Monday, June 14, 2010

Music Is Medicine

Recording in West Africa a few years ago with the Kanaga System crew, we based ourselves out of Bamako, Mali staying at the compound of master Djembe drummer Abdoul Doumbia. A road trip was planned to Abdoul's ancestral village Zambougou to meet up with and record some musicians. Aja, Kanaga's fearless leader and the main organizer of the trip, also planned to stop off in Segou, Mali to arrange a recording with some of the more traditional drummers. Segou had been the capital of the Bamana empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to Aja, older, more traditional drumming styles could still be found uncorrupted in Segou.

Timing is very casual in Africa. A large van was hired to carry all of us plus equipment. It was scheduled to meet us at 10 am at Abdoul's compound. The driver and van finally arrived at 2pm, a mere 4 hours late. Still, there wasn't any problem, the plan was to reach Segou by dark, and it was only 3 hours away. The van was packed and we were on our way out when the driver announced that, before we could go, he would have to drive to the other side of Bamako, in the opposite direction, to give his wife the money he'd just received for the trip. Not having much choice, we went along with it. Tensions started to rise after about 20 minutes of waiting at the driver's residence for him to do whatever he had to do. It was almost 4pm by now. Finally, Aja said, " that's it... if we don't leave RIGHT NOW! we're cancelling the trip. Literally, within seconds of him saying that, the driver jumped into the van and said, " Ok, let's go."

We made it to Segou just as the sun was setting. Aja had wanted to track down some of the old school master drummers for a possible session on our way back from Zambougou. He found someone, I don't know how, but he was a younger drummer who agreed to round up the drummers we were looking for. After getting some supplies from the large open air market, we set off for the village.

We finally arrived to Zambougou around 8:30pm. They had put up an American flag to welcome us only they didn't know which way it should go, so it was upside down, which, given my feelings toward the Bush administration, was kind of appropriate.

Zambougou is your quintessential African village, no electricity or running water and all kinds of livestock wandering about - cows, geese, chickens, ducks, goats and a scrawny dog or two for good measure. There was a local Peace Corp worker in residence who decided not to greet us. Apparently the village elders had issues with the Peace Corps and had voted not to allow anymore of their workers in the village. One of them had managed to get a woman's clinic built for birthing, but no one used it. I'm not sure why, but judging from the number of children roaming about, they were somehow managed to give birth anyway.

The next day we recorded a group of Corejuga musicians in a grove of young nime trees just outside the village. I was told the Corejuga are a caste of itinerant travelers who use comedy, humor and laughter in their music and rituals for the purpose of healing. They dress in a way that makes you think of African troubadours, which is, I guess, what they are. Bright, colorful, homemade clothing, funny hats with tassels, and lots of gris gris pouches hanging from their clothes. One of the younger males wore a wig and a dress and acted more effeminate. They seemed partly clowns, partly storytellers with an innocence that belied a deeper wisdom. They reminded me of The Fool card from the tarot. The Core Juga is not just a type of music. The music is part of a ritual that involves dancing. We asked them not to dance for the recording but did get them to do one extra piece so they could dance for photographs.

We left Zambougou the next morning. It seemed like the whole village turned up to see us off.

We arrived back in Segou in the early afternoon only to discover that our liaison who had promised to round up some drummers had failed to do so. However, he did takes us to his drumming teacher who was able to find some other musicians. An arrangement was made to record an album with them in an open area in the teacher's backyard. The ground was all dirt, no vegetation, as one would expect in this sub-Saharan equatorial climate. The stone walls of the nearby living quarters contributed to excellent acoustics for recording drums.

The line-up consisted of 2 bongolo drummers playing rhythm, a kinkenee hand drum played by the teacher who later switched to a djembe toward the end of the session, and another drum called a ganga which looked similar to a kinkenee. There was also a male singer and a female singer. I had enough channels to use an ambience mic, something I always try to do because it adds so much life to a recording. I positioned the ambience mic to pick up the reverberation of the drums while avoiding the reverberation of the vocals.

Two musician friends of ours Adama Couloubally and Mousa from Bamako were part of the group that accompanied us on the trip to help out. For his lunch, Adama had brought along a live chicken from Zambougou which he strung up by its feet inside the van to keep it passive.

During the session, Mousa and Adama were behind me taking turns listening on an extra set of headphones. They both enthusiastically raved about how good it sounded, which I attributed to having the ambience mic quite prominent in the monitor mix. Drums bouncing off of stone surfaces in an open air situation gives a very powerful sound.

But besides that, the ancient traditional rhythms and music they played was incredibly strong, powerful and uplifting. At one point - and this is where it becomes hard to put into words - I distinctly felt part of a much larger group body that was using the sounds and rhythms as a kind of navigational guide for entering into alternate modalities of perception outside the domain of common consensual reality. In more common vernacular, it completely blew my mind!

Some people call this trance music but I consider this a bit of a misnomer as trance implies a loss of volition. The effect I felt seemed to last, with varying intensity, for quite awhile but it probably was about 20 -30 minutes in common time. Yet, I was always able to keep a part of my attention on the recording itself.

At first I attributed the strong effect the music had to still becoming familiar with the different kinds of live music in Mali, but then noticed that everyone else, both African and American seemed visibly affected by it. Mousa, in particular, was running about excitedly telling people in Bamana, his native language, something that sounded extremely important to him, some kind of truth that he urgently wanted others to grasp and realize.

He came up to me, also, speaking rapidly as if some unknown fate depended upon it. I found a translator who said that Mousa was basically trying to get across the importance of what we were doing. At one point, he repeated the phrase: Foli ye fura ye to me several times. This phrase I recognized as one he enthusiastically mentioned the most to people while we packed up. The interpreter said that foli ye fura translates as 'music is medicine'

Mousa, who seemed in his mid to late twenties at the time, was an experienced and accomplished djembe player that Aja had used many times as a sideman. The fact that a seasoned, nearly local - he grew up in Bamako - drummer was so profoundly changed by these traditional rhythms, indicates, to me, that the magick in this music was real.

Our first stop after we loaded the van was to a millet beer establishment, the local musicians beverage of choice. Over a communal gourd of beer ( I didn't partake), seated outside waiting for a much larger container to be filled, Mousa, for some seemingly telepathic reason, started to talk to me about money.

He started off saying (in translation), " Don't worry, everything is going to be all right. He said that money was like fire, a transitory fuel. That it will naturally come after work is done." This sage advice was coming from someone who, at that time, probably possessed not much more than the clothes on his back. Most of the money he did earn was from tips earned from playing music at weddings. Since that time, Mousa was able to emigrate to the United States where he now shares a beautiful home with his young family in Northern California.

The drive back to Bamako was long and cramped with many stops - a military checkpoint, delivering a package, visiting our interpreter Soulay's family, etc. What should have been a 3 hour trip took about 5, but we finally made it back home.

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