Monday, February 14, 2011

Madou Diabate

The Egyptian National Museum of Cairo, located at the center of the recent uprising in Tahrir (or Liberation) Square, contains a reading artifact known as the Stele of Revealing. An ancient Egyptian, funerary piece, it's a central transmission and altar piece in Aleister Crowley's cosmology of Thelema. T he 3rd chapter of the Book of the Law, the revelatory text of Thelema, seems more relevant now than ever before and seemed to forecast current events in Egypt.

I had a room on the 7th floor of the Interconintental Hotel, a hotel on the summit of a hill in Addis Ababa. The room had an adjoining open air balcony with a low railing that amplified the feeling of being very high up. Mornings were clear and crisp. The bright orb of the sun dramatically greeted each day from the East, so dramatic in the elevated open air as to indicate a higher order than the troubled strife of human politics down below.

The footage of the revolution in Egypt seemed everywhere. A flatscreen television prominently displayed Al Jazeera's constant broadcast in the center of the enormous hotel lobby. They even had it silently playing in our rehearsal space.

Still feeling feverish from getting overheated the day before, going through Military checkpoints, seeing soldiers on the street, a soldier checking our bags before entering the museum, a metal detector at the entrance of the hotel, getting stopped outside the U.S. Embassy by soldiers ( one of them with a Jesus Loves You rifle strap) and being questioned for suspected filming of the Embassy ( we weren't), left me with a strong impression that the world is on fire.

Even at the airport on my way out, my bag was thoroughly searched by a soldier in the parking lot before I reached the airport entrance. The soldier sniffed my Tea Tree essential oil to make sure I wasn't packing gasoline or nitroglycerine.

Riding to the airport with Giacomo Bruzzo, an Executive Producer of Method of Defiance, and his friend Carlo, I told him about the documentary we're shooting in Mali. Giacomo is one of the most intelligent, astute, and well-informed listeners of music I've personally encountered. As a point of reference, I asked if he'd heard of the world famous kora player Toumani Diabate and mentioned that we worked with his brother Madou Diabate, also an amazing kora player.

I requested a window seat to look out upon Africa as we made the 7 hour flight over the broadest part of the continent. When I checked, most of it looked brown and flat, no signs of water, vegetation or habitation.

As soon as I got out of the airport in Bamako, the Capital of Mali, I was told that the day's planned shoot, if I was up for it, was with none other than the aforementioned Madou Diabate. I agreed despite a concern that the sunstroke would get reactivated by the unrelenting afternoon sun.

Eo, who met me at the airport, also mentioned that Aja had been called by a well known English musician, Damon Albarn, the former lead singer of Blur, enquiring if Madou was available to play a festival with his band at a festival in Manchester later in the summer.

The shoot took place at an abandoned and unkept complex that had once been a Presidential Palace from the time of Independance in 1961 until the early 1990s. It wasn't the Prez's main residence but a retreat spot on the edge of the city. A beauriful cool spring ran through the grounds; a factory bottling fresh spring water had established itself nearby.

Aja said that kora music reminds a lot of people of water so he positioned Madou in front of the spring to make sure the water was in the frame.

The idea was to have the shoot as natural looking as possible which meant no visible mics in the frame. I tried setting the Audio Technica lavalier mics, one near the sound hole and one on the bridge of the kora. Neither could handle the sound pressure level and were unusable.

While I was away, a new member had joined the crew. Jim was serving as a Producer and additional cameraman. He had with him a very nice Sanken lavalier mic which we placed on the bridge. It didn't overload but had a thin sound. I repositioned it on the body of the kora and it sounded much better. Fortunately, Madou also had a pick-up that we ran through a DI which helped a lot. Still wasn't completetly satisfied with the sound of the kora.

We had set-up a U87 for ambience outside the visual frame. Listening to it soloed revealed that this position was virtually useless for the kora's sound. We ended up transferring the U87 to a small stand and placed it near the sound hole. This became our best and main sound source for the kora. True, it now was in the frame, but looked rather elegant, I thought, and made the kora sound good.

The delicate, liquid sound of the kora played by a master like Madou does remind one one of water flowing.

Healthwise, my physical organism felt good by the end of the shoot and survived the debilitating rush hour air pollutution on the ride back. My trick to combat that is to wear one of those blue germ protection masks you can buy in pharmacies.

The sunstroke did not reactivate, on the contrary, I had gotten past it. The atmosphere of cool water at the Presidential Palace must have tempered and offset the oppressive fire in my body. I enjoyed a delicious meal upon returning home, my first since getting sick.

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