Search the Anthropology Review Database

(cover picture) Zemp, Hugo
2005 Siaka: An African Musician. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 79 minutes
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 16 Aug 2012 by:
Troy Belford <>
Madison WI
Medium: Film/Video
Siaka Diabat is a musician at Bouak, the second largest town in the Cote d'Ivoire. Through his mother's family he is Senufo, but through his father's ancestry he considers himself a Mande griot. He is a multi-talented professional musician, and for the local festivals plays five instruments: the Senufo and Maninka balafons, the kora harp, the dundun drum and the electric guitar. This film shows Siaka playing in the group led by Soungalo Coulibaly before his death in 2004, including the use of jembe drums, which we also see being made. 79 minutes

ABSTRACT:    This ethnomusicological documentary focuses on the African musician Siaka. He is a Cote d'Ivoire Senufo balafon player but is highly proficient with other instruments as well. The film follows him as he performs in several contexts with different instruments and features interviews with Siaka and his band leader, Soungalo Coulibaly, about the life of a professional musician in their society.

The film starts in a village center where a PA and mixer are being set up as children play and a band tunes up. The music starts and a close-up on the face of what will later be introduced as the film's subject, Siaka, is shown. He is nodding his head to the music, smiling, and visibly enjoying himself. This sequence presages titles that present the setting of the film: the city of Bouake, Cote d'Ivoire. The time is the summer of 2002. Voice-over narration describes its Mande majority population. It also introduces us to Siaka, the eponymous character of the film. Siaka is considered Senufo but is also identified as a Mande griot (traditional orator, storyteller, and singer). His ethnic identity is mostly self constructed as Senufo.

This film is divided into four chapters with titles that clearly mark each section. Each of the four sections features Siaka performing on a different instrument, discussing its role in local social performances, how he came to learn it, and some of the specifics of each instruments musical personality. The Mande are mostly Muslim. In order to make a living Siaka performs Mande music at Muslim weddings. We cut from him setting up for his performance at the wedding to his performing of Senufo balafon music with his cousin under a tree in a forest clearing. Inter-textual titles describe this as a "Senufo air from Burkina Faso, played when the young do initiates come out of the sacred forest to return to the village." Siaka is quite skilled at his instrument, mallets moving quickly over the tuned keys. This excellent performance transitions to an interview with Siaka where he discusses that his father was a balafon player and he learned from his older brother. He recalls the difficulty he had in learning and the role of his elder brother as a “boss” who could "cuff me (Siaka) in front of my wife."

This introduction of the balafon is followed by a performance at a Senufo village compound. This is part of a marriage ceremony, with additional drum accompaniment. Young children dance and everyone is dressed in fine clothes. The women sing songs with the lyrics translated with subtitles. Vocal performances are translated throughout the film, with short statements of context, irony, and Arabic loan words noted.

There is a short sequence where Siaka prepares tea and discusses how he met other musicians when he first moved to Bouake. In order to make progress as a musician it became important to learn how to play different regional variations of the balafon (which are tuned differently), as well as different musical styles. This informant interview setting will recur again a couple times in the film, with the tea being present. Siaka enjoys his tea.

The scene moves to locally famous djembe player Soungalo Coulibaly's residence where instruments are being loaded into a truck for transport to a gig. Coulibaly is Siaka's employer and a locally famous band leader. He was the one who rented a smaller Maninka Guniean balafon for Siaka to learn and accompany the ensemble before he could have one made for himself. Coulibaly praises Siaka's ability to research and learn. Coulibaly also discusses how he manages a large group of musicians since he often has more than one contract at a time. This seen is followed by a contract negotiation for a performance for a local woman's society. The ritual actions of bargaining a fee are presented quite well by this short scene.

This signals the movement to the film's second section, which focuses on Siaka playing the Maninka balafon. At a night time performance for a local woman's association (the one where the contract was negotiated in the previous scene) we are treated to Siaka performing with a guitar player and singer. The performance is troubled by feedback from the singer's microphone, and when it is not feeding back the gain is so high that the vocal signal is over-driving and distorting. The dance performance festivities are not affected by these technical shortcomings. Djembe players enter into the performance, mixing modern dance movements and newer dances with the traditional performances. This sequence, cut so as to blend a stream of activities into a single sequence, demonstrates how the dance fete is an open ritual wherein many different dance styles are being performed and shared with the group. A complex form of communication is occurring between the various participants where new dance moves are being offered and at the same time learned, imitated and adapted. This is a difficult thing to express in an ethnographic film, where possible confusion for the audience is avoided by focusing on the more traditional aspects of the ceremony, ignoring the totality in order to convey the anthropologically 'expected.' The film delivers a more honest witnessing of the event. When the group singer doesn't like a particular song she asks for a tune from a different region of the Cote d'Ivoire. Siaka, a true musician, is able to fill that request. This is an example of the adaptability that the professional musician must have to perform different regional and 'cultural' styles.

Coulibaly notes that by blending the guitar and djembe with the balafon he is creating something new. The changing of the ensemble performance with the growing needs and expectations of the market has resulted in new forms of musical accompaniment that differ from the traditional ones. This is an important aspect of modern African musical performance. As a market for accompaniment creates the role of professional musicians that exist beyond the traditional ritual accompaniment, and as new desires emerge in those who hire the musicians, the musicians themselves must provide the services people are paying. Such is the 'profession' part of professional musician, an aspect of transcultural influence that must be addressed in the ethnomusicologist's construction of the musician's role in a given culture, especially in the multi-cultural African cities of today.

A scene in the courtyard outside of Siaka's home shows his two sons and their friends practicing djembe performance with coffee cans, making a glorious racket. The boys take turns standing up to take solos on their improvised percussion instruments. This leads into an interlude where Coulibaly shows his djembe workshop, where he employs several drum makers. The process is not analyzed but developed by editing sequence to depict the steps that are involved. A modern shaving razor is notable in removing the goat hair from the drum skin. The drum makers wonder aloud if the film will make more people come to the drum shop for their djembes.

The third section of the film features Siaka playing the dundun drum, accompaniment for the djembe. Siaka occasionally plays this instrument as a replacement for a missing drummer. We see Siaka play this during wedding festivities. Small ethnographic details of the wedding are shown, such as the cloistering of the bride. This section is rather short, focusing mainly on the fact that a good musician is able to fill a necessary role in the ensemble with competency when the situation demands it. Here, as in Western society, a professional musician is more than a talented player. He is punctual, dependable, and adaptable. Rock stars and jazz geniuses are aberrations.

There is a scene where Siaka goes to a music shop where he has ordered a cassette copy of an old vinyl record. He purchases the cassette and leaves. This is an important aspect of a musician as well, though often undeveloped in films. A musician has to listen to and learn new things to develop his playing in any idiom, contrary to anthropological idealizations of codified traditional performance forms that are tied to greater traditionalist notions of the ethnographic present. A musician is not a technician tied to an invariant tradition, except in cases of specific ritual specialist role examples. One could argue that such cases themselves are examples of sedimentation of social practices as a form of antagonism to cultural contact, be it local, colonial, or global.

Part four shows Siaka playing the kora harp, a large string instrument. Siaka plays the cassette tape he has just purchased and with eyes closed tries to reproduce the kora harp music on the tape. In this sequence we see another important, though rarely documented, aspect of a musician's trade: practicing. Siaka plays bits of the tape and then stops it to try to play it his own way. He comments about the difficulty in trying to adapt another's playing to your own style. He also discusses how he started to play the kora. While on tour is Switzerland he was staying at a house that had one. No one in his group knew how to play. He tried it and enjoyed the experience. Upon returning home Siaka took up the kora and began teaching himself how to play.

At a fete for the Mande association Siaka plays the kora. We are treated to a roving camera documentation of one of the fete songs. The lyrics are translated and convey the social message of an African fete. As the lyrical portion ends the music continues, the beat picked up and transformed by the djembes to signal 'the dance of the griots.' The dancers and the djembe, with guitar accompaniment, push each other to increasing degrees of jubilation.

The last section of the film follows Siaka as he plays an African instrument that found its way to Europe with the Moors (as the oud) and then to North America to return a far different animal than from which it originated, the electric guitar. While not a traditional instrument in this context, it has become increasingly popular since the 1960s. The guitar Siaka plays is a worn instrument. The paint is distressed. The fret board is visibly deteriorated. It has a Stratocaster style body but with humbucker pick ups. The brand name is unknown and I have reason to believe that it has been modified in whatever ways will allow it to continue functioning. It is what a popular audience would expect of a 'third world' guitar. He performs at a wedding a well known request called "Women Suffer" where the singer mentions the name of a famous character in a Brazilian telenovella. The guitar he plays to please the performing griots, not in European performances with Coulibaly's group.

The film closes with an interview with Coulibaly about the importance of Siaka in the ensemble and his multi-instrument proficiency. Coulibaly also discusses the difficulty in doing concert performances, as opposed to the traditional roles of musicians at social events and rituals. It would be easy enough to play traditional pieces at these European art concerts, but Coulibaly wants to put on a show that features a true repertoire. He also mentions that the role of the guitar has become more popular in African performance contexts, but he does not use guitar is his European concerts because the audiences do not like it. This says something interesting in an understated way about how African 'authenticity' is constructed by the European imagination. If African audiences request and enjoy guitar at their fete then we have to recognize that it is not 'authenticity' that European's are asking for but the exoticized performance that they imagine to be 'authentic' African music. While not explicitly addressed, the inclusion of the guitar is faithful to the reality of this African region's music and invites the viewer to think about the role of non-traditional instrumentation in different musical contexts and how audience expectations are key in bounding performance idioms and expression to certain accepted models. Thus the genres of 'African music' or 'world music' are better understood as adaptations to the expectations of Western global markets than any truly honest musical exports or cultural ambassadors sharing their cultures, at least beyond the context of specialty field recordings.

Coulibaly mentions the website that he started to market his music outside of his local area. Unfortunately, he disappeared in 2004 and the group was dissolved. All the musicians have since reorganized, some in a new group led by Siaka.

This is the third film by Hugo Zemp that I have reviewed for the Anthropology Review Database. The previous two were "The Joy of Youth" and "The Wood and the Calabash." Zemp is a wonderful film maker, and his techniques of ethnographic film storytelling are excellent. His use of semi-transparent textual titles avoids interrupting the musical performances with authoritative voiced narration comments. The information he adds with these inter-titles is contextual and important for the understanding of the sequence. He also has a tight editing style that manages to make almost every shot convey some cultural information in the visuals. Things that I have read descriptions of in ethnographies but not seen, or have only seen out of context in museums, are shown in their original context being used. Zemp includes a few seconds of a water drum in this film, which is something I had only read about. The richness of these ethnographic details is what makes Zemp's films of value for anthropologists to watch, not just first year students being treated to an overly simplified depiction of some cultural event. He has an artistic style that is subtle, but never boring, and a pace that rarely allows shots to linger too long. This last danger, the lingering shot, is all too common in ethnographic films which seek to develop "whole shots and whole bodies" (to paraphrase Heider 2006). This axiom towards a wholeness of visual representation is often practiced at the expense of the audience, who grows uncomfortable with such slowly paced editing. It can also be a sign of the anthropologist filmmaker being a bit too precious about their own footage. Zemp avoids this trap.

I would highly recommend this film for ethnomusicological or 'world music' appreciation courses, particularly for the way that it presents the role of a musician as a professional who meets the demands of a public need rather than using the musician as a living history embodiment of traditional performance. In most societies the musician supports himself by providing the services that a popular audience wants, and with globalization those wants (as well as what constitutes a 'popular audience') are changing. Western expectations of cultural 'authenticity' seek to preserve in amber a musician's right to express themselves, their inclinations to develop their repertoire and skills beyond narrow traditional boundaries. One can see this at work in the several-hour Ken Burns documentary series Jazz (2000), which is a stultified form of ancestor worship removing the musical form that it purports to celebrate from any consideration of the modes of production, commercial market place, or any serious contributions after 1945 (except for Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane). Zemp steers clear of such heady exhalation of the subject that results in mythologizing at the expense of the respect that a real working musician deserves.

The film is also of interest to courses in African cultures since it captures the immense variety of inter-cultural societies' coordinations, urban migrations, and religious varieties that can be experienced in one location. I found that the way in which the various aspects of the performance of a fete were shown also makes the film useful for the understanding of this cultural institution.


Burns, Ken 2000 Jazz. Public Broadcast Service.

Heider, Karl 2006 Ethnographic Film, revised edition. Austin: University of Texas Press.