Saturday, May 12, 2007
Malian music Notes from the Niger
Aug 18th 2005 BAMAKO AND TIMBUKTU
From The Economist print edition
The quiet influence of Lobi Traoré
MOST Saturday nights, when he is in Mali, Lobi Traoré plays the Espace Academia club in the old airport district of Bamako. The club is like a Mississippi blues joint, minus the menace. It is about the size of a garage, with painted concrete walls, a couple of flickering light bulbs, a television over a rudimentary bar (playing French soap operas and old Paris-St Germain football matches), and an audience that includes Turkish road engineers smoking fake Dunhills, and a set of Malian girls swaying gently by a cramped stage.
Mr Traoré, squat and thoughtfully glum, arrives late in the evening, just as the crickets are stilling themselves on the dust outside. He sits at this correspondent's table, under a poster of an American rapper Tupac Shakur. Sipping pineapple juice, he fixes a stare. “So, what do you think of Jackson Browne? Cool?” Mr Traoré beams. “Yes, cool.” Such are Malian inductions into its music.
Some musicologists consider the steamy malarial swamps of the Niger river in west Africa to be the real home of the blues. Nowadays, with Air France jets streaming to Paris and beyond, the musical styles cut back and forth in Bamako. Not just the local Bambara and Songhai tunes, but soul, Congolese rumba, Cuban rhythms from socialist connections, rock (though mercifully not French rock) and latterly hip hop.
Mr Traoré has something of a hip hop look himself. His cap is slightly turned to the right, and his amulet necklace, traditional in much of Mali, is etched not with star systems or Koranic verse like those of the shepherd musicians at the edge of the Sahara, but with a bling silver guitar.
When Mr Traoré finally gets up on the stage, it is crowded with his group: bass player, another guitarist who doubles on the ngoni—a four-stringed lute—a rock drummer, a traditional Malian drummer and a percussionist feverishly working the calabash. Mr Traoré sings in a flat, strangely penetrating voice, somewhere between rap and blues, alternating between Malian languages. When he plays the guitar, the entire club turns to watch.
Although Mr Traoré regularly tours Europe and was recently voted “best rock artist” by Libération, a mainstream French newspaper, and even “best world artist” by Le Monde, there has been no commercial breakthrough. Instead, his work has become a valuable raw material, a kind of musical obsidian for other artists, several of whom have remixed his songs. The same is true for other Malian stars including Habib Koite, Boubacar Traoré, Amadou and Mariam, a couple who met in Bamako's school for the blind, and a Touareg group called Tinariwen. Several members of Tinariwen, whose sensibility lies somewhere between The Clash and Jimi Hendrix in the desert, were guerrilla fighters in the Touareg insurgency in northern Mali.
Legend has it they went into battle with electric guitars on their backs. Mr Traoré is less martial. Born in a village on the banks of the Niger in 1963, a little way from Ségou, he did not belong to Mali's musician caste, who sing songs at weddings about kings of Timbuktu and are themselves feted as princes. The first guitar he saw, he says, belonged to a man being cured by Mr Traoré senior, a well-known healer. Young Lobi was captivated by the instrument, and he later drifted to Bamako to explore its possibilities. His breakthrough came in 1994 with his second album, called “Bamako”, which was produced by Ali Farka Touré, one of Mali's brightest stars.
Several more albums followed. The best is, arguably, the latest, called “The Lobi Traoré Group”, which was recorded in live sessions around Mali. Mr Traoré's strength on it, as with Malian musicianship in general, lies in the effortless mix of old ballads with modern riffs. “My music resembles the blues”, he says, “but it belongs to Mali.” He is modest, but not shy. “By the will of God, I will be famous,” he says. Hopefully so.
Mali Desert discs
Jan 18th 2007 TIMBUKTU
From The Economist print edition
The political roots of one of Africa's liveliest music festivals
AS A very cold wind swept across the sand dunes in the early hours, the time had come for the last concert of this year's “Festival in the Desert”. It is held annually near Essakane, an oasis some 40 miles (65km) north-west of Timbuktu, the ancient city on the Niger river. Reaching it tests endurance, with miles of impermanent sand tracks to negotiate. The reward is a three-day feast of music that has now become so popular that this year 4,000 people turned up.
It is mainly a celebration of the musical heritage of the Touareg, a fiercely independent nomadic people who live in the area. Their concerts feature electric guitars, loud singing, drumming and swirling flutes, belted out through megaphones. Against this raw, distorted background of noise the dancing is remarkably gracious.
The festival coincides with traditional Touareg celebrations but has a political side too. Since the advent of French colonial rule more than a century ago, the Touareg and their cousins in neighbouring countries have been restricted in their movement and made to feel marginal. They first rebelled against the French in 1894 but were bloodily suppressed. Mali's independence in 1960 changed little.
Another rebellion, in the 1990s, extracted partially fulfilled promises from the Malian government that the Touareg would be better represented in the government and the army. To mark this reconciliation, thousands of weapons were incinerated in Timbuktu in 1996, in a ceremony called “the Flame of Peace”; the music festival is an offshoot of it.
Its chief organiser is Habib Koité, an indefatigable singer and guitarist from western Mali. He closed this year's festival, after local heroes Tinariwen and others from around the world had paid homage to the late mayor of nearby Nyafunké, better known as bluesman Ali Farka Touré, who died last year.
It may be in the middle of the desert, but the festival has pulled in sponsors such as the French-owned mobile-phone firm Orange. Touareg traders badger everyone in sight with endless offers of camel rides, swords and jewellery: a once-a-year chance to get some cash before returning to their harsh, nomadic existence for the rest of the year.
I just came to Bamako for a training on how to be a trainer of trainers for Junior Achievement. JA is a non-profit based in Colorado Springs, CO focused on teaching kids fundamental economics so they are able to fully participate in the global economy. The curricula are focused at the specific age level of the students starting in elementary school through middle and high school. JA currently has operations in over 100 countries and is just now moving to Mali. In fact, Mali will be the very first country in West Africa and the first French speaking developing country that JA will enter. They are doing a pilot program from now through September before expanding to the full program.
Anyhow, getting to where I come in – I came down to Bamako (actually west) for this training. I was supposed to come and learn how to teach other Malians how to be JA instructors. Unfortunately, the trainer was unable to make it for a number of reasons. Only myself and another volunteer, Kathy (she is in Segou with me), had ever taught JA back home in the states and were the only ones with any real experience with the program. This left us as the obvious choice to lead and give this training that I’d come down to participate in… All of this came about the day before the session was to start giving us plenty of time to prepare!
Kathy and I whipped up a quick plan of action and did the best we could with the time and materials available. It wasn’t exactly what everyone had been planning on but, none-the-less, was a successful training.
For now, we are only going to be teaching “our community” which is normally taught to 2nd graders in the US. Of course, the booklet we have is the same used in the states and not exactly applicable to the culture and environment here in Mali, West Africa. We are making some adjustments (such as re-drawing the neighborhood map to reflect the local businesses, buildings, etc.) and working on translating the lesson plans so French speaking Malians will be able to give the course.
Now, I’m back in Bamako (the JA training was down at the Peace Corps training facility of Tubaniso) getting ready for another meeting with my fellow tourism volunteers tomorrow. We are trying to create pre-packaged trainings on various subjects such as customer service for hotels/guides/restaurants, food preparation and sanitation, English teaching, accountancy, etc. The goal is to have these trainings complete to the extent that you could pick up the training packet you’re interested in giving and have everything there to give a training. I’m working on customer service for guides/hotels/restaurants, cultural sensitivity for guides/tourists, responsible philanthropy for tourists, and energy saving practices for hotels/restaurants. Needless to say, I’ve got my hands full – especially with the limited access to resources over here in Mali (limited or no internet, no library resources, and well, that’s about it).
On Monday, I’m jumping on a bus down to Accra, Ghana for a training on importing and exporting artisan goods to places like the US and Europe. Afterwards, I’ll try and meet with a few tourist businesses before taking a little vacation on the beach. The plan is to go down through Burkina to Ghana and then back up by first heading East through Togo and then North through Benin. The entire trip should take about three weeks.
I’ll try and get photos up as soon as I get back and even an update while I’m out traveling around. Till then…
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Mali and Mauritania
Swathes of desert but oases of progress
From The Economist print edition
Two dirt-poor Saharan states are doing better
WHILE its richer and grander neighbours quarrel and cheat, modest Mali looks askance at Côte d'Ivoire (struggling to reunite a divided country) and Nigeria (making a hash of democracy again), as it makes quiet progress. As a result, on April 29th its people re-elected their president, Amadou Toumani Touré, for a second five-year stint in office. Meanwhile, Mali's almost equally poor and sandy neighbour to the west, Mauritania, has had a similar success, with its first free election since independence in 1960.
Political progress apart, their economies both have a very long way to go. Ranked third from the bottom in the UN's world human-development index, Mali is a tough place to live. Infant mortality is among the world's highest, adult literacy among the lowest. Some 12m-strong, Malians on average earn less than $400 a year. Although most farm, only a quarter of the land is productive—and is being eaten away by the Sahara desert as it creeps south. To make matters worse, Mali has been hit by drought and a plague of locusts. Its cotton industry is fading. Civil strife in Côte d'Ivoire has disrupted its main outlet to the sea.
Still, other things have been improving. Mali's election was the fourth in a row after decades of dictatorship. Mr Touré, who seized power in a coup in 1991 before handing power back to civilians a year later, avoided politics for a decade before returning to power in 2002.
Since then, known simply as ATT or more grandly as “the soldier of democracy”, Mr Touré has fostered a system of government by consensus. He belongs to no party but is supported by a coalition of 44 of them. His seven challengers all have representatives in government. “We think that when all the players are brought together we can avoid useless politicking,” he declared before the election. “Western confrontational democracy would not be a good thing in our country because it risks degenerating into regionalism, factionalism and ethnicity.”
Not everyone in Mali agrees—and the notion that adversarial politics means chaos has often been cited as justification for dictators elsewhere on the continent. Mr Touré's opponents have cried foul, complaining that soldiers were told who to vote for, ballot papers were floating around before election day and voter lists were inaccurate, with many dead still on the register. But most foreign and local observers said the poll was fair enough.
With its cotton industry withering, Mali is now Africa's third-biggest producer of gold. It also hopes, in the next five years or so, to produce oil. Mr Touré, a champion of mechanisation, wants to increase Mali's output of cereals from 3m tonnes today to 10m by 2012. Donors are rewarding Mali's quiet progress with hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. In the forefront is the United States, which sees Mali as a key ally in its war on terror in the region.
Coups d'état are frowned on these days in Africa. But the one in Mauritania seems so far to have turned out nicely, even for those who were rudest about it at the time. Nineteen months after he ousted President Maaouya Taya, who had clung on to power for over two decades, Colonel Ely Vall graciously left office a month ago.
Most of sand-blasted Mauritania's 3m inhabitants are also dirt-poor, despite their country's abundance of iron ore, fish and, more recently, oil, though their GDP per head, at $530, is higher than Mali's. They are now looking to their new ruler, Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi, to improve their lot. The election he won in March was Mauritania's first free one since independence 47 years ago. Hope has risen in a Saharan country that, like Mali, straddles Arab and black Africa.
Governments in Africa, Europe and America voiced their disapproval when Colonel Vall took power in a bloodless coup in August 2005. But he kept his promise to hold an election in which no coup leader would compete. The transition has been smooth, authoritarian rule has been softened and the polls—free and fair—took place earlier than originally planned.
The United States lambasted the military takeover. But John Negroponte, its deputy secretary of state, was on hand last month to praise both the colonel and the new president, promising to renew aid and to bump up military co-operation, not least because Mauritania—like Mali—is an ally in America's war on terror in Africa.
Mauritania's new president promises to tackle poverty and injustice. Under a calm surface, social tensions are strong. Mauritania's conservative ruling class has a poor record. Vast villas behind high walls in the capital, Nouakchott, testify to the wealth of the country's Moorish elite. Bubbling frustration in the slums, particularly among black Africans, may boil over if things do not improve. Mr Abdellahi, who hails from the long-dominant white Moorish establishment, may struggle to convince people he will break with the past.
“It was good the soldiers came and went,” says Amadou, a taxi driver sipping sweet mint tea. “They say they will change things—but we will see.” Mauritania's full diplomatic relations with Israel are popular in Washington but less so back home. Clashes between African and Arab Mauritanians in 1989 and 1990 led to tens of thousands of blacks fleeing or being deported. It is unclear whether Mr Abdellahi will let them back.
His trickiest task will be to tackle slavery, which has resisted three attempts at abolition. The last law, in 1981, banned it but failed to criminalise it. However much it is denied, an ancient system of bondage, with black slaves passed on from generation to generation, still plainly exists.