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the caves of missirikoro

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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.

DJ Sandji 100% Balani Show

DJ Sandji started djing years ago with cassette decks. He now uses a combination of CDJs, Virtual DJ, and a sampler. The sampler seems to always use the same kit – the one with the whistles and claps, which has evolved to be a signature element of Balani Show (Sandji uses Boss DR-660).

The Balani Show is an informal street/bloc party with kids games, dance contests, and acrobatic dance troupes, controlled by an MC and DJ. Although parties have waned over the years, it’s still a common occurrence, especially in the capital of Bamako during vacation.

“Balani Show” style remix – Sikasso Radio

The remix music played at Balani Show defies nomenclature – I’m still not sure what to call it, and neither are the DJs. Sandji plays a combination of Malian pop music, Coupé Décalé, Hip Hop, Kuduro, and Naija Pop. If there is any difference in the past years, it’s that the Balani Show is getting faster. Music is regularly pitched up – Kuduro can clock in at 170bpm. Most of the songs are remixed, either with the addition of drums, or cut up on the computer.

DJ Sandji recently put together a mixtape – 100% Balani Show – of songs making the rounds through the Balani Shows, mixed and cut up, and with enough whistles and handclaps to keep the neighborhood moving. Download if for free on bandcamp or grab it on limited cassette at the shop.

Akounak Premiere

After nearly a year from our shoot, we’re pleased to announce the premiere of our film. Starring Mdou Moctar, a longtime Sahel Sounds artist and collaborator, Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai (“Rain the Color Blue with a little Red in it”) is the fictional tale of a young guitarist trying to make it against all odds. You can read more about it here.

Per the aforementioned Kickstarter, we’ll be premiering the film in two places: Jan. 29th at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon, followed by a premiere Feb. 5th at Le Gyptis in Marseille, France.

Though originally slated to be released quickly, a mere six months after the shoot, post production was extended far beyond the realm envisioned. We enlisted a team for color correction, recorded new versions of the songs, redubbed portions of the audio, delved into foley work, and hired a sound engineer to mix and master the audio. Most of these post production steps were unexpected, as the interest in the film caught us by surprise. What we had imagined as an experimental project with a handful of screenings in the West and distribution via West African DVD players transformed into something beyond our expectations. Post-production is something overlooked by many filmmakers, especially this one. Next time, it would be interesting to follow with a post that could be done in record time, carried out in West Africa – a fully encapsulated project start to finish on the ground. Though we’re in no hurry to remake Under the Cherry Moon.

We had the chance to screen the film in Agadez in September 2014. It was a very vocal crowd, filled over capacity, and the film was punctuated with cheers and applause. The Agadez reviews are good, which was a most flattering conclusion to the project. But more work remains – we’ve still got Kickstarter rewards coming, and DVDs are in production. The soundtrack is in its final stages of mixing and an LP will be released this year. And we are slated to release the film in West Africa across the Tuareg diaspora – so if you find yourself in Agadez, Sebha, Tamanrasset, or Kidal, look for the film soon. Whether on DVD, USB key, or a cellphone is up to you. Tastes may vary.


photo by Markus Milcke