by David A. Taylor
During my first weekend in Bamako, I learned that in Mali, music means a lot more than Top 40. It’s a way of life. And the people who make music—including traditional West African storytellers, called griots, and the more recent wave of pop music stars—can be powerful agents for change.
Riding the capital’s dusty red dirt streets on a motorcycle one Sunday afternoon, I soon witnessed the griot tradition. Under a white tent spanning the middle of a residential block lined with mango trees, a local griot serenaded wedding guests, accompanied by several djembé, or Malian drums. The bride and guests laughed at the teasing story she sang about their families and origins, which she surmised partly from their names (akin to how we know baking professionals lie somewhere in a Baker family’s ancestry).
Societal changes of the last two decades have blurred the line between traditional griots born into the tradition by family, and others who choose to be musicians by trade. The professional musicians bring in new styles from jazz, blues and Latin music, but still perform traditional songs with griots at weddings and naming ceremonies.
Woven together with the playful banter, skewering satire and sage advice that these honey-toned singers have passed down for centuries are new messages—messages aimed at saving lives across West Africa. With the help of Voices for a Malaria-Free Future, a project of the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs active in four African countries, the singers have become the newest foot soldiers in the battle against malaria. They are reaching out with their artful blend of song and storytelling to galvanize public and private resources against a disease that claims nearly 700,000 lives a year, most of them in Africa and most of them children, according to WHO. (A February Lancet article offers a direr estimate, placing global malaria deaths in 2010 at 1.2 million.)
In malaria, the griots face a foe as adept at improvisation as they are. The constantly shifting malaria parasite can acquire drug resistance quickly, and a vaccine has remained elusive. That’s why Voices for a Malaria-Free Future, with Gates Foundation funding, has combined national dialogue and local action to change people’s behaviors. Claudia Vondrasek, who heads the project, told me they adapt their strategy to social forces already present in each country. Malians have used mosquito nets for decades, but typically only during the rainy season. So the project made a strategic choice to focus on widening net use for prevention. (According to WHO, full use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa could reduce child mortality by 18 percent on average; that would save more than five lives per year for every 1,000 children under 5 who are protected.) The project also chose the cultural resources available in traditional griots and popular music as a key channel for behavior change communication (BCC).
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