(PALOS HILLS, IL.) – 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.”