September 19, 2007

SIUC to host 'Night of African Melodies and Songs'

by Andrea Hahn


CARBONDALE, Ill. — She was a California girl who fell in love with the mbira, a musical instrument from the southeastern African country of Zimbabwe. He was born into a family of traditional musician storytellers in the West African country of Senegal. The two come together at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23, at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Student Center Auditorium for "A Night of African Melodies and Songs."

Several University departments are sponsoring the free performance of Erica Azim on mbira and Jali Morikeba Kouyate on the kora, including the School of Music, Black American Studies, the Department of Anthropology and the Global Media Research Center in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. Carbondale Community Arts and the percussion groups SIWADE and Global Warming are also sponsors. Local musician Lawrence Millard, an SIUC School of Art and Design graduate and one of Azim's students, is a key sponsor and the catalyst for the combined concert.

In addition to the concert, Azim will present a lecture and demonstration from 1 to 2 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 24, in Altgeld Hall 112, the band room. She will discuss the cultural aspects of mbira music, and may delve into technical discussions about the instrument depending on the interests of the audience.

"I just wanted to be part of doing something meaningful for the Carbondale community," Millard said by way of explaining his role in bringing the two musicians to Southern Illinois. Azim will be in nearby Makanda for a mbira camp hosted by Millard, he said, and Kouyate lives in Chicago now. The opportunity to get the two musicians together was a rare one, and Millard jumped at it. "It seemed so many different areas of the University could benefit from this, I wanted to get the University involved," he said.

Azim has gwenyambira status as a mbira player – meaning her skill level makes it acceptable for her to play during traditional ceremonies, which in itself is an accomplishment, Millard said. According to information posted at, a Web site devoted to the music, Azim first began studying mbira in 1974 when she went to Zimbabwe, at that time known as Rhodesia, specifically to learn to play the instrument. She counts more than a dozen masters among her teachers now. She began touring and teaching in the United States in 1997, and Millard said, she is considered the foremost mbira teacher in the U.S.

Kouyate was literally born to play the kora. His family is part of a musician caste in his native Senegal. Kouyate began his studies at 8 years old and was professional at 14. The first part of his name, "Jali," is a title indicating his musician status.

Millard described the kora as a traditional instrument used in the story telling that is part of Senegalese cultural history. The instrument is a large gourd or calabash with a pole and, traditionally, with 21 strings. Kouyate, also a master craftsman, plays a kora with 24 strings.

Father Joseph Brown, chair of the Black American Studies department, said he hoped the University and area communities would take advantage of the chance to hear two such high-level musicians, particularly because having them both available in a single evening is such a rarity.

Admission to both the lecture and the concert is free. For more information about Erica Azim, visit For more information about Jali Morikeba Kouyate, see