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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Cameroon has some great music.
- Cameroonians know how to party.
- 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