In West Africa, many of the most famous singers and musicians are known as “griots” (pronounced “gree-ow”). Many griots learn traditional songs and performance styles from their parents, and being a griot is very often a hereditary job. In the past, being a griot was a job associated with royal families and tribal chiefs. Today famous griots travel and perform around the world. 

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté is a famous griot from Mali. She is the daughter of one of the most famous traditional singers ever. When Diabaté was a child, she used to perform clapping songs with the other girls of her village. When she grew older she wrote these new clapping songs to honor that tradition. In this recording she is singing while her sons play guitars. 

Diabaté’s clapping songs were arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik for the Kronos Quartet. A string quartet is made up of two violins, a viola and a cello. The violins are the smallest instruments, the viola is the next biggest, and the cello is the biggest. Listen to this version played by Musiqa musicians from Houston and see if it sounds similar to you. 

In a string quartet, the violins play the highest notes, and the cello plays the lowest notes. The viola plays the notes in the middle. In this recording, the violin is playing the melody, because the highest notes are playing the parts that Diabaté sang.

In this next song, Diabaté sings about a newly married couple. Her voice is the melody of the song. 

Listen to this version of the same song played by Musiqa musicians. Can you tell which instrument is playing the melody 

If you guessed the violin, you are right. The violin is playing the melody. Here’s a short video of Musiqa violinist Jackson Guillén performing this melody on his violin.

In this song, Diabaté sings about relationships between cousins. 
In the string quartet, which instrument is playing the melody? Is it one of the violins (the highest), the viola (the middle), or the cello (the lowest)? 

If you guessed the viola, you are absolutely correct. This song uses less high notes than the other ones, so it’s perfect to have the lower sound of the viola playing the melody. Listen to Musiqa violist Sergein Yap play it in this video.

The musicians at Musiqa worked together with the dancers of Open Dance Project to create this dance. Try clapping along with the music while you watch!