Tag Archives: mali

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.


photo by Maciek Pozoga

In June 2015, we traveled to a place that doesn’t exist.

The work was semi-ethnographic documentation of travel to a fictional Bamako. Over 10 days, photographer Maciek Pozoga and I meticulously documented the real and the unreal through photo and sound. The imagined capital evolved out of discussions with Bamakois: visual artists, science fiction scenarists, traditional griots, DIY filmmakers, and modern studio producers. At the forefront was perception of Mali and its capital – what it is, what it could have been, and what it will be. At the core was the idea of travel, that feeling of being in a strange land. On this journey we looked for clues of alternate pasts, hidden in architecture, dress, song, or deep in the dreams of possible futures.

The resulting exhibition, Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality will feature photography from Maciek Pozoga, a photo book, edited by Pierre Hourquet, and vinyl record of field recordings documenting the journey – available during the exhibition (and later here at Sahel Sounds). The vinyl record, “Field Recordings from Alternate Realities” accompanies the photographs as soundscape to this unrealized world. The record draws on the experience of a number of musicians, including Mamelon, Luka Productions, and Super Onze – borne out of conversations and experimentation.

Bambara Affirmations – Relaxation Cassette, Taxi

In studio with Luka Guindo, we listened and discussed mp3s of Craig Leon’s Nommos. Released in 1981, Nommos is a concept album based around the “Dogon creation myth” – a much referenced story that the Dogon tribe’s mythology was based around impossible astronomical knowledge, and that this knowledge must have come from the stars themselves. Leon composed the music New York after encountering Dogon art at the Brooklyn museum. Luka is Dogon, and I asked him about Sirius and the double star and the mysterious ancient aliens of his mythology. He had never heard of it. As ideas are filtered across cultures, they succumb to overwhelming cultural misinterpretations – coming from another place brings with it a penchant for the sensational and exotic. The questionable veracity of the myth, or even the historic veracity, is largely irrelevant, as this myth has become part of the West’s West African canon. It may well be reinvigorated as Bamakois discover Leon’s album.

Working with mythic objects is purposefully confusing. The results of this journey lie somewhere between the fiction and the real; a necessary component of realizing an idea across cultures, resulting in objects that straddle both worlds. Some of the field recordings may not be comprehensible at the moment. The Venn diagram of Luka’s contribution borrows context from Bambara speakers and Western vinyl collectors – a very small contingency. Vinyl records have an element of timelessness, only exaggerated in the presence of the fleeting digital. It is rumored that the Church of Scientology has left vinyl records of their scripture buried them in bunkers around the world – so when the surface of the planet is a smouldering crust, the survivors will come across these recordings and build an empire with their blueprint. Today’s fiction only needs time to pass into mythology.

Uchronia: The Unequivocal Interpretation of Reality runs from September 4th to October 16th, 2015 at 12Mail / Red Bull Space in Paris, France. The exhibition is produced by Red Bull and Carhartt WIP. (FB event page)

Supreme Talent Show

Supreme Talent Show, Facebook

Supreme Talent Show is a Malian duo, Mèlékè Thiathio and MC Waraba. Their music is hard to classify, at least in recognizable Western terms (which may suggest how far the international music scene lags behind). It’s bass heavy and the bpms are frantic and infused with movement. This isn’t accidental – this is the music of a generation who grew up in the shadow of Balani Show neighborhood sound systems.

In the late 90s, when Balani Shows became the rage in Bamako, DJs began experimenting with samplers and CDJs to recreate Balafon style village parties in the capital. The innovation was both artistic and economical. A full Balafon outfit was expensive to rent and heavy to assemble. CDJs and speakers were much easier. A class of DJs rose to prominence providing signature remixes, soundtracking the festivities. The Balani Show parties gave way to a new genre of music known as “Ambience,” or the ambient dance music that could be played during the Balani Show. Around the same time, Hip Hop was securing a foothold in Mali with influences of American Hip Hop, but equally that of the Parisian suburbs. It is no coincidence that Bamada City and RHHM, the largest promoters of Malian Rap, are both based in France.

Luka Production in studio, 2012

Today in Bamako there are a plethora of studios producing Hip Hop. The top and most well known is Sidiki Diabate, with his flourish of kora and pitch bending keyboards (and producing exclusively with Iba One), to Pap Junior, and Luka Productions. While the majority of Malian Hip Hop is unique, much is hyper modern, with punchy beats, slick crashes, and lightning fast rap. Some of it exists in a conscious defiance against ancient musics, made for the club; quite a lot of draws heavily on tradition. Supreme prides themselves on the latter: “We chose this name because we know that we have the Talent to show that our culture is the best, with Djembe, Bala[fon], and Tama. Supreme because we leave all the others behind. And we have the talent to make people move when we make a [Balani] Show.”

The high energy dance music of groups like Supreme fall somewhere between the old school Balani Show remixes of the late 90s and the new generation of synthesizer slick Battle Rap of the Sahel (they refer to their style as “human rights”). Listening to the music, it’s easy to hear transnational influences of Kuduro, Coupe Decale, and Hip Hop. While Angolan Kuduro is an established scene, the “ambience” music of groups like Supreme lie outside of the mainstream, even in Bamako. With only a handful of groups creating in this vein, it’s more akin to an electronic music subculture in the West than representative of a full fledged scene – a branch of youth culture at the fringes, like in Chicago, Berlin, or Istanbul – just much smaller. In Bamako, the fusion of ancient and modern seems to be a the driving force, with a seemingly limitless potential and deep musical history to pull from. Although it may not be live, balafons cut into samples, triggered on a keyboard, and tracked in Fruityloops, the sounds suggest a new tradition.

Featured previously on Balani Show Super Hits, the first full release from Supreme Talent Show “Danbe” is now available at bandcamp and on a limited edition cassette. The cover design is an original work from the original photoshop king, Bamako based Prinsco Production.

* Special thanks to Midnight Ravers, a French duo who recently were in Mali working with Supreme Talent Show, among others for a collaborative music and art project – and who have contributed photos and a bonus track on the digital download, Koroni Foli!

lack of better words

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.