Wednesday, November 28, 2007


My experience in Mali has become, I think, nearly as varied as the people and cultures that spread across its vast territory. Every once in a while I experience a huge high, like last night at this huge world photography exhibition put on by the Centre Culturel Francais. There were four or five rooms of a warehouse with the kind of classy, artsy displays you would expect to see in Paris or Philadelphia or Seattle or something. The photos were mostly of Malian traditional life, some after dark of traditional religion and spirit worship and things, and others of women and children and just a lot of empathy for the way people live and experience life. Photographers from all around the world came to this exhibition; I met people from France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, China, America, Brazil... I've decided that I like photographers.

So that was the setting for this fantastic concert that followed with the Super Rail Band, which is probably Bamako's oldest and best African jazz ensemble. They've been together since the 1970s and they rarely get back together to play unless they are on tour somewhere in the world. But they played last night and I played with them, along with Lina, the saxophonist from Sweden, and Michelle, a trumpet player and arts advocate from Boston(!) who was there for the exhibition. People danced and yelled and we were quite a sight, three white female horn players with an African jazz band. But we kicked that band. Michelle didn't bring her trumpet with her, so I used my connections with George and his friend Simione to borrow a trumpet from a Protestant school in Kalaban for her to play. (The school has a big closet full of instruments sent by Americans that none of the kids have time to play. Maybe one of the reasons we don't see a lot of brass players in Bamako...) We took off at the end to see a salsa band from Sweden that Lina told us about. George is really into salsa, so he wasn't going to miss this. I played some more with the salsa group, but I liked the Super Rail Band better. I'm supposed to get together with their guitarist tomorrow to trade stories and play a little bit.

Tourism is a grand, tumbling behemoth of an industry here, so most people are accustomed to seeing Westerners; but they are really only accustomed to seeing Westerners with money. For the past ten years or so, there has also been a robust stream of musicologist types pouring into the country to investigate, formally or otherwise, Mali's legendary blues and roots music. The result is that there is actually a highly developed market for research-facilitator-guides – people who are actually incredibly knowledgeable about Mali's history and culture who offer to arrange your comprehensive practical and theoretical needs for the duration of your stay. This made me uncomfortable at first, because I realized that this could easily have dramatic (possibly negative) effects on the direction and scope of my project. But I succumbed like all the rest. I suppose in retrospect I see it for what it is: a service for a price. It has been sort of relentlessly and willfully ignorant of the Western influence on Malian music, kind of as a constant defense of the authenticity of Mali's culture as a treasure that attracts tourists. Things do not change quickly here. These are very old, very strong cultures here.

In many ways, I am finding that the return of Afro-American music to Africa is a sort of neutral biproduct of the much more destructive effects of cultural colonization. This transition is strikingly less advanced in Mali, compared to the cities on the coast in Ghana and Benin, for one thing because the European colonists didn't really set up cities here; they just exported slaves. The result is that traditional music is even stronger in Mali than I found it was in Benin. This has gotten me thinking a lot about what is lost and what is gained with Westernization. They still have a genuine culture of preservation here, where old traditions are respected simply because of their age. This resonates with the philosophies of the world's oldest, most mystical civilizations, Egypt and Israel; the Saharan part of Mali carries connotations of an entirely different culture filled with turbans and Arabs and pharaohs and mummies and the movie Aladdin. Sometimes I sing “Arabian Nights” to myself before I fall asleep. I think Timbuktu, where the oldest Islamic university used to be, is really interesting monument to this historical intellectualism, and the connection with the Middle East. Thinking of the world with Africa as the center of it has totally changed the way I think about history. I spent a long time the other night just looking at the map of the world. It's amazing me to experience the reality of musical geography; it really is true that the further north you travel in Africa, the more the music begins to take on the characteristics of Middle Eastern and even Indian music.

One benefit of my research facilitator was that I got the entire history of Mali told to me in an afternoon. There are already 23 different musico-cultural traditions in Mali, the largest being the Mandingue in the south, the Wassoulou in the west, the Bambara and the Peuhl in the center, and the Tuareg and the Dogon in the north. Each has their own language, and a different relationship to diaspora music. The Mandingue have probably the closest associations with jazz – they have the griot tradition and they play instruments like the 21-stringed kora and the traditional African guitar. Ali Farka Toure's famous blues comes out of the music of the Peuhl. The Festival in the Desert in January (I'm coming back) is mainly a celebration of Tuareg groups. All of these groups and styles appear in some form in Bamako, so this city is already a complicated web of cultural recombination, even without foreign influences like jazz, rap, rock, reggae, and salsa. I think the Super Rail Band, which is where Salif Keita got his start, is probably my favorite example so far of a globally-minded Malian group.

I am continually astounded by the apparent hospitality of Malians. I went out late at night to try to buy cell phone credits so I could call Andy back. The only person on the street was a guy about my age hanging out on the steps of a closed storefront. He told me to wait there while he walked up the street to buy me credits, and I could just pay him back when he got back. This kind of help always makes me a little suspicious, and in the U.S. I would not be talking to strangers in the middle of the night. But there I was. And lo and behold he came back in five minutes with a phone card. Things like this happen routinely. I ask where the patisserie is; the guy I ask gives me a ride there and back. I experienced nothing like this in Ghana or Benin.

More frequently people see me as a walking bank, which makes me really uncomfortable. There is poverty here, and a lot of musicians are among the poorest. More than a few times, I have gotten mired in a web of suspicious and jealousy among struggling musicians. I am constantly fielding requests for money from musicians of all types who tell stories of sickness, unemployment, and homelessness. When I won't give them money, they demand, persistently that I stay in Mali and marry them. It is mentally and emotionally very tiring to weigh each situation with compassion and try to decide how my meager allotment of time and money can best make a difference here. Everyone wants a piece of what they imagine to be the grand and infinite well of wealth I have to offer, an attitude which has already started arguments among musicians as to who has the right to take advantage of me.

I came here wanting to explode my cultural stereotypes, to know people and things through direct experience; I walk when I can and take the minibuses instead of taxis to see more of people's lives. I am staying in a neighborhood far away from the touristy center of Bamako. I spend hours listening to people and learning to speak Bambara and learning about people's families. And yet I am often stereotyped myself as nothing but a toubabu - a white female - to exploit. How many of their stereotypes about me are true? Am I not being compassionate enough in my understanding of their situation? Is it too much to ask to be treated as an individual rather than a type? One result has been that I have become extremely careful about who I trust here. I am beginning to sense a kind of hardness in myself, something that has come from being self-reliant and on the move for so long. I think this is actually a kind of strength, but it is at the same time a little unnerving to watch myself change like that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Secret to Life is Written on Your Eyelids

In many ways, the story of my project in Benin was a very old story indeed: that of the Western researcher who goes into the forest to find the shaman to study his wisdom, only to find that the old man has died, or has transformed himself into a tree to evade his enemies, or has sought political asylum in an unkown location, or has taken a vow of silence, or has given up his practice altogether for the love of modern science... I think I experienced all of these things, in one form or another, at some point.

Mali is looking to be an entirely different endeavor. There is a well-traveled tourist trail here, and what's more, the trail is signposted for the musically inclined, thanks to a steady stream of folks anxious to experience the Malian blues phenomenon. So it my interest in the significance and history of the music here is most often seen as natural, perhaps even common. Which isn't to say I'm not receiving a fair amount of attention. I have been getting the star treatment since arriving in Bamako, for starters thanks to contact with George Miguelito, a guitarist from Benin who has been living in Mali for the past nine years. He has a salsa group that plays regularly at the French cultural center and at Le Cite des Flamboyants, a combination restaurant- performance space-hotel under construction, which is where I'm staying. There was a whole fiasco with negotiating the price of the room, because George is friends with the owner and the manager and everyone was trying to use their influence to get the best of the situation... Finally I put my foot down and made a written agreement with the owner myself. This was a good lesson for me, and I'm really glad I decided to stay here; I have air conditioning, good cheap food, a kind of limitless stream of interesting people coming through the restaurant from the surrounding Kalaban Coura, and a place to play every Saturday night.

Thursday night I went to the French cultural center with George to see his salsa group Los Maestros, and met SO many people. Bamako is progressively displaying itself like the opening petals of a flower, blooming continuously. For example, I met a Swedish woman who plays saxophone and has come here to work and marry her Malian fiance. She wants to do some gigs together while I'm here. There is an old man who plays some serious Latin flute and studied for several years at the conservatory in Cuba (another part of the story). One of the percussionist-singers toured with Salif Keita and says he will arrange for me to meet him.

There was also a soul singer who sat in, a Nigerian, and he threw the band into a sort of blues mode that stuck around for the rest of the night. That's music that I know really well, so I immediately felt comfortable. The strange thing is that there are no trombonists to be found on the scene in Bamako, so people really paid attention when I played. It's probably something to do with the white female thing, too. The manager of the cultural center basically explained my project to me (in English) before I could say two words to him. He said: “Yeah, what I see you doing is bringing this American jazz-blues sound, which is in your blood anyway, back to Africa to see what's going on with the interaction of the modern and the traditional.” Uh-huh.

Friday George was in the studio starting recording on his third album (we will add horns later), so Mohammed, the manager at Les Flamboyants, took charge of me for the day. We toured Bamako on his motorcycle, checking out the market in the center of town and finding cheap restaurants where I can buy rice when I'm hungry. I also got to see the Niger River, which has totally enthralled me with its beauty. It is so green, and so blue, and mostly just incredibly mystical. This thought occurred to me that it is so appropriate to have a river going through Bamako because it somehow parallels the way the Mississippi goes through New Orleans and the significance of rivers and river imagery in American (blues) culture. I think the Niger clinched it for me. Bamako has some things to show me, musically, spiritually, historically. Something good led me to this place.

Friday night Mohammed and I left Les Flamboyants late (it was his wife's birthday – we made milkshakes) to go see the master kora player Toumani Diabate play at Le Hogon, a greenly lit bar and cultural center on the edge of town. We arrived by motorcycle after midnight, and things were already in full swing, a mammoth traditional group (eight percussionists, four guitarists, kora, traditional Malian guitar, talking drum) playing for a crowd of all shapes, colors, and dispositions. Toumani was nowhere in sight, however. I played a few solos with the group, struggling to be heard in the middle of the saturated sound. It was not until two a.m. that Toumani arrived and took the stage. I stayed to play a long number with them – suddenly the balance got much better. The groove seemed to have limitless sections and variations on the same cyclical rhythm, starting and stopping, continuing for another person to take a solo. Everything was blues-ified pentatonic and I threw myself into the fray. After twenty minutes of this, I snuck out, exhausted, and decided to head home. Flying through the cold desert night, I buried my face in Mohammed's hood and stole occasional, conspiratorial glances at the Niger, brimful and drifting silently beneath us.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sitting Here in Limbo (But I Know It Won't Be Long)

I left Benin on Friday morning, expecting to pass the night in Ouagadougou in a room at the Catholic Cathedral and leave Saturday for Bamako. All went as planned. Except it's Sunday, and I'm still in Ouaga.

So... Burkina Faso was not really on the itinerary. It turns out they are tearing up the runway in Mali, so they cancelled the flight. They promised it will be finished by the end of this week. Yesterday I spent five hours at the Ouaga airport trying to get them to give me another ticket and find me a hotel.

The up-side: I had company. The Ouagadougou airport is officially my new favorite place for meeting new and interesting people. My favorites included a playwright from Cape Town, South Africa, who was flying to Dakar for a film festival. He is working on a play about the life of Fela Kuti, the founder of the Afro-Beat phenomenon, and yes, hero of my Nigerian colleague Funsho who I worked with in Ghana. My new South African friend is running a performing arts festival in February, when I arrive in Cape Town. Things work in circles, I am discovering.

My other friend-in-waiting was a real godsend, an English guy (James) who has been living in Ouagadougou with his Portuguese wife (Anna) and two children (Sarah, 6, and Joanna [aka Joey], 4) for the past three years. When the airline wouldn't give me any help with a hotel, he said that I should come and stay with his family in Ouaga for the week until they finish the runway in Bamako. I can't make this stuff up. So I slept here last night and stayed up late talking to James about theology and volunteerism and the state of the world. We swam in their pool this morning. They have a driver and a maid and a guard. I took a hot shower. Praise the Lord. James works for an NGO in Ouaga, and Anna does something diplomatic here, I'm not quite sure what. In any case, I have officially been extraordinarily blessed and will enjoy the time to explore Ouaga, which is low-key and safe, especially compared to Cotonou. James left for Nairobi this morning, and asked me to stay just in case Anna needs help with something.

My last week in Benin was hectic and wonderful. It was hard to say goodbye to Rock and Didie. I realized that we went through a lot together and became really good friends. A farewell to Benin photo gallery:
Nathan, with alto trombone

Drummers at funeral in Porto Novo (visions of New Orleans)

Vodoun priest giving sacrifices to fetishes

Sign pointing the way to a Christianisme Celeste church

Fa devination ritual with kola nuts

The last king of Abomey is said to have turned himself into this tree to evade foreign intruders.

Statue of the last king of Abomey, who when the French arrived asking him to sign his territory over in a treaty, ordered his men to open fire. A symbol of Benin's resistance to European political and cultural control. In the photo are Rock, Jacques, and two local boys.

Closeup of inscription: "I will never accept to sign any treaty that could threaten independence in the land of my integrity." Cbehanzin King of Dahomey.