Earlier posts from Uncle Barnie:
Uncle Barnie in Mali
I arrived in Bamako International Airport at 2am, queued for an hour or so to get my 5-day VISA, then queued some more to get through immigration. So it was almost 4am when I found myself outside all of a sudden in "African" Africaâ€¦ looking for a cab and wishing like hell I knew how to speak French. Well a cab driver and a helpful guy that could speak English materialised quickly enough, and soon all three of us were trying to find my chosen accommodation, which was apparently out the back of a restaurant.
When we found it myself and the friendly fellow who had jumped in the cab with us had to do quite a lot of banging on doors before a large lady came out, obviously pissed off and wrapped in a crimson sheet. She showed me upstairs to a sort of room, and I paid her, and the friendly fellow, and then passed out. Next day I woke up thinking Iâ€™d better orientate myself and went for a walk around the block. It took about two minutes for me to become totally lost. Where I was staying was just around the corner from the biggest market in Bamako, and I spent about two hours getting enthusiastically taken around various artisan workshops, which resulted in my becoming both linguistically and geographically bewildered. So I decided to dedicate my first two days in Mali to becoming acclimatised. I had no idea really of how to start meeting musicians let alone making any recordings of jams. This temporary conundrum was lifted however thanks to two international languages â€“ the language of guitars, and the language of weed.
I came out of my room after a brief siesta (the temperature was pretty overwhelmingâ€¦ the Sahara covers a large part of Mali, and I was in that part of Africa at the hottest time of the year, affectionately termed the dog days of summer) and immediately smelt weed, and heard someone playing guitar. Within seconds a door opened and a young guy poked his head out. Talla is the son of the owner of the restaurant slash rooms for rent (I couldnâ€™t really call this place a hotel) and he was getting stoned and teaching himself guitar. Beautiful. I showed him three chords, and also tuned his guitar, and he shared his spliff with me. From then on we were mates. I told him I was interested in hearing some live music, and he said heâ€™d pick me up from my room at 9 that night. So after wandering back from finding a feed of fried spiced plantains and lentils we jumped on the back of his moped and went to a club called Le Diplomat.
Now while I was at the closing party of the Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira I had chatted to a Frenchman who gave me the names of various musicians I should keep an ear out for in Bamako, and one of them was playing that night at this very club â€“ none other than the virtuoso kora player Toumani DiabatÃ©.
He was playing along with his Symmetric Orchestra, comprising kalimba, bass and electric guitars, drums, djembe, talking drum and an array of singers. The guitar player complimented the kora beautifully, sitting underneath the koraâ€™s harp like cascades. The kalimba acted just like keys, and there were regular solo opportunities for the amazing and aptly named talking drum. One of the singers I subsequently found out is kind of like modern day Maliâ€™s answer to Johnny Cash. His name is Morojala Comoura. Infamous for his deep plaintive voice and heart-wrenching lyrics, his flamboyance with women and alcohol, and for wearing all black except for a bright red cowboy hat. Talla had ditched me to go meet his girl so I hailed a cab and it took the driver and me 2 hours to find my restaurant. I had to argue my way out of paying double the fare (in Africa the price is decided before you get in).
But it was where Talla took me the following night that really rocked my brains, and made me feel like I had found some sort of Holy Grail so early on in my trip. Although Le Diplomat had its charm â€“ a circular outdoor bar with a large dancefloor and attentive beautiful waitressesâ€¦ plus it was freeâ€¦ it was still a place that definitely took measures to ensure â€˜foreignâ€™ patrons were pleased. Where Talla took me the following night was a place commonly referred to as â€˜Bar Djemebeâ€™, but on the outside is a sign saying â€˜La Dundunbaâ€™. Dundun is a type of bass drum common in Maliâ€¦ and djembe is also as we all know a type of drumâ€¦ so maybe we can just call it the â€˜Drum Barâ€™. The place is amazing, and definitely caters to the locals. Hardly any lighting, rows of bench seats and low tables, hot like sauna love and only one type of drink sold: Flag beer. It was also packed with equal amounts of men and women, which was refreshing after the more dominant Islam scene in Morocco. There were obviously Muslims getting down here tooâ€¦ just a whole lot more chilled about things like... recreation.
But the band â€“ either called â€œBeperiâ€ or â€œKitaculaâ€ depending on whom I talked to later on - were incredible. They had the sonic mix that had initially drawn me into the bottomless well of African popular music years ago. Traditional rhythmic and melodic ideas blended with raw interpretations of homeland-via-the West styles like rock, soul, and funk. I have a lot of records dedicated to this kind of music, and I honestly thought I would have to be a pretty lucky mf to get to hear any young dudes playing that kind of stuff nowâ€¦ especially in a continent where the messages of MTV hip-hop have made such an impact. But here it was â€“ a drummer and djembe player intertwining between 4/4 blues-rock beats and more traditional rhythms, and a bassist and guitarist going crazy over top. The guitar player slash leader of the band was dressed in a sky-blue shiny traditional Muslim djellabah, and was also screaming his lungs out. A young man had the nerve-racking job of being a human mic-stand for this guyâ€¦ kneeling down so as not to obscure the view and tying with arm outstretched to hover the mic with respectful distance from the possessed lips of the leader (who was also swirling his guitar through some truly mind-altering psychedelic blues soaked clouds). They played slow, and fast and then real fast. And towards the end of their set a young kid got up and danced like I have never seen a human being move in my life. Half Bambara, half electric boogaloo. He danced himself into a body poppinâ€™ frenzy as the drummer kept playing fill after fillâ€¦. the djembe player going completely nuts and swirls out of the tiny little overdriven guitar amp chorus-pedalling my brains out. They got faster and faster. Suddenly the dancer feigned breaking his leg and hobbled off dramatically to the outdoor garden. Everyone in the room started shouting and laughing and hitting their feet harder as they danced, and then the power died. There were claps, hisses and laughs, and candles appeared randomly. Somehow I ended up sitting beside the djembe player. It was pitch black, and my burgeoning French and few words of Bambara seemed to be floating along beery rivers well enough for us to talk about all sorts of brilliant things.
Talla had again ditched me early on to meet his lady, but this time he turned up again right when I was walking out to attempt another cab expedition. I hung with his mates outside drinking warm beers and miraculously knowing how to speak French.
I had made some invaluable recordings in my short stay in Bamako, but more importantly felt acclimatised and confident that the rest of my trip, if somehow carried out with the same sort of karmic magic, would yield further gold. I had made a good friend in Talla, and on my last day we gapsed it on his moped up to the top of a rim of hills looking down over Bamako and the river Niger. We smoked joints, drank warm beers, and watched goats getting grazed on the recently constructed exercise park. We went back to the restaurant and I grabbed my bags, jumped on the back of his moped again and headed for the bus station, to catch my 26 hour ride to Burkina Faso.