Category Archives: Music

One Year Ago Today: An Update

One year ago today, I was somersaulting through sand dunes with Tuareg and Songhai children. I shared camels, meals, and a tent with a primarily nomadic family. Friendly turban-ed strangers offered me rides to and from Timbuktu in iconic dilapidated Toyota Hiluxes, the preferred vehicle of gun-toting desert-dwelling terrorists everywhere. Or so I thought. Like much of my trip through Africa, the sojourn up through Mali’s northern region was about dismantling preconceived notions.

409070_10100975348780033_1345201532_nHeld just outside of Timbuktu last year, the Festival Au Desert is one of the strangest and most remote international festivals in the world. Travelers I’d met in Bamako had warned me against taking the trip up north for the festival. A month prior, four westerners had been kidnapped in Timbuktu, a first for the city. The US, British and French foreign services immediately augmented their already stern travel warnings for the region, and it seemed like the vast majority of tourists had decided to reroute their plans. Despite the president’s assurance that the festival would have an unusually high level of military security, what is normally one of Mali’s biggest international draws seemed too dangerous and too remote.

P1020504After some initial skepticism, when people told me to avoid Timbuktu at all costs, I scoffed. Crises always appear more dangerous from a distance, I told myself. It’s easy to take any whiff of danger and inflate it. My friend Phil and I decided to book a last minute ride with a Tuareg tour leader looking to make a little extra on the side, and two days later we were off.

On the last night of the three day festival, during headliner Tinariwen’s set, Phil and I managed to find some satchets of cheap Cameroonian gin. In the predominantly Muslim area, this kind of beverage was frowned upon but not contraband. Mali’s constitution is strictly secular, and the local population is traditionally moderate and politically secular. In a drunken 3am haze, we discovered a conveniently-placed late-night brochette stand and stumbled our way through endless sand dunes, trying to reach our 5am bus scheduled to leave for Bamako. The bus, a sort of hybrid of an old European school bus and a reconstituted engine, stumbled through makeshift terrain as we literally blazed our own trail through the Sahel. To say that the ride was bumpy is a massive understatement.  At one point I briefly fell asleep, only to wake up to a bloody nose as my face made violent contact with the hard steel of the seat in front of me. Still, the ride only took 24 hours, which by Malian standards is pretty incredible.

In terms of the festival, I was right to go. With the exception of an extraordinarily lame surprise appearance from Bono (yeah, THAT Bono) it went on without a hitch.  In terms of the region’s long-term stability I was wrong. This was January 2012. A year later, Timbuktu is an extremely different place.

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Iconic 14th century mud mosque in Timbuktu.

For those of you who haven’t followed the news, I’ll provide a brief update. Shortly after I left Mali in late January 2012, armed militants from a Tuareg separatist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (important note: though much of the western media has taken to referring to these rebels as “the Tuaregs,” they do not represent all or even most ethnic Tuaregs’ ideologies or wishes) attacked military outposts in a few towns in the north of Mali. The Malian government responded by sending troops-largely composed of ethnic Bambara from the south who had very little experience fighting in the harsh, isolated Sahara- to quash these rebellions. The troops were underfunded and unprepared and the MNLA, allegedly armed by the Qaddafi regime during the Libyan revolution, were able to successfully defend towns they’d occupied, killing dozens of Malian soldiers in the process.

P1020511Realizing  how vulnerable and volatile the north was this time (the Malian government had successfully defended its territory in the north from several Tuareg separatist groups since the late 80s), the military began to impose “tactical retreats,” leaving large swaths of land, including a key route into Timbuktu, one of the North’s most populous cities, unprotected.

Meanwhile, a series of major protests broke out in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Though Bamako was (and still is) far from the fighting, citizens and soldiers’ wives, angry with what they perceived as poor preparation and funding on the part of the military, protested outside various administrative buildings in the capital. After a particularly violent protest in which soldiers dissatisfied with the course of the conflict pelted the Defense Minister’s car with stones, a small group stormed the presidential palace and found it relatively unsecured. Though Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was expected to abide by the constitutionally mandated term limits and step down after the elections a month later, soldiers forced him into exile.  The next day, on state television, the junta announced that they had suspended Mali’s constitution and taken over until the country had the opportunity to elect a new, democratically elected president.

P1020518The coup was universally condemned. The UN security council and ECOWAS suggested sanctions against the regime, and the World Bank and African Development Union followed suit. Starved for funds, the coup leaders relinquished control to an interim prime minister, but not before the instability in the south allowed the MNLA to secure all of its desired territory in the north and declare itself independent from the country of Mali.

In the ensuing months, Mali’s vast northern region has devolved into infighting and factionalism. It’s been hard to keep up with news because the region is too dangerous for western journalists to enter, but suffice it to say that a series of rebel groups have been steadily competing for control of Mali’s northern region. Though the largely secular MNLA were the initial aggressors, various other groups like Ansar Dine, dedicated to imposing sharia law on a largely moderate population, have since taken control in some cities. They have destroyed historic shrines in Timbuktu, a UNESCO site, banned music, and instituted public whippings. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group whose ties to the real Al Qaeda are unclear and undocumented, has been responsible for many of the kidnappings of foreigners in the region in the past few years. They have also allegedly formed splinter groups that are competing for northern territory.

In the past few weeks, the poor, not particularly resource-rich country of Mali has made front page news. Due to militants’ attempts to move southward far beyond traditionally Tuareg territory, the French military has launched a counteroffensive. The situation is ongoing. I have my own opinions about the intervention, which I will share later. In the meantime, you can find excellent commentary from bloggers and journalists actually located in the area here, here , and here.

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Perhaps you’re wondering why I finally decided to update my blog after such a long hiatus.

There are a few reasons I haven’t updated this blog in so long. I spent some time in Europe (including 3 weeks on a goat cheese farm!), and it was hard to relate my experience there to all the stories I still have yet to tell from Africa. I also had a computer malfunction that essentially erased all my notes (sure… I’m new school), half-written stories and essays. I recently got that fixed.

This blog was and continues to be an outlet for my travel stories. I have consciously avoided using this site to highlight humanitarian crises and political instability for a variety of reasons. For one, they present a singular, oversaturated view of West Africa with which westerners are most likely already familiar. Two, they are generally not consistent with my own experience in West Africa, however limited that might have been. For better or worse, my experiences in Africa radically transformed my perceptions of poverty and instability in ways I never expected.

That’s why the situation in Mali has affected me so profoundly. And that’s also the biggest reason I haven’t updated in so long. In my dedication to provide a contrarian voice for a misunderstood region, did I miss a few steps along the way?

It’s hard to continue along the same, confining narrative, when a country that had seemed like the same bastion of peace and political stability that it had been for the last 20 years has erupted into chaos. I’d been working on a post about whether West Africa has finally become a manageable travel location. But how could I not have seen this coming? Could something this tragic also be this random?

Perhaps that’s why this post is appropriate. Since the beginning, with few exceptions, this blog has been about me. My experiences are a medium through which to examine an often overlooked corner of the world. But, in this situation, that’s a little absurd. I am not the one allowed to feel slighted here. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in the north of Mali. Millions of Malians are living without a real government for the first time in decades.

Still, there is hope for Northern Mali. Polls suggest that Malians largely favor the French intervention, and the French military, with help from ECOWAS, Chad, and the UK have recently driven out militants in Gao and Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s two largest cities. However, intelligence suggests that the conflict could become drawn out as rebels simply retreat into the North’s vast desert. To be sure, the North’s problems are becoming systemic. But alas, I am not there. And that much I truly regret.

Timbuktu sunsets

Timbuktu sunsets

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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

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.