Monthly Archives: January 2012

digital bamako

If you want to buy mp3s in any West African city, you first must find the cellphone market. The main hub of cellphones, used, new, real, and knockoff, in Bamako is the street next to the Malitel building. Men at laptops line the streetside behind glass display cases of cellphones. And as usual, per a mere 50 CFA per song, you can fill your phone, USB key, or memory card with Bamako’s Top Ten.

It’s also the place that most small time musicians visit when they want to get their sounds out. The younger musicians, particularly bedroom djs and rappers have fully embraced the contemporary technologies and bring their new releases directly to the vendors to ensure distribution and publicity. Radio and television airtime is allotted only to those with resources to pay the “fee” to push the broadcasters to play a song. And as the largest television station is state run, the criticism of authority, inherent as it is to Malian Hip Hop, makes it difficult for certain songs to ever air.

A few of the latest selections:

“Ambiance” style music from Group Mamelon — a mix of traditional Malian drumming and hip hop.

Groupe Mamelon – Kumba Frifri

A bedroom dj remix of Mangala Camara, most likely made with Virtual DJ.

Mangala Camara Remix

Sidiki Diabate, son of the legendary Toumani Diabate, with an interesting cover of a Phil Collin’s tune. With Kora.

Joloko Sengeyt


photo by Kyle Mijlof

Bamako sits in a valley, the river slicing through the city. It’s a fascinating and easy place compared to the other metropolises, but for the perpetual haze drifting over the water, smoke spewing from the chinese motorbikes screaming back and forth over the bridges, the ramshackle taxi buses with blaring horns. It’s difficult to leave once you’re in the city, the sprawl unfolding outwards over the foreseeable horizon. It takes a call from the musician Jah Youssouf to escape the throes of the capital, a long taxi ride beyond Bamako.

Jah Youssouf lives at the edges, where the density and noise of the city disintegrates into wide swaths of red dust and rock. The ribbon of asphalt is shared with horses and carriages. This is the neighborhood Moribabougou, technically still a part of Bamako, but with village ambitions. The taxi drops us alongside a mud oven where nearby a man is butchering a decapitated sheep hanging (formerly) head first. A small boy inches closer and closer, awkwardly playing with his cellphone, patiently waiting to see what it is we’re doing. Suddenly, a car comes screaming over the football field, headlights flashing. Jah rolls down the window and waves us inside, spiriting us away to his house.

Jah Youssouf is a well known musician in Mali, playing Wassoulou music. He was self taught on the kamel Ngoni, the 10 string harp popular in the Dozo, or “hunters'” music. His wife, Bintou Coulibaly is also a musician, accompanying him with vocals and on the calabash. We happen to arrive on a busy day — Bintou’s sister is visiting from France, so it’s a rather full house (even allowing a brief visit with Djibril Dicko, former guitarist for Ensemble National de Mali). We record a few songs during throughout the afternoon, between a heaping meal of rice and peanut sauce, Jah playing two of his homemade Ngonis as well as the guitar.

Jah Youssouf – Bintou

Bintou Coulibaly w/ Jah Youssouf on Kamel Ngoni

Jah prefers to live here outside the city — even with the understanding that the life of musician is tethered to the bustle of Bamako. In this simple house with no electricity, the only sound outside is the wind in the trees, the call of a bird. In 2009, musician Brad Loving stayed with the couple for a month. A close friend of the two, he recorded their first international album, the stirring and melancholy Wassoulou music from the South — now available via bandcamp:

big ups to freelance South African based Kyle Mijlof for his photographs of Jah and Bintou — see more at his site.

Saphire D’Or

Ahmed Vall operates a small record store in Nouakchott, Mauritania. It’s called the “Saphire D’Or”, but there’s no sign, and the name isn’t displayed anywhere — save the records themselves, a faded stamp amidst the mold eaten, dusty stacks. A pair of double metal doors exit the blinding, exhaust choked streets of the capital, the taxis and foot traffic, the blaring horns, for the cavernous dark shop. Records line the walls, faded jackets, a collectors treasure – ancient Senegalese Salsa bands from Dakar, ephemeral Malan Kora, fuzzy guitar Mauritanian 7″s. This is old music, but in the Saphire D’Or, the grooves speak not of rarity or obscurity, but of nostalgia and youth.

After the first few hours of sunlight have awakened the city, Ahmed spends the day in his store accompanied by a regular crew of friends. Like the records, these friends who pass by throughout the day, sitting at the plush chairs and drinking tea or lounging on a couch behind the counter have been together since childhood. Ahmed was born in Nema, far in the East, when it took six days travel to the capital. But he eventually settled in Nouakchott, like most who fled the drought and hardships of the countryside, opening his record store in 1979. Not content with simply selling records, Ahmed was also one of the first DJs. With a steady supply of music from Mali and Senegal, Ahmed animated the dances and soirees of the young city at places like the Maison de Jeune, Hotel Palmeri, and Hotel Chinguetti.

The town has grown since 1979. The store (music vendors are known as “standards” here) sits in Medina Trois, once the edge of a town that has since engulfed it. And no one buys records anymore. Like most record stores in West Africa, they are not even for sale. Since the advent of cassette recording Ahmed has made his living making dubs of records or selling mixtapes. Those seeking, for example, a Star Band record can come to the shop, find a record, and place an order. Later that day, for a meager 500 Ougiya (or roughly 3 dollars), a cassette will be waiting.

But recently, even the cassette market is waning. Ahmed has bought a computer and a few portable hard drives. More customers are arriving with memory cards in hand. And the most enthusiastic clients, the taxi drivers, running into the store with battered vehicles idling out front, have almost unilaterally switched from cassettes to USB FM transmitters — small portable hard drives that power into cigarette lighters and broadcast on a short range FM signal. Ahmed is well prepared, and recently purchased turntables that have USB ports and can record directly to digital.

On a recent journey, I asked Ahmed to make me a custom mix tape. We shuffled through piles of old Zaire 45s, Nigerian funk LPs, and Dakar Salsa, picking out some of his favorite tracks. The cover photo was taken at “Mondiale Photo”, one of Nouakchott’s still functioning portrait studios. It’s of Ahmed Vall (with the guitar) and his friends in the Nouakchott of 1979, a time never too distant in the Saphire D’Or.


Side A
Star Band – Makaki
Amara Touré – N’Niyo
Pierre Akendengue – Nkere
Orchestre Afrisa – Aon Aon
Sam Mangwana – Trinity
Sekou Diabate – Montagne

Side B
Sonny Okosun – Fire in Soweto
Prince Nico – Sweet Mother
Orchestre Les Kamale – Ngali
Ikenga Super Stars – Ikenga in Africa
Orchestre Kiam – Yoyowe
Western Jazz Band – Rosa
Ernesto Djedje – Lola

Saphire D’Or Mixtape – mediafire

sahel tour 2012

Off to West Africa, heading into Mali, Niger, and N. Nigeria. Over the next months expect some new Bamako Electro-Balani, Sonrai Hip Hop, and Bollywood Hausa Film music. Plus some live Bamako -> Portland collabo’s via Skype. We’ll be kicking it off with a little party on Friday, Jan. 6th at Moloko+ on Mississippi Ave. here in Portland, with Gulls and Monkeytek!

Sahelsounds Back to Africa!!!!1
w/ djs Gulls, Monkeytek, Sahesounds
@ Moloko +
Friday, Jan 6th
10pm – ?