The Siren Song of Mali

JOSHUA HAMMER – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Published: April 2, 2006
WE were walking down a dirt road in a neighborhood of Bamako with the mellifluous name of Badalabougou, following the rhythmic beating of a bongo drum. Then we saw it: down an alley lined with dusty neem trees and flowering jacarandas, a few hundred wedding celebrants had gathered under a canopy made from scraps of United Nations-issue sheeting, intently watching a local percussion band play a rousing music known as deedadee.
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The circumcision of a child is a reason to dance in the streets of Bamako.
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A dancer and drummers entertain at a wedding party.
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Ed Alcock for The New York Times
A griot sings with the band of Adama (Star) DramÈ and Marium Koko Dembele at the Cheval Blanc club in Badalabougou.
Lithe male dancers wearing leather headdresses, cowrie-studded orange vests, burlap shorts and iron bangles leapt and shook rice-filled calabashes known as yabbaras. A jembe fola (“he who talks with the drum”) pounded on a bongo fashioned from sheets of horsehide stretched over a gasoline can. Another percussionist banged a grooved metal cylinder called a karinyan.
Then the dancers disappeared and a petite female singer moved in, circling through the crowd and singing praises to relatives of the bride and groom. Suddenly, she began gesticulating in our direction, while guests looked on, amused.
“She is singing about you,” one told me. “She is praising you for visiting Mali.”
The band had been playing for six hours when we arrived, at 4 p.m., and the music would go on until long after dark. As the light faded, people spilled out of their houses and gravitated toward the tent. Street vendors circulated on the periphery of the crowd, selling peanuts, chewing gum, bananas, tea, firewood, sandals, toothbrushes and sunglasses. The whole neighborhood had turned out for the show.
“This band usually plays at weddings for people from Bamako who have roots in the Niamala region,” said my companion, Paul Chandler, an American record producer and schoolteacher who has lived in Bamako for several years, “but their music is free to everyone who wanders by.”
Bamako, a hot, dusty city that sprawls along both banks of the Niger River in southern Mali, near the border with Guinea, does not, at first glance, bear the markings of one of the world’s great cultural capitals. Although it is the capital of the former French colony and has a population estimated at more than a million, in many respects the city feels like an overgrown village, with a handful of high-rises along the wide and murky Niger, goats grazing at roadside and a sprawling market, the Grand MarchÈ, filling much of downtown. Yet its musical tradition goes back at least six centuries, and public open-air performances by itinerant musicians, like the one we saw, are as much a part of life here as pickup games of le football. Moreover, during the last decade, the city has undergone a transformation.
A Malian music boom that began in the 1990’s, when the soulful vocalist Salif Keita and the singer-guitarist Ali Farka TourÈ achieved international stardom, has brought an influx of tourists, record producers and aspiring musicians seeking to emulate the stars’ successes. (The news of Mr. TourÈ’s death on March 6 from cancer resonated around the world.) As a result, Bamako has become a meeting place and incubator for West African talent, and one of the best places on the planet to hear live music.
Bars and nightclubs have sprung up, often intimate venues with thatched roofs, bare scuffed walls and a few dozen rough wooden tables and chairs, where some of the biggest names in Malian music drop by to play when they’re in town. (Several of these establishments, including Mr. Keita’s Mofu and Oumou Sangare’s Hotel Wassulu, are owned by musicians.) Such Western artists as Robert Plant, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker and the French Basque star Manu Chao have visited Bamako to jam and record with the local stars.
The city has become a cultural hothouse, in which singers and instrumentalists from Mali’s myriad tribes ó the Tuaregs of the Sahara, the Sorhai of Timbuktu, the Malinkes from the border region south of Bamako, the Dogon cliff dwellers, the Wassalous near the Ivory Coast, the Peuls of central Mali ó mix and fertilize one another’s art.
“The number of ethnic groups here is vast, and each culture is distinct,” said MombÈ TraorÈ, a dreadlocked disc jockey in his 30’s known as D. J. Vieux who agreed to be my guide during several days of sampling the music scene in early February. “Everyone meets up in Bamako.”
Mali musical tradition goes back to the height of the Songhai Empire, in the early 16th century, when a caste of itinerant entertainers ó oral historians called griots ó emerged in the villages along the Niger River, the third longest waterway in Africa. Known as jeli in the local Bambara language, the griots developed musical narratives whose aim was to celebrate the achievements of kings and to chronicle the culture and history of their communities.
“If you think of West Africa as a body, then the griot is the blood,” I was told by Toumani Diabate, a virtuoso of the 21-string, harplike kora who won a Grammy this year when “In the Heart of the Moon,” a collaboration with Ali Farka TourÈ that the pair recorded in Bamako, was named best traditional world music album. “We are the guardians of West Africa’s society. We are communicators.”
Mali’s griot music has developed many permutations over the centuries, but common denominators still exist: a hypnotic, haunting melody based on a pentatonic scale, the piercing vibrato of the kora, energetic drumming and the plaintive wail of the singer-narrator. (The griot still ranks low on the social hierarchy, however: Salif Keita, a descendant of a royal Malinke family, earned his clan’s scorn when he chose the career of the griot.)
I arrived in Bamako at the end of the cool, dry season, when tourists from Europe and, increasingly, the United States converge on Mali to hike among the villages of the animist Dogon tribe, or to venture to Timbuktu and the Sahara beyond. Bamako used to be just a way station, but increasing numbers of tourists are staying a few days to check out the music scene.
Bamako remains one of the poorest capitals in West Africa (Mali has been independent since 1960). But it is also perhaps the most welcoming, and visitors find almost none of the hassles encountered in other cities in the region.
After having my credit-card number stolen at one of the best hotels in Lagos, Nigeria, and after bribing my way past roadblocks manned by drunken soldiers and club-wielding teenage vigilantes in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I found Bamako a relief. Taxi drivers are generally honest; street hawkers back off after a single polite “non, merci”; the streets are safe after dark. And if you can speak a little French and drop the names of one or two Malian musicians, you’ll find yourself engaged in animated conversations at every turn.
At 11 p.m. on my second night in Bamako, Vieux, which my dreadlocked guide goes by, pulled up in front of my hotel on an aging Chinese moped and told me to follow him in a taxi. His peacock-blue traditional robe, a bubu, fluttered in the breeze as we rode through dark streets to …lysÈe, a barnlike club on the outskirts of town.
Dimly lit, it was packed when we arrived, filled with young Malian couples who danced slowly on a rough mosaic floor or snuggled on banquettes. (Mali’s men and women, despite living in an Islamic country, are relaxed about displaying affection in public.) A popular local singer, Lobi TraorÈ, no relation to Vieux, sang melancholy tunes in Bambara, backed by a percussion band and two electric guitars. The music, which Lobi TraorÈ called the “Bambara Blues,” contains striking echoes of American R & B, and, like that genre, is filled with themes of shattered romance and unrequited longing.
Lobi TraorÈ is not the first musician to cite parallels between the music of the Mississippi Delta and that of the Niger River. The late Ali Farka TourÈ, a Sorhai who grew up on the banks of the Niger south of Timbuktu, once said that the American blues were born along his bend in the river. Robert Plant found similarities between the assouf music of the Tuaregs and American blues when he played at the Festival of the Desert near Timbuktu in 2003, one of several multiple-day outdoor concerts that draw thousands to Mali each year.
The next night our destination was the Cheval Blanc, an open-air bar in Badalabougou owned by an American woman and her Malian husband, Lorelei Frizzell and Ssasi TraorÈ. Under a ragged thatched roof, we sat on plastic chairs at a crude wooden table, ate brochettes of beef and downed cold bottles of Castel beer while listening to a husband-and-wife band, Adama (Star) DramÈ and Marium Koko Dembele.
A Dogon who grew up in the remote cliffs of central Mali, Mr. DramÈ fashioned his first guitar out of tin cans, he told me during a break, and had done so well that he was recently hired as a guitarist by Mali’s National Orchestra. A Dunhill dangling from his lips, he moved effortlessly and eclectically from reggae to Led Zeppelin-style blues to Dogon melodies, accompanied by percussionists, a xylophone player and Marium’s throaty vocals.
Some of the biggest stars of the Malian music scene, including Amadou and Mariam and Habib KoitÈ, were away at the Festival on the Niger, a three-day outdoor concert in SÈgou, 150 miles northeast of Bamako. But Toumani Diabate, the kora virtuoso, had skipped the event so he could prepare for his trip to the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
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