the caves of missirikoro


Missirikoro field recording

Missirikoro is a small village south of Sikasso. It’s only 12 kilometers away, but the road is all red dirt and rocks – unpaved, but heavily traveled. As you approach the village, you can see the strange mountain rising above the tree line. It is a small cylinderical formation that seems to have been dropped out of the sky. There are some young men standing in the forest when we approach, and they accompany us up the hill. Inside the mountain are a series of caves. The biggest chamber is about twenty meters tall. Various indentations mark the floor – the place where the ancient ones prayed, carved out spaces for giant knees and feet, or the crescent shaped divot where a woman and child once lay. The cave walls are curving, and the light from the opening high above flows down them in a river of shadow. It smells of incense and the cave ceiling is waxy and black from smoke. Hidden in the small annexes and corners, people are praying.

This is an ancient place with ancient magic. The place is special with Djinn. There are various caves for Muslims, Christians, and animists, all who come here to make sacrifices. You come here to pray and you make a promise to the cave. If it grants you this, you must come back and fulfill the promise. I hear dozens of stories of those who negated their end of the bargain, and payed in various ways. It’s said many years ago, anything you felt the need to eat would be waiting for you when you arrived. But it was ruined when a man didn’t believe the cave. He thought it was some sort of trick, so hid and watched to see where the food came from. A young girl djinn came carrying the food, and when he spotted her he cried out. He tried to leave but turning into the cave, he became hopelessly lost, and is somewhere still, perhaps, in secret passages underneath.

I go back into the main cavern to have a moment, alone. There are three people in the various chambers with me – a man lying on a prayer rug with a koran, a woman in white hidden on a ledge over the animist cave, and another man, dishelved and unkempt. It is not all silent. Birds flutter and make strange cries, bats swoop through the darkness. Strange insects with long antennaes crawl on the floor. The ground is cold. The air is cold. The earth is still. It reminds me of the cathedral in Tarragona, the curves and symmetry, the private chapels, the underground crypts, the divine valuting. This is a cathedral. Or the cathedral is a cave. Is it so unlike the places where the first people worshipped? The cathedral always carries with it a narrative of power of man to build the structure in the name of god. But this chamber is something different. It is built by god and djinn. It may be alive itself.

The lack of written history is cited as a tragedy, and we work to find and preserve elements of tradition that may be lost to history. But absence is also power. Historical explanations of the caves of Missirikoro might tell us when the first people came here, how they worshipped, why they came to see the caves this way. They could say which stories are ancient, which were altered over generations, and which are modern innovations, sprung from imaginations, boredom, and speculation. But we have nothing like a library here, only words. With nothing to look to, with no explanations of when or how a story began, we are left with only the stories themselves. And all the stories are equally true. We are left with only the sacred.

lost and found

On one of my visits to Niger, Mamman Sani gave me a box of cassette tapes. I digitized a few, and promptly forgot about the rest. In the piles of media and recordings collected, they went from one archive to another. I recently had a chance to revisit them, and found some sessions that we had thought were lost.

In 1981 Mamman’s recording session at the National Radio of Niger went on to become his first and only official release (and the content of “La Musique Electronique du Niger”). During this session, he also recorded material for a second album that was never released.

We’ve compiled some of these lost sessions into the new LP – Unreleased Tapes 1981-1984. Most of the songs feature Mamman playing on his Orla accompanied by a BOSS Dr. Rhythm. It also features one of Mamman’s first songs – Arman Doley, which talks about the dangers of arranged marriage. A unique track, it’s also one of the first recordings of Mamman singing. The track Mai Dawaya features a short lived group with Mamman Sani and two guitarists (Salif, Babu) called Farin Wata, recorded for television. We’ve yet to find the VHS.

The vinyl is available from the shop and on bandcamp.

Vieux Balani, live and direct

Vieux Balani – Balafon

Spent a few days in the South of Mali in Sikasso — a region stunningly different from the North. This is green Mali, with rice paddies, giant tropical trees, and red earth. Water is everywhere. People like to joke that everything is free in Sikasso. It’s one of the only regions that is truly self sustainable and can grow its own food. It’s also home to a myriad of deep tradition and history.

I’ve come here to research the Balafon, only scratching the surface, for a future trip next year. I soon find myself at the home of Soumana “Vieux Balani” Diarra, who plays in the orchestre of local griot Isa Keita. We visit his house in the late afternoon, clearing a space of traditional medicines, tiny packets of powders wrapped and bound in leaves. In addition to the Balafon, Vieux makes various charms that he sells by the roadside. He also makes a mean millet beer.

We record a short session, accompanied by Amidou Koita on the Ngoni. A musician stops in to sing for a bit, and soon the door is crowded from neighbors who have gathered to watch as well. The audience is global too – we take a small video and post it to Instagram and Facebook while they are playing (longer video here). At the end of the session, we gather around the cellphone and check out the likes and comments, and think about the future – while internet is slow, it suggests some interesting possibilities for live streaming performance. Boiler Room Sikasso? Stay tuned.

abba’s home recordings, or how whatsapp is changing everything (pt 1)

The sand in Mauritania always carries the scent of the sea. You can tell you’re far from the iron rich dust of Timbouctou. Sitting under a tent in a wide empty space of sand and brush, dominated by hulking concrete half finished mansions, I meet with Tuareg guitarist and longtime collaborator Abba Gargando.

I first met Abba after hearing a grainy cassette playing outside of Bassikinou. Over the years we have met various times, though always near his home. This time, we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Abba had been here for over two years now, living between here and refugee camps in the east. Ex military, he now works as a guardian, moving his family and tent outside the houses as they are being built to scare away would be thieves.

While we are talking about “what to do next” he plays me some songs he has recorded on his cellphone. A drum machine clicks out a rhythm, while he strikes out the notes in mechanical time, singly softly. “I recorded this on my cellphone in the camps,” he explains. “It was night so I had to play quietly.”

We decide to piece together an album. The recordings are lofi – but so is Abba’s entire oeuvre; he is known today because of his music on cellphones, playing through the tiny speakers. The album could be a sort of homage to the cellphones recordings and listening, recorded by Abba. Unfortunately, he only has a few recordings on his phone, so he suggests to regroup all the youth from Timbouctou.

That night, he organizes a small gathering. We collect songs from the cellphones of Nouakchott’s Gargando-in-exile. There are hundreds of mp3s – recorded in festivals in Timbouctou, weddings in Nouakchott, or small informal sessions like tonight. Abba rewards the group with a few hours of guitar. When he starts playing, they switch on their phones, start recording, and throw them onto the floor.

I have no chance to listen to all the music until later, on the other side of the world. I make a selection and check with Abba. Five years prior this would have been arduous task – playing the songs over the phone connection, waiting for an SMS with the correct spelling, repeat. But times had changed. I send him the files over WhatsApp, to which he replies, identifying the songs and altering the tracklist to his choosing.

His final record hints and what will likely be the next phase of artists control over their own work, as it translates into the West. The role of record label/blog/writing about “the other” is as mediator between cultures, but rife with problematic issues of representation and exoticism. Holding to task the most exotic ethnography and offensive ‘world music’, it may be simplistic to think we can cut through decades of misappropriation with technology. But it does suggest the increasing role that artists may have in their creation and representation abroad – the Western mediators saying less, because it’s already being said.