New Play ‘American Griot’ Explores Blues Music’s Muslim and African Roots

The play “American Griot” was performed Feb. 21-March 3 at the John and Angeline Oremus Theater in Palos Hills, southwest of Chicago. Photo by Glenn Carpenter

PALOS HILLS, Ill. (RNS) – The history of music begins in 17th-century Germany with Bach.

Or at least that’s how Ronnie Malley remembers it being taught in school.

“Something that was embedded in my mind from schooling was that Western music was the pinnacle of all music,” said Malley, a Palestinian-American Muslim living in Chicago. “And that was difficult for me to digest. Because, well, music has been around for a very long time.”

But as the actor and music teacher studied the history of European music in his spare time, he became interested in the influence of Muslim rule in Spain on classical music. This led to his reading about the African predecessors of some modern Western instruments. Then, one day about five years ago, Malley stumbled across some research that traced the roots of American blues music back to West African Muslim slaves.

His discovery led Malley to imagine a musical play that explored the shared history of Islam, Africa, slavery and blues music through the eyes of Mamadou, a fictional 18th-century Muslim “griot,” or storyteller musician, who has been sold into slavery.

Malley’s journey through Western music has come full circle in the past three weeks, as a cast of students at Moraine Valley Community College have performed “American Griot,” by Malley and Chicago playwright Reginald Edmund, to sold-out audiences on the same suburban Chicago campus where Malley attended music classes two decades ago.

Malley has performed alongside real-life African griots in own his career as a musician and was eager to include their experiences in the play. In West Africa, griots are vital as custodians of tradition who teach the history of their communities through music and dance. As Mamadou, played by freshman Jarrin Comer, explains in the play, griots became “vessels of culture and time” in the Americas.

“I’ve been trying to find ways to express the omitted histories throughout the course of both American and Islamic history,” said Malley, who was also the play’s musical director. “I realized that just through the music alone, I was able to piece together a history of how music instruments, cultures and languages were exchanged over time.”

Indeed, at times the instruments’ paths serve up as much plot as the characters’. A scene at the end of the musical’s first act shows the banjo dueling with the West African ngoni, which scholars speculate evolved into the banjo.

Reginald Edmund. Courtesy photo

But the heart of the play are the musical and dance numbers featuring Arabic songs composed by Malley as well as songs in various West African languages that capture the cultural life of Africans in freedom.

“So oftentimes the narratives of African-Americans automatically start at slavery,” said Reginald Edmund, the resident playwright for a theater group called Chicago Dramatists, in a recent post-performance audience discussion at Moraine Valley. “We really don’t look at what came before. We came from a beautiful, powerful, amazing people. We wanted to go on that journey.”

Not lost in “American Griot” is the faith life of those Africans. The play serves to “build bridges between the African-American community and the Muslim American community, who are sometimes pitted against each other,” noted Malik Gillani, co-founder of Silk Road Rising, which developed and produced the play as part of its Mosaics: Muslim Voices in America program.

Silk Road Rising, formed in the wake of 9/11 to present plays by Asian and Middle Eastern writers in the Chicago area, has made a two-year commitment to focus exclusively on telling the stories of American Muslims for the remainder of President Trump’s term. For Christmas last year, the group produced a play about the Islamic story of Jesus’ birth.

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Source: Religion News Service