I was on the back of Paul Chandler’s moped, riding through the red-dirt side streets of Bamako, scanning the landscape near two tall mosque towers whose pale plaster gleamed in the late sunlight. We passed a soccer pitch where boys were sending balls thocking into the air. We were searching for a wedding, one of many unfolding across Mali’s low-lying capital as another weekend got underway.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere other than here,” Paul said over his shoulder, “as a musician.”
Tagging along with Chandler, an American musician and producer who has spent seven years in Bamako, I was hoping to get a glimpse into the scene made famous by such Mali musicians as Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Amadou & Mariam, a scene where other performers such as Grammy winner Toumani Diabate regularly play.
Ask most people for one fact about Mali, and chances are they’ll say it’s where Timbuktu is. That’s the city where, every January, you find the Festival in the Desert, a major concert that has brought together a heady mix of world rhythms and Saharan views for a decade. In their rush to get to that festival, though, travelers often miss an even richer music scene in Bamako and in Segou, a sleepy city that you pass on the way to Timbuktu.
A hub in the ancient Mali empire that stretched from Africa’s westernmost tip inland to Niger, Segou has its own big concert festival every February. Amadou & Mariam, Mali’s chart-topping world music duo since their breakthrough 2005 CD, “Dimanche a Bamako” (Sunday in Bamako), headlined this year’s event. And Bamako has a livelier cultural scene than you might expect for the capital of such a poor country.
In a new memoir, Amadou & Mariam give a poignant sense of the capital in the 1970s: its sounds, its smells and its street life. As kids, Mariam and her friends pooled their money for dance parties: “In those days, in our neighborhood of Madine-Koura, there wasn’t enough electricity for street-lighting and lights in public places. We waited for the moon to shine so we could go out into the street and organize what in Bambara we call tekere-tlolonguai, ‘having fun by clapping hands.’ ”
When I heard Amadou & Mariam several years ago at the Birchmere in Alexandria, their concert drew shaggy old Peace Corps types, fresh 20-somethings and West Africans of an in-between age, all bouncing to Amadou’s infectious guitar. I was one of those Peace Corps types, having spent two years in neighboring Mauritania way back in the 1980s. Now I was visiting good friends posted with an international agency in Bamako and curious to see how West African pop and the traditional griots, or storytellers, had fared in the pop era.
“That may be them,” Paul said, as we heard a singer’s amplified voice waft through the streets. Thursdays and Fridays — this was a Friday — are popular days for bridal showers in Mali, with women gathering to celebrate the bride near the family compound. We wandered down several clay streets lined with mango trees until we found the one filled with women of all ages, a clutch of colorful headscarves surrounding a singer.
She threw a strong voice into the mike, backed by two drummers. Her stream of praise for the family seemed like a formidable display of a griot’s Homeric memory for clients’ family histories, until Paul explained that merely the family name could cue her riff on their story. Then came the ritual of paying the singer. A samba line snaked across the street and back, women following the bride, clapping hands, until they formed a thick coil. Rich families can sometimes drop $1,000 on a singer in five minutes, Paul said.
Street events such as this are a Malian musician’s bread and butter, he added. With Bamako growing all the time, troubadours have migrated to the city more for these opportunities than for the nightclub scene along the Koulikoro Road east of town.
That night Paul planned to record a female griot at his studio southwest of the city center, so I went along. From the street, we passed through a metal door like the entrances to houses on either side. But inside, past the kids playing on a parked moped in the courtyard, past the young band members in back and through a side door, we entered something like my idea of a recording studio: mixing panel, window to the recording booth, guitars and balafon (an instrument like a vibraphone) clustered in the corner. Colorful striped Malian blankets lined the wall facing the recording booth, and bamboo shades gave the ceiling a tropical flavor.
Producer Lamine Soumano played two songs for Paul that were ready for recording vocals. The first struck Paul with the blend of Malian and Verdean styles. The second started slow, a traditional Malian introduction for a griot. Halfway through, it morphed into a fast, high-life dance tune. Lamine watched Paul’s face and laughed. Lamine wanted that surprise shift from old style to pop, he said, and he thought Faty Diakate, the singer coming that night, could do it.
By 10:30 p.m., Faty was two hours late. Finally the door opened and a statuesque beauty in a yellow-striped Finland T-shirt entered. After some chitchat, Lamine talked her through the song: the quality of voice and breath at the transition, the intensity of the dance section. She looked nonplussed. It wasn’t exactly her style. But she’s a professional, and soon she was in the sweltering recording booth, recording a phrase at a time, adjusting her delivery to the producers’ suggestions.
Later we stopped at a nearby bar to hear another band. This was a stripped-down African bar: just a wide dirt courtyard with a thatched porch on two sides and a thatched roof over the stage, and a counter where you could buy cold beer. Even here, the three-piece band accompanying a series of singers had a discerning audience.
Saturday night I set out to hear Abdoulaye Diabate, one of Mali’s most popular griots, who has integrated sounds from Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti and more recent African pop. I caught a taxi from the city stadium, where the Mali soccer team had just beaten Zimbabwe, and we headed for a club near the Senou airport. There were already two people in the cab. After some misunderstandings and a search down a darkened road outside town, the driver and I weren’t too happy with each other. But by the time we finally stumbled upon the Foyer de l’Air, a club managed by the air force, we were fast friends. As I headed into the crush of people at the gate, he said he’d wait for the return fare.
Everyone was handing the bouncer some kind of invitation. Not having one, I got edged aside. The night was looking like a huge waste of time. After steaming for a few minutes, I realized that the invitations were actually elaborate tickets being sold a few feet away. I could get one for about $3. The ticket informed me that the concert was a benefit for a local youth association.
Soon I was inside, holding a cold Castel beer and a spot on the porch with a view of the outdoor stage. Everyone was friendly, humoring my faltering French. Then Diabate appeared onstage in a snow white grand boubou, or wide-sleeved robe, and the traditional pointed white shoes. He commanded the space in front of his four-piece band in the traditional griot style and launched into his remarkable mix: doing the traditional praise-singing for a fundraiser while also preaching change. He was shaking it one minute, hectoring with gestures fitting his story the next, and then praising the wealthy donor family in the front row.
The crowd was spellbound. When I caught up with him later, he defined a griot as someone with a good memory: “Before, nothing was written. All the news you got was what came through the ears. And it was the griot who retained many things. The griot is the ear of the people and the ear of the king.” He drew a distinction between the terms griot and musical artist: “One is born griot — it’s in the blood — but one becomes an artist. Even if you’re not a griot, you can learn to be an artist.”
Many musicians in Bamako work Sundays, when weddings wrap up. Paul Chandler plays regularly with a djembe (traditional drum) group led by lanky young Siaka Doumbia. This week they were playing on the south bank of the Niger River. Under a tent in the street, women from the bride’s and groom’s families listened as a female griot signaled the drummers what to play.
The momentum mounted: Siaka anchored the rhythm with a cowbell in one hand and a drum between his legs. Another drummer helped lay the foundation while Paul and two others wove rhythms between them. The crowd was rapt. A boy handed me a glass of African tea, and it tasted sweet.
I took a bus to Segou, where the Festival sur le Niger takes place every February. After the Mali Empire faded, Segou became the seat of the Bambara Empire, which lasted until 1861. As I rode into town on a stately, jampacked Bittar bus, Segou unfurled imperially along a wide avenue lined with large shade trees. We rolled past examples of colonial architecture (the police station, city hall), striking adobe minarets atop mosques and gateways along the river.
At the last festival, you could find Malian stars Vieux Farka Toure (son of Ali Farka Toure), Bassekou Kouyate, Oumou Sangare, as well as Toumani Diabate and Abdoulaye Diabate (not related). Headliners from neighboring countries included Femi Kuti (Fela’s son) and Senegalese star Ismael Lo playing on stages along the river.
“The Festival in the Desert is for the international crowd,” one local told me, referring to the Timbuktu scene. “The Segou festival is for us.” That’s how I’ve heard New Orleanians compare Jazz Fest with the more intimate French Quarter Festival.
In the town center, Segou’s dusty streets can look dirty. And when it’s not festival time, the music scene pales beside Bamako’s. But even in the hot season I found offerings. Near my hotel by the river, Mamadou Kouyate set a music salon called La Bouzou throbbing as he taught drums to young hopefuls. Later that evening, Mamadou sat in at a local nightspot. The sounds wafted up to the rooftop of Hotel Djoliba, where I was enjoying pizza overlooking the square. I stopped into the bar to hear the group play.
A few blocks south, the club Espace Kora hosted local singers doing a Malian version of karaoke, with a live trio accompanying them. They shared so much musical vocabulary that even though they’d never played together before, the singers and band communicated seamlessly. The courtyard felt like a tropical beer garden with lights twinkling in the night.
On the road back to Bamako, I stopped to visit a clinic in the small town of Marka Coungo. Not to romanticize it, but music is part of a cultural glue that keeps Malians’ rural ties closer than in many African countries. Dr. Nimaga remains at the Marka Coungo clinic near his family despite offers to go elsewhere. I’d been told that a polite visitor “asks for the road” (for permission to leave), so as my visit ended, I asked.
“I give you half the road,” replied the doctor. The other half, he explained with a smile, would eventually lead the host back to his visitor.