebook updates, and free to use the word “master” anywhere they choose, students scramble to their classes, hire them for events, travel back to Mali with them. Free of tradition and structure, these boys have had no problem assimilating. My teacher, however, could not. Like my parents, he upholds his values of humble perseverance, work, and training, and hopes someone will notice. Sometimes they do, but usually they are looking for the shinier label.
Back in Mali, he is still revered. For now, griots come to his door and shout his praises to the community. Youth in Doumanzana and Bamako believe him to be a hero, a person that inspires. But the winds are changing there too, and traditions only hold strong for so long.
As infrastructures for the arts dissolve, as artistic institutions (NPR, the NFA) lose federal funding, as cultural value declines, artists – my parents, my teachers, my friends, myself – will have to spend more time doing business, and less time practicing their art. Furniture is manufactured by machine, we drink our coffee from plastic cups, and dances are copied off of YouTube. We arrive at a society filled only with griots, who ultimately have no stories to tell.