Monthly Archives: July 2011

first they built the road, then they built the town

Sahl la Guindo, Ndjarka, NIAFOUNKE

Once, when the first rains began to fall on the desert, I left Timbouctou. The route I traveled, one of a handful of possibilities none more glamorous than the rest, is traversable only by desert craft, the pale horse of the landcruiser — choking and shuddering through divots in sand. Arcing to the West and roughly tracing the curve of the Niger river, we traveled through a Sahelian forest of twisted wood and spiny acacia, docking in the towns that would appear like islands or lone ships, their towering radio/cellular antennas the sole reference in an otherwise featureless plain.

In February of 2011, construction began to pave the way to the North. Over 600 kilometers, the new national highway with pass through the aforementioned villages. In a projected two years, the diesel buses will ply the asphalt stopping at their respective bus stations, bringing the capital closer to the villages and the villages closer to the capital and for the first time, opening up Timbouctou.

Ousmane (Horostar de Tonka), Guitar, TONKA

In Tonka, the town is preparing for the change. Electricity has already arrived a few months ago and the once quiet city hums while newly constructed streetlights light streets. A city of mud houses and cellphones, the fusion of ancient and modern into something workable, Tonka is the all too typical Sahelian village — exploding in population, but physical cut from the world. Ousmane is a commercial truck driver, and knows the highways of Mali. He awaits the road with the personal advantage for his trade. “It will change the towns. But that’s not all. You’ll see towns appear because of the road. Someone will decide to open a store or a restaurant on some deserted stretch of highway. Others will see that, and build next to him. Villagers will come to settle alongside the stores and sell to the buses and vehicles…and create new towns where there was nothing.”

To travel the highways of Mali by bus is to drift into a Lynchian delirium, where exhaustion itself is exhausted. Sleep and time and heat and dust and dreams converge into a gordian knot of confusion. Malian transport companies plunder the outdated hulks of European tour buses, with their nonfunctional plastic AC fans and nonsmoking advisories in Germanic languages, rumbling over potholed and crumbling roads. The world streams by outside of a plastic dust covered window, obliged to roll to a halt every hour or so in designated places. And it is in these places that the villages live for the road.

Women in bright fabrics, shouting over the baskets on their heads; baskets of sugary cakes, plastic sacs of water, sliced fruit stuff. Little boys reciting Koranic verse in prepubescent voices that seem both melodic and bored as they hold out empty tomato cans for collection. Descending and fighting one’s way across the crowds, all the while in a sleep exhausted vertigo, the street side is set with low tables and wooden benches, young men clanking skillets as they scramble eggs and serve up steamy batches of Nescafe. Beyond, slabs of goat roast in mud ovens while grizzled old men survey the scene, cleavers in hand, waiting to catch a spurious eye contact with one of the passengers. Alternating boutiques are stacked alongside, lukewarm refrigerators of coke, fanta, and sugary cans of melon juice. It seems though it were staged, like the plastic mermaids swimming by the windows of Disneyland submarine ride. And it is justifiable, this feeling. What lies beyond the roadside is a bit of a mystery; the center of town, the market, the mud houses, the mosque, all the elements of an African village — or maybe nothing at all?

Abba Gargando, Evening music with friends, GOUNDAM

It’s over a year later when I come back to Goundam, and like before, the first rains have fallen on the sand streets leaving them damp and quiet, though the rain captured the very sound from the air and mixed it into the wet earth. The town is quiet, but brutish blue clouds fill the horizon. I find Abba, or he finds me, sitting beneath a boutique hangar, listening to three men talk about poverty, corruption, and the “future of Africa.” Abba lives in Gargando now — he’s in the military, and his post is central to the ongoing battle with the mysterious Al-Qaedi that haunts the deserts like the djinn used to. “Surely the road will provide some military might to the North?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. The next day Abba vanishes on “mission”.

Agali Ag Amoumine, Super Contine, TIMBOUCTOU.

The Sahelian metropoleis are confoundingly large and isolated villages: Niono, Nampala, Lere, Niafounke, Tonka, Goundam – leading the way to Timbouctou, a once mysterious, but disconnected metropolis itself, left out to dry on the edge of the Sahara. Conceptually connected to the capital, but physically broken, a ribbon of road will transform these towns into something unrecognizable, an uncontested and lauded ideal. It’s the dream of an asphalt river, a flow of cheaper rice and sugar and petroleum, and a fast stream of rafts of desert refugees bound for Bamako and big city lives. Nostalgia is a funny thing, especially nostalgia for the present. The time isn’t spent yet, and the future hasn’t arrived. But traveling the road, where there is yet no road, I can’t help but see it.

analog praise


The sun has set by 8:00pm, the hour of sundown rarely changing this close to the equator, and the paved streets are bumper to bumper after evening salah — rusty Mercedes and aged Peugots, held together with wire and prayer, fighting along with evasive turns and blasts of the horns. Headlights bounce along the asphalt, illuminating white draas of the young men trudging along the roadside in the early evening promenade, congregating beneath the neon glow of a generic Shwarma/Hamburger fast food joint.

My taxi is piloted by a man who speaks only a few words in French or is not in the mood for conversation. We are far to the south, in one of the new and indistinguishable peripheral neighborhoods of Nouakchott. The radio plays a muddled recording of drumming and praise, accompanied by this liquefied guitar. I ask him about the cassette. “C’est Mohammed. Medeh. Guitar. Rosso.” A cool sandy wind blows in through the open window. “Zein, zein hatta!” I reply, in a poor facsimile of Hassaniya. He looks straight ahead.

We stop at a crossroads, a gas station assembled on a sandy plot alongside a road of deadlocked shuddering vehicles of indeterminable age, salt and sand eaten husks. I pay my fare with a few purple bills of Ougiya, in a similar disheveled state. And a larger pink bill: “Pour le cassette…faut me vende cas.” He pauses, looks at the bill, takes it, and ejects an old worn cassette. Smiling, he bids me goodnight.

Medeh Cassette (Mohammed, Rosso)

Medeh (previously) is a religious praise song for the prophet Mohammed, often performed on Fridays, usually performed by Haratine, almost ubiquitously performed by men, accompanied by drumming and clapping, but sometimes, as here, accompanied by guitar:

download full cassette here (mediafire link)

The first cut is the deepest

I wish I could say that I unearthed this 7″ buried in the stacks of mold eaten records in the backroom of some crumbling record store in Nouakchott. It almost happened like that — and indeed the only surviving copies are at the backroom of some crumbling record store. But it was while searching the internet, albeit in Mauritania, for recordings by a musician and friend, Yaseen Ould Nana, that I came across a purplish tinged clip on Youtube. It was mis-attributed to Yaseen, and the spurious comments over the years provided no insight to the mysterious origins. A short taxi ride to Yaseen’s house revealed what the internet had failed. The clip in question was from the film “Terjit” and was one of the rare recorded performances of L’Orchestre Nationale de Mauritanie. The singer was Hadrami Ould Meidah, the leader of the group, a well known griot from a famous family, and the first musician to attempt a modern Mauritanian sound.

L’Orchestre Nationale was the first modern Mauritanian musical troupe. In 1967, the young president Moktar Ould Daddah sent Hadrami along with 14 other musicians to Guinea Conakry for musical training in what would be the first experiment in modernization — incorporating a brass section and electric guitars — but retaining the Hoddu and finding a particularly important place for the Mauritanian flute, the Neyfara, featured prominently on a number of tracks. Returning to Nouakchott, a town of no more 20,000 in pre-drought Mauritania, the L’Orchestre National was the band of the new country, playing in official capacity for the president in all social events, and providing a soundtrack of post-colonial aspirations.

“La Mone”, Terjit, 1973

After some searching around town, a few recordings surfaced — notably the 45. But the Orchestre National isn’t some forgotten band, and the musicians aren’t either, and the songs still circulate through the collective consciousness, immediately recognizable to anyone over a certain age. But in a story too common the analog recordings never made a jump to digital, shuffled aside into the odd corner, remembered, but misplaced and extremely difficult to find.

The said 7″ was produced in 1973 in Beirut, Lebanon. The recording was taken from a live performance at Nouakchott’s Maison de Jeune. The 500 copies were pressed and brought back to Nouakchott, completely distributed gratis within a week to the musicians and their friends. There was some talk of producing another run, a commercial product — but shortly after, war broke out in Lebanon, and the project was lost.

“La Mone” was written to inaugurate the new currency, the Ouguiya, which was unveiled in 1973. It was a bold move by the country, an independent step apart from the trend of Francophone Africa in their choice of a united currency.

L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie – La Mone

“Kamlat” (“all of them” in Arabic) uses the lyrics from an ancient poem written for one of the Emirs of Mauritania — a “grand warrior” as Hadrami explains — who’s hand had been badly wounded in battle. His doctor advised him that he must amputate but the Emir refused, and the wound worsened to a critical stage where he risked infection and death. The family, the friends, and the doctors had no recourse to persuade him, and went to the Emir’s griot, imploring him to do something. The griot composed a poem, “Kamlat,” a praise to his greatness (and the general consensus of this fact, hence, “all of them”). So content was the Emir that he conceded to his griot’s advice, and his hand was cut off.

L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie – Kamlat

* Reissue now available here at Mississippi Records! (note the spelling: “Hadrami Ould Meidah”)