Saturday, December 22, 2007

Joyeuse Tabaski

I have about two more months in West Africa, and they will be packed. Things are already beginning to accelerate. Last Sunday night was the peak of my Mali experience to date, I think. At a private dinner for the Ambassador of Denmark, Mali's best musicians, most of whom I've met or interviewed by now, were invited to play, and the director of the program asked if I wanted to come and play something, too. Egad. I was finally able to hear Bassekou Kouyate, the renowned blues ngoni player, perform. And I played two numbers with him and traded fours. It was kind of ridiculous and the whole trombone thing drove the elite European audience wild. I had a good time. Habib Koite was there, too, and won over the audience with a few solo pieces. Then there was Line Stern, the wife of jazz guitarist Mike Stern (who has played with Miles Davis), and she plays a mean, wailing blues guitar herself, complete with distortion and facial expressions. I spent a long time watching her, with her white-blond hair and knit cap and tattoos. She lives in New York. What a life. Also, Cheick Tidiane Seck, a wonderful blues-funk-jazz keyboard player came later on and announced with his bent synthesizer notes that the tradition was just a riff and he was going to change it up. I had met him a few weeks ago and we got along well, so another meeting long in the making came to pass that night. It was ridiculous: no ceiling on the interaction and volume and interpolations. As the crowd thinned out, Bassekou and Habib went home and Cheick, Line, an electric kora player, and I settled into the first serious jazz jam I have attended in months. So refreshing. Not just the style, but the attitude of possibility and freedom. I had really been craving that, I realized. Hallelujah strike up the jazz band and let it all hang out. I had delayed my flight to Dakar for this business, and it's a durned good thing I did. It gave me some rebellious closure on my stint in Bamako.

So I left Bamako on Tuesday afternoon, leaving some sad faces behind, and looking forward to meeting my host family in Bamako. Karim, a boyfriend of a Watson fellow who is currently in Morocco (!), picked me up from the airport. A portrait: chin-length blonding dreads, huge sunglasses, big rasta smile, slightly loping walk, puttering scooter. I think he's probably crazy. But he found me a lovely, welcoming family complete with children (aged 11, 6, and 3) who are alternately terrible and adorable. They eat together twice a day, rice and fish on the ground from a huge platter which everyone digs into with their own fork or spoon. This is my communal remedy for my isolation. Yesterday was the festival of Tabaski, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, which commemorates God's gift of the ram to Abraham in place of Isaac; so each family buys a sheep and slaughters it on the morning of Tabaski and eats mutton until their eyes fall out. I think I've decided to become a vegetarian. But the kids look forward to it like it is Christmas and get all dressed up and parade around the neighborhood looking at everyone's outfits. It is a little like Halloween, what with the costumes and blood, but in what feels like springtime to me, and with a house that it seems will NEVER stop smelling like meat. Another result of Tabaski is that everything has been closed for the past three days. I found this internet cafe after a long, long walk.

But I've been dutifully going out to see music here, too. The scene in Dakar is enormous. It feels like Paris or New York or something. There is jazz and afro and salsa and reggae any night of the week, and this leads to some difficult choices. Thursday night I sat in with a reggae group called the Timshel Band. Normally I avoid reggae like tinned meat, but this was pretty funky and they had a really good trumpet player who teamed up with me to make some sweet horn backings. There are more horn players here than in Bamako, but mostly sax players. Last night I had the incredible fortune to go see the Orchestre Baobab live and play two tunes with them. Egad. They have tenor and alto saxes and we had a lot of fun together. Their tenor player seems especially steeped in avant jazz and waltzed amid the dancers playing fills and honking at people. This made me very happy. The guitarist - maybe Boubacar Traore, I'm not sure - is also really creative and always takes the long way around his melodies and is majorly into the chromatic possibilities of Latin music. There is salsa in Bamako, but it is not slick like it is here. I could have a good time here, I think, except that the taxi drivers don't speak French (only Wolof) and I get woken up in the morning by crying children. Joe is coming to visit after Christmas, and that will be a nice change of pace, I think. They have beautiful beaches here, and there are nice places to kayak and ride bikes... Life could be worse.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Something to Write Home About

Over the past few weeks, I have gotten to interview some of the best musicians in Bamako. This has been honestly quite an undertaking, as Mali's top tier musicians are in a social and economic class of their own. When I arrived, I started in the middle (or the bottom?) with the working musicians in Bamako, mostly salsa players from Guinea, Senegal, and Benin. They are living a tough life.

But with Toumani Diabate, it is a different story. He is a griot, meaning he was born into a family of 71 generations of kora players, just like him. In traditional Malian society, the griots are a social caste just below royalty. Toumani himself is a genius of a musician and has enjoyed international success. He speaks English like an American, slurring his consonants together casually; when he's ready to go he says, suprisingly, in the middle of a stream of Bambara, “Sarah, let's get out of here.” Two British journalists came to interview him to publicize the release of his two new albums, In the Heart of the Moon, which is a solo album, and Symmetric Orchestra Part Deux.

Toumani is, in so many ways, not your typical kora player. He is from a generation in Africa that grew up after independence. He explained listed the musical influences of his childhood: Pink Floyd, James Brown, The Super Rail Band, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Company. And Malian traditional kora music. After independence, the president of the Republic of Mali charged Toumani's parents with the creation of a national orchestra to celebrate traditional music.

He explained that he sees the griot's job in the 21st century as an extension of his traditional roles as communicator and peacemaker. The best thing, he said, that a griot can do today is to go out into the world and be a musical diplomat, making peace between Africa and the West. It struck me how comfortable Toumani is with talking about his music in a Western context; the market is different there, he said. He plans to introduce African music to Western audiences bit by bit. Otherwise, they will stop listening and put it in the world music bin. Toumani also told us about playing with Bjork live, in front of 100,000 people. Where no kora has gone before.

After playing with the Rail Band a few weeks ago, I finally had the chance to spend some time with their incredible guitarist, Djelimady Tounkara. He lives in a humble house in a central Bamako neighborhood with his entire extended family, which includes several grown sons and daughters and many more nephews – all griots in their own right. We got down to business right away with guitar and trombone, and he set me straight on a few things about Mandingue music. If you think about it, the history of Mali is written in the history of its music. People migrated from the north, across the Sahara, so the music in northern Mali is much older than the music in the south, which has more in common with the music in Guinea and Senegal. You could almost draw the sedimentary layers on a map, each increment of latitude marking the progression of another few centuries of music.

But the most amazing things Djelimady showed me addressed some of my projects big questions about the relationship between American jazz and traditional music in West Africa. He is the first person I've found in West Africa who has been able to explain this entire story to me, from the beginning of the 1200s, when the griot tradition rose in the Mandingue empire, until December 2007 with the Rail Band of Bamako playing rehashed blue-jazz a la malienne.

Warning: Music geek discussion follows. A lot of Mandingue music goes back and forth between two harmonic centers, a major third apart (Coltrane, anyone?), always landing back on the tonic, although sometimes with an unexpected or delayed rhythmic placement, which ends up sounding like a musical pun. The second tonal center, the major third above, means that they play a lot over the Phrygian mode, with b9 and b13. They will often add a flat five to this scale, which gives you a Locrian mode, based on the seventh degree of the major scale – which in this case is the four chord in the original tonality, which may be one way of hearing Mandingue music as quartally based. But that flat five on the Phrygian is also the b7 of the major tonality, a serious blue note and node of Afro-American culturo-tonal consciousness. So to play in the key of C, Mandingue musicians will often play in E Phrygian with a flat five, emphasizing the half step between E and F to give a kind of eastern sound to a line. But can you even call a line eastern? This is for another time.

It occurs to me that Djelimady is really unusual, as someone who is so talented musically, but more as someone who has traveled the world extensively and brought it all home to Mali, and knows this ancient story in its worldly context. That is his job, after all, as a griot musician: to know the tradition and to tell the stories. An American journalist-musician spent six months with Djelimady and wrote a book about him, called In Griot Time, which you should read, because it will be a healthy long while before I am in the neighborhood of a Borders outlet.

In between project activities, I have been living what seems now to be a relatively hum-drum life in my tiny quartier, practicing, reading, writing. Most of the (non-trivial) practical shocks of moving, sleeping, eating, breathing in West Africa have by now worn off. I watch soccer on TV with our whole block. I buy produce – bananas, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons – on the side of the road and bring it home to my adopted family of bartenders and hoteliers where we wash it and eat it. There is always rice. Or fried bananas, called loko, which is one of my favorites. I have been getting a rush out of teaching English to my friend Maurice, who haunts this place when he has nowhere else to go. He is in his last year of university, but the professors are on strike at the moment, protesting their inadequate salaries and nonexistent benefits. So there are a lot of bored Malian students bumming around, along with several American SIT students who have just finished their semester. We have a good time.

Below, photographed, are my most trusted advisers, from left, Mohammed, Simione, and George Miguelito.

Outside my window, there was a plant watching the sun set. I caught him here.