Monthly Archives: March 2012

As Heard In West African Taxis

First off, here is a good update from my friend Phil, currently in Bamako, on the coup last week in Mali. I have been able to contact friends, and they are all fine. Still, this is a very worrying development from a country that has remained a bastion of democracy in an often volatile region for twenty years.

Secondly, in much less important and concerning news, please excuse my long absence. I spent the last week in Tangier, had a great time, then somehow found myself a part of a criminal conspiracy full of intrigue that would have made Bowles or Burroughs proud. For various reasons I cannot talk about that now. Look forward to an update in the future. For all those concerned: I am ok and not a suspect.

While I’m on the lam, I figured I’d complete a project about four months in the making. In West Africa, taxis are a means of short and long distance transport. “Bush Taxis” are often the fastest, most reliable, and least comfortable option. Music, on the other hand, makes up for the latter.

One thing that struck me immediately, and remained consistent throughout my trip, was the astonishing insularity by which taxi drivers treated a region’s music. As if there existed some official moratorium on international music, crossing a border, or entering a new region almost always meant a unique soundtrack. Unlike other places I’ve traveled, like South America or Europe, where my transport’s soundtrack typically oscillated between globally generic American fare and more regionally specific stuff, every taxi ride I took in Africa in some way presented a portal into the local music scene. I have never felt more isolated from global pop in my life.

Of course, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It’s easy to romanticize foreign music because I can’t understand the lyrics and it sounds unique. Some of West Africa’s popular music is just as generic and boring. Picking through my taxi rides, however, I’ve compiled a truncated list of some of my favorite taxi discoveries. Like informal DJs, taxi drivers typically provided me with some of the better venues to discover music.

The rules are simple: in order to merit inclusion, I had to hear the song in a taxi. In a few instances I made the taxi driver play it. But whatever. I’ve included the location for authenticity.

GHANA

Tiffany-Last One

Heard: EVERYWHERE

One of the more palatable morsels to come out of West Africa’s obsession with autotune, this Killbeatz production was everywhere. Accra dance clubs? Check. Rural farming communities? Check. And of course, yes, taxis.

Alhaji K Frimpong- KyenKyen Bi Adi Mawu

Heard: Between Takoradi and Agona Junction

A great track from Ghana’s highlife golden age.

MALI

Ramata Diakite- He Ha He

Heard: In Bamako

The late Ramata Diakite is a great example of the Wassoulou musical tradition that absolutely dominates Mali’s southern half. Though many of Mali’s globally known vocalists are male, females typically control the airwaves within the country. This music video is also typical of Wassoulou vocalists: low budget, lots of smiling, dancing women. Some have even taken cues from hip hop by portraying ornately dressed Malian women dancing on top of SUVs. It’s about the most entertaining the ORTM television channel gets.

Kaba Blon-Moussou Djougou Fourou

Heard: Between Bamako and Kankan… because I made the driver play it.

Chris from Sahel Sounds who I had the pleasure of meeting in Bamako introduced me to these guys. They’re a young hip hop group from Bamako who recently threw a rocking block party. Chris, who is doing a much more expansive and interesting musical project than this, is directly involved in helping distribute some of their music. This track is a dialogue between a man and a woman in Bambara about gender roles. I wish I had a translation, but I haven’t been able to find one. For now, just enjoy their dramatic facial expressions.

Koudede-Souvenirnam

Heard: A pickup truck in Timbuktu

The Nigerien Koudede played at the Festival Au Desert. His music is pretty typical Tuareg desert blues, which somehow sounds that much more relevant at the cusp of the Sahara in a pickup truck driven by a turban-ed stranger. The accompanying head banging is mostly involuntary, as it’s generally caused by bumps in the sand.

GUINEA

Sekouba Bambino- Ayemi

Heard: Between Kankan and Mamou

Sekouba Bambino is a star in Guinea. He is definitely the Mande singer a la mode, his music is everywhere. This is my favorite track of his.

Kasse Mady- Fognana Kuma

Heard: Between Bamako and Kankan

Technically Kasse Mady is Malian, but he often collaborates with Malinke musicians and lived in Conakry during the Guinean music boom of the 1970s. Here’s a track from Guinea’s golden age.

SENEGAL

Alhaji Bai Konte- Alla I’aa Ke

Heard: Between Koundara and Tambacounda… because I made the taxi driver play it.

I love this track. Way back when, as a freshman in college, I stumbled across this record at Amoeba records in Berkeley. I decided on a whim, knowing nothing about the artist or West African music in general, to buy it. I fell in love with the polyrhythms and brilliant musicianship, the modal melodies, the sound of the kora, his slightly hoarse but incredibly soothing voice, and the concept of a griot. This album essentially kick started my interest in West African music.

Forcing my driver to play this upon entrance to Senegal seemed appropriate. All seven of us enjoyed it.

MAURITANIA

In Mauritania, ngonis and koras meet oulds, and arabic scales meet griots. While Senegal to the south is firmly rooted in West African tradition, and Morocco to the north is strictly Arab, Mauritania is the melting pot where it all meets.

Ghermy Eswyde

Heard: In Nouakchott

I’ll be honest, I don’t actually know what the song was called. And since most authentic Mauritanian tunes on Youtube are written in Arabic script, this was the best I could do. This track is definitely typical of Mauritania, and it´s beautiful.

MOROCCO

Alaa Zalzali-Lamouni Li Gharou Manni

Heard: Between Akermoud and Safi

A famous, oft-covered Moroccan ditty. Part of Morocco’s classic older arabic tradition.

Fnaire- Tajine Loghate

Heard: Ok fine… my friend gave me this track

One of Morocco’s more popular rap groups, they combine traditional Moroccan instrumentation with modern production. This track is cool, and probably dinner-themed.

Mimoun Al Ouedji

Heard: Yeah… ditto

This is a great example of the autotune-based pop that reverberates through practically every souk, street, and nightclub in Morocco. It’s kind of bizarre to hear an autotuned voice sing melismatic arabic scales. I can’t really get behind it, perhaps you can.

Bonus (Because I Love You)

I stayed with a Cameroonian family for a week in Bamako. I learned three things:

  1. Cameroon has some great music.
  2. Cameroonians know how to party.
  3. These two things go hand in hand.

Tetes Brulees- Atebass Bikutsi Non Stop

Imagine a Christmas party creeping towards 3am. It’s still raging. People are sweaty and dancing. They seem to have no problem dancing to some of the more rhythmically complex dance music on earth. As a rhythmically challenged caucasian it was difficult… but I managed to cope.

Bonus part II: One of my favorite West African Taxi Drivers

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Ode to Moroccan Orange

I can complain about Morocco all I want, but I can’t hide one essential fact. This country consistently has the best oranges I’ve ever had. The two most important words in that sentence, consistently and best are accurate, I assure you. I thought I knew what an orange was before I came to this country. Turns out I was wrong. I have yet to have an orange that was not better than any orange I had previous to my visit. Sweet, juicy, fresh, slightly tart, it’s impossible to fully describe the regenerative beauty that is a Moroccan orange.

That’s why, in order to hopefully communicate the symphony of each bite, I was inspired to write a few poems.

Oh hello orange

Your seedless bounty astounds

Please let me juice you

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

There once was an orange of islam

that was blessed by the best of imams

I unpeeled its dress

and then licked its flesh

that was too far, sorry mom

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: orange

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! The orange is Holy!

Also asshole. Or something.

The Difference Between Ghana and Morocco

Ghana: Most offers of hospitality are genuine.

Morocco: Most offers of hospitality end with a solicitation to buy hash or a carpet. Also, as I learned today, any female that wants to talk to you is probably a prostitute.

Despite canting touts, at least the food is better:

Mali: The Live Music Capital of Africa

Some people claim that Mali has the best music in Africa. Not to mince words, but those people are crazy. Much of Africa embraces its musical heritage. Almost every West African country I’ve been to has provided a unique, omnipresent soundtrack. One only needs to take a ride in a taxi or find the capital’s thriving mp3 market (generally doubles as the used and knockoff cell phone market) to discover how vibrant and often insular the music scene is.

What Mali does have is diversity and exposure. In a region where countries typically have tens of languages, Mali is particularly culturally diverse. One can easily trace its musical heritage from at least a dozen different sources, from Mande griots from the southwest, Berber and Arab migrants from the north, and Jeliw praise singers from the west to name a few. These influences have given birth to a variety of homegrown music like Wassoulou and Tuareg blues. Chances are, if you’ve heard of any African musicians, at least some of them are from this sahelian nation. Some of the continent’s most internationally recognizable artists, such as Amadou et Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, and Salif Keita all hail from Mali. For tourists and African music aficionados, this country is clearly a hotspot.

Like much of Africa, these musical styles can also be regionally specific. Outside of major festivals, one would probably not hear Oumou Sangare in Timbuktu or Tinariwen in Sikasso.

That is where Bamako comes in. Bamako is a melting pot. It is also a city that supports live music better than perhaps any other city in West Africa. On any given night, one can easily find a bar, restaurant, club, backyard, or block party with a live group. If it’s a weekend, the number of performers goes up exponentially.

Most of these performances are by and for Malians. Even at clubs that attract a sizeable ex-pat crowd, such as Toumani Diabete’s “Le Diplomate,” the cover is cheap and the majority of patrons are African. For my money, when it comes to music, there’s really no place like Bamako.

During my time in Mali, I tried to take advantage of as many opportunities to see as much live music as I could. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:

A Wedding in Bamako

Outside of major cities, perhaps the best place to find musicians in West Africa is a wedding. If a town lacks any live music venue, weddings are almost always where the best musicians play, and where they make the majority of their income (in Mauritania, wedding patrons will literally “make it rain” Ougiyas on players as a sign of respect. Kind of like a stripper? Anyway another story). Of course, even in a city like Bamako, which has ample venues for live music, the wedding scene is active.

On any given Sunday, walk through any of Bamako’s commercial neighborhoods, and chances are you’ll find a celebration. A tent covering several well-dressed women with ornate headwear is typical, as children dance and men walk by. Here’s a good example:

Amadou et Mariam at Le Pyramide

Amadou et Mariam is one of the most popular and internationally recognizable Malian groups around today. They have an appealing backstory (a married couple, both are blind and met in a school for the blind) and sing in both French and Bambara, which makes them more internationally viable. A show in the U.S. would probably sell out, and certainly run you around 30-40 dollars.

Of course, Bamako is not the U.S. I was surprised to find out that they were playing at a small venue near one of the Libyan-owned hotels. Once I got there I was even more surprised at the cover: 2000 CFA, or about 4 dollars. The venue was about half full too, both a reflection of the fact that the event was hardly promoted, and that the group plays in Bamako all the time. Regardless, I was happy. We had the group’s Malian pop practically to ourselves.

When the clock struck midnight on Sunday morning, they busted out perhaps their most recognizable anthem, Dimanche a Bamako. It was cute:

Toumani Diabete’s Orchestre at Le Diplomate

As I mentioned earlier, Le Diplomate is one of the most popular venues for tourists seeking Malian music. That’s due in no small part to its owner and frequent performer, Toumani Diabete, probably the most famous kora player alive today. Despite my trepidations about it being a tourist venue, I had a great time. Even though Toumani didn’t show up (he was playing at the festival in Ali Farka Toure’s hometown of Niafunke at the time), his band, along with Habib Koite’s group, was probably the most talented group of musicians I saw in Mali.

Le Diplomate’s Flag beer is affordable, and the dance floor really got going around 1:30.

This is a short clip. You’ll have to excuse me, I was busy dancing.

Noura Mint Seymali at The Festival Au Desert

You’ll have to excuse this one. I sort of cheated. Those of you that speak Hasseniyah (I know you’re out there) will recognize that Noura Mint Seymali is a Mauritanian name. Well, you’re right. She’s Mauritanian. But I saw her perform in Mali, which makes her a viable candidate for this list. Add the fact that, along with Habib Koite, she was easily my favorite performer at the Festival Au Desert (by a mile), and I think she merits inclusion.

Accompanied only by a Ngoni, a drummer, and her own kamelngoni (I think?) she was able to create some of the most interesting music I heard in Mali. As you can tell, her voice is incredible. She has one of the most unique vibratos I’ve ever heard. She (or whoever’s writing her songs) also managed to combine arabic scales with almost Wassoulou-like melodies. Definitely, unique, definitely interesting, definitely beautiful.

In this video, you can see a few interesting things. As far as I can tell, she’s about as close as Mauritania comes to mustering up a sex symbol. Young, turban-ed adolescents crowdsurfed while making heart symbols with their hands. She would occasionally acknowledge their gestures with a wry smile. Also, as I mentioned earlier, men will often publicly shower performers with money. You can… uh… see that too.

Tartit at the Festival Au Desert

Finally we have Tartit. They were a highly-anticipated act at the Festival Au Desert because they’re local: most of their members hail from Timbuktu (though they met in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso). They’re a group of Tuareg females that sing these long, droning, minimalistic songs that rely mostly on chanting and call and response. Their stage setup is just as simple: each woman sits in front of a tisde drum, which they continuously plod as a few men accompany on ngoni or electric guitar.

I picked this as a highlight for a few reasons. For one, though I don’t normally enjoy the droning minimalism of some of Mali’s music, (I thought Tinariwen’s set was boring… sue me) I found their set mostly captivating. Subtle changes in rhythm and melody (either improvised or composed, I couldn’t tell) kept things interesting, and their melodies were genuinly pleasant.

They also had one of the more exciting and hilarious moments of the Festival. Their set was initially delayed for about an hour due to sound issues, so about 45 minutes in, they had already run significantly over their allotted time. The generally dim-witted and obnoxious MCees (The English translator would regularly speak in French and not realize it) attempted to cut their set short in order to keep the performance schedule (don’t they know this is Africa?). This led the six, timid-looking women of Tartit to jump up, grab the mic, and start loudly protesting (and I can only assume swearing) in Tamasheq. Another kept repeating “On n’est pas d’accord” (we are not ok!) in French. All this elicited a huge reaction from the mostly Tuareg audience in favor of Tartit. In short: it was awesome.

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