(PALOS HILLS, IL.) – The history of music begins in 17th-century Germany
Or at least that’s how Ronnie Malley remembers it being taught in
“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.”