Tag Archives: mali

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.

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)

Luka Productions

Luka ft. Salazar – Nadoumanikadi

“Luka Productions” is based in a small studio off a busy street in the capital of Bamako. The mural on the outside of the building, with giant microphone and curling graffiti letters is arguably larger than the four walls inside. A repurposed boutique, there are two small couches framing the the computer and console of studio engineer, rapper, and producer Luka Guindo. His portrait hangs over the computer. Behind plexiglass is a closet sized sound booth.

Luka, responsible for the Supreme Talent Show album and hundreds of other tracks, is self taught and PC based (cubase, reason, and fruityloops) – one of many producers/studio owners that create all the hip hop produced in Bamako, and by default Mali (there are smaller Hip Hop studios scattered throughout country, and at least one distinctive Hip Hop style in Gao). Every composer has singular style. Luka relies on melodies – he plays piano in the local church – that mimic the vocals, complementing one another. The drums are heavy and punchy, and pitch bended keys solo over the distinctive and improvisational rhythms. He often adds cut up djembe and balafon to the mix to give a local touch, which are sampled though not in the studio, but packaged in a Native Instruments plugin (the website seems aimed at Western audiences, unbeknownst that their product is probably used more in West Africa). If there are doubts to the authenticity of the production, Luka includes a drop at the beginning and end of every track.

Luka is quiet when working and rarely looks up. His eyes are glued to his computer, and his hands fly over the keyboard with a series of shortcuts, deftly cutting and loudly slamming the keyboard to drop in segments of a track. Ticking off the metronome, he adds to a production layer by layer, before improvising a melody. The vocalist steps into the booth minutes later, and the track is recorded. At the end, he does a quick master – these are not tracks for high end stereos or audiophiles. Most, if not all of the listening will be on cellphones, USB radios, car stereos, and youtube.

Live composition – Religious praise song

Hip Hop is the most popular youth music in Mali. Songs circulate via the new media distribution of mp3s and usb keys, but are also posted online – the two biggest curators of Mali Hip Hop are websites and youtube channels – RHHM and Bamada-city – both based in France and run by Malian expats. With open distribution channels and the low cost to record tracks, the music is uncensored by either institution or government. Last year, battle raps and clashes became so prominent that the government attempted to intervene, as lyrics were insulting parents of other rappers, including some prominent social figures. While some producers align themselves with rappers, in doing so, they’ve been caught up in the feuds. Luka has tried not to get involved – he wont let people record “clash” vocals.

Luka’s studio is DIY and cobbled together with what is at hand. Much of the equipment has made the journey here from the US or Europe via traveling friends and family. For professional engineers in Mali, it’s not the best, and there a few high end studios in Bamako. But Luka makes up for this with talent and speed. He can dash out a song in minutes. The better studios are too expensive. Unused and inaccessible, they gather dust – and their engineers rarely get a chance to record.

While the culture of piracy is strong, it hasn’t deterred youth from wanting to rap. Luka’s studio is lucrative and busy, and even during a session, there’s another rapper waiting outside. Everyone has something to say. Luka is also rapping on his own productions. He shows me one of his new videos, shot in a village and boasting an incredible opening shot – made with a drone. He recently released a CD, which has already been pirated. “Sometimes people come up to me and tell me ‘I love your music, I have all your songs on my cellphone.'” He laughs. “They don’t realize the problem with that.”