Sunday, April 6, 2014

Music in Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good

Do a google search for music + healing and you'll get "about 174 million results in .27 seconds", or at least that's what I got just now.  Maybe  it will show a different number for another search.  Much information could be gained on the subject by going through those results though it might take awhile to get through all 174 million, ... or one could go to the country of Mali, located in Sub-Saharan West Africa, and get the experience of music and healing in daily practice.  Except that going to Mali appears no picnic these days, especially with the rebels in the north getting rowdy and destructive from time to time - boys will be boys, you know.   But soon you won't have to go there to see how music works in Mali to facilitate well-being, social harmony, and spiritual nourishment.  Soon the film Music in Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good will be out to show the world the strength and power of their music to effect positive change.

Mali makes an ideal environment and testing ground for music because of the harsh conditions there.  Most people in Mali live in poverty.  It often ranks as one of the 3 - 5 poorest countries in the world.  Of course, I speak of poverty in the common Western way as lack of material goods.  In that way, Mali is poor.  Not a malnutrition or starvation kind of poverty, just not a lot of basic material goods we take for granted, like stoves or air conditioning.  However, the people of Mali appear quite rich in two things - spirit and music.  It seems a connection exists between the two.

An example of their rich spirit might be that the majority of Malians I met could see energetically, see people's auras, or their moods.  A very talented kora player I know, Adama Couloubally, used to play these incredible riffs on the kora and watch with delight the effect it had as I used his music as a sort of Jacob's Ladder to get high and expand the vision.  He kept trying to outdo himself and take me higher, and it usually worked.  He played and I played.

Life is hard in Mali. Many of our musician friends died prematurely, in their late 40's, due to toxic environmental conditions.  The pollution in Bamako, Mali's capital and only major city, seems completely out of control.  No infrastructure exists for handling garbage collection and disposal much less recycling.  All the trash, including tons of plastic, gets taken to local dump sites, right next to where people live, and burned.  Burning plastic fumes  combined with the vehicular air pollution makes a toxic cocktail.  Driving through downtown Bamako in the evening rush hour after my first recording session there I started hallucinating visions out of Dante's Inferno, it was so bad.  I didn't know to wear some cloth over my face to filter the fumes, but learned pretty quick. I immediately passed out back in my room.

Music in Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good.shows how music functions there to assuage, alleviate, and transcend daily hardships.  The music goes way beyond the struggle and pain of the human condition subsisting with limited resources.  The musicians tell the stories in their own words and their own language.  They talk about life and music in Mali yet the message they give from their experience is universal.  They speak the language of music which transcends social and cultural boundaries.  By watching this film anyone can learn much about the essential qualities of music and how it dynamically works to effect changes in the world.  As one musician succinctly sums it up:

The people don't have gold and diamonds, but the music can transform us into anything.

You'll have to see the film to witness the sincerity of his delivery.

Valuable history permeates this document especially related to the roots of Jazz and Blues.  The West Africans brought their music to America when they were exported as slaves in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  You will hear he story about the evolution of the banjo from the n'goni - the stringed instrument griots play. The origin of the djembe, their primary hand drum, gets told.  You'll see instrument makers hand crafting their products while discussing what goes into each one and how they get the best sound. 

As far as the roots of blues, before ever hearing this notion, I recorded Lobi Traore's acoustic album at Abdoul Doumbia's house in Bamako and as he was playing, I really got the feeling of being at the African version of the Mississippi Delta; country blues from the source a la Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson or early Muddy Waters.  Lobi played with the same gut-wrenching intensity, but in his own, more African, style.

We cleared out the front room of Abdoul's house to make enough space for Lobi and another acoustic guitar accompanist.  It was just the two of them.  The sparsely decorated stone walls made the acoustics bright and lively which worked well for this instrumentation.  I used both close mics and room mics, and recorded both guitars in stereo.  My control area was set up just outside the door on the front porch.  We started recording around 1pm.  Even in the shade the heat was pretty intense, you could physically feel it beating upon your body.  Not long after Lobi started playing, while the recording went down, I flashed on the similarity in mood with Delta Blues.  It seemed the roots of the blues could really have come from here, but I also sensed his playing showed the influence of American Blues.  Musically regenerative feedback loops across time and space.

Baking in the Sub-Saharan heat, breathing in the dust, listening to an African version of Robert Johnson playing live in the next room while in full alertness recording mode, it seemed that this might be similar in flavor or mood to what John and Alan Lomax experienced on their recording expeditions into the Deep South.of the United States.

There is a short clip of Lobi playing in that style in the film.  You can hear samples from the album or buy the album here.  It's called Lobi Traore Barra Coura.

Music in Mali gives a historical overview of Mandig culture and the Mali Empire that flourished in West Africa from the time of the 13th century.  It starts in that era and proceeds all the way up to the political upheavals of the last few years, the coup d'etat and hostile takeover in the north. 

The range of music appears equally as broad.  From traditional tribal drumming and dancing- "the language of dance, the language of movement" - to a look at what might be a dj hip hop show or a rave, their version of the Electronic Dance Music scene.  Popular Malian musicians are well represented, Ali Farka Tour√©, Salif Keita, etc. We sit in on a master kora class given by Toumani Diabate who won a Grammy in 2006 for Best Traditional World Music Album.

One of my favorite sections uses a song by Nabintou Diakate, a very popular singer there, to cut in and out of narration discussing the role and difficulties of being a woman in Mali.  It's a beautiful song to the Mother of Creation with the chorus plaintively expressing, "My mother, the bird is crying."  We recorded her singing it beside a small waterfall on the grounds of what had once been the President's residence.  More on that recording here.

Not long after that comes the section on war.  The war that just happened in Mali last year.  After an apparently nonchalant, nonviolent, bloodless coup d'etat in Bamako, the rebels in the North took advantage of the disorganization to sieze control up there.  For some ungodly reason they decided to join forces with Islamic Fundamentalists who set about doing what they do, imposing strict sharia law and being very unpleasant to anyone who disagreed with them.  One musician interviewed in the film said she "left after the extremists threatened to cut out her tongue if she sang again."  Later, she says that : "music will be the reconciliation of Mali."  She may be right.  I believe the situation has stabilized considerably since spoke.

This trailer says it all:

The mastermind and motivator behind Music in Mali is its director Aja Salvatore.  He first began going to Mali to study its music sometime around the mid 2000s and quickly hooked up with a number of top musicians.  It soon became obvious to him that they could use some help and support to get their music out there.  So he formed KSK Records and learned how to record and promote them.  They adopted Fela Kuti's statement, "MUSIC IS THE WEAPON OF THE FUTURE" for a motto.  KSK (Kanega System Krush) describes itself as:  "an independent record label, operating on a fair-trade principle, focused on the preservation and promotion of traditional music from West Africa. By bringing this music to the world market, KSK is opening new channels to an old tradition, as well as providing direct support to the carriers of this ancient knowledge."

I met Aja when I recorded a jazz band he played guitar with called LSJ, their last names being Lois, Salvatore, and James.  He mentioned that he liked Jali Kunda, Griots of West Africa and Beyond, a griot music travelogue that I had recorded with Bill Laswell and Foday Musa Suso.  Not long after, Aja asked me to show him and his brother Eo how to operate Pro Tools along with some basic micing techniques in preparation for their first recording expedition to Mali.  We mixed those recordings at Prairie Sun and they became the first KSK releases.  The following year Aja expanded his recording set up and brought me to Mali to engineer.  The music recording naturally evolved into a film project. Industry professionals were brought on board such as Producer/Director of Photography/Editor David Nicholson.

Like a good anthropologist, Aja completely immersed himself in West African culture becoming fluent in Bamana, the local language while also learning and participating in many of the local traditions.  He tells their story from the inside, not as a musical tourist.  Actually, most of the time he encourages the musicians and locals to tell their own stories in their own words.  Salvatore's success gets measured not only by the worldwide attention he's brought to his artists, but also by the great respect those same artists hold for him.

Aja Salvatore and drummer

 The music industry is taking notice as this journalist points out:

Kanega System Krush is doing African music right!  For 8 years they've been visiting Mali - one of the richest musical nations in the world - and not just meeting the known stars, but really listening and exploring.  The artists KSK has recorded and filmed are exceptional sincere, authentic, and absolutely worthy of global attention.  Some are known to an extent, others not at all, but this is not about celebrity.  It's about the quality, power and emotional impact of the music.  I am a fan of the releases and supporter of the spirit in which they have been made.
  - Banning Eyre, host of Afropop, music journalist, author, NPR contributer, guitarist

Some more images and quotes from Music in Mali:

Opening scene: night in Bamako, close-up of a woman with a child on her back wrapped in a blanket cuts to a high energy concert shot, Samba Diallo and band, still night time, outdoors in Bamako, concrete ampitheater, flags and emblems signifying cooperation painted on the back wall alongside Keith Haring-like characters.
"Drum and dance are like history books " Village life ... fishing the river with long low dugout boats.
"Humanity is a lot of days
Humanity is a lot of episodes
Once it's been heard, it's for the whole world"
Beautiful black eyes. 1/3rd of it's population sold into slavery.  Secret of weaving.
Hunting reenactments, buffalo evoked with masks and costume in dance and drumming.
Blacksmiths made the first djembe inspired by the rhythm of pounding millet .
The spirit music of Timbuktu.
Fires burning in the bush by the side of the road.
"There are forces that make things happen.  We are here to save the past.  I am a Griot."
Village music, one string violin riffs and melodies by the river in 110 degree heat.
War sucks.


  1. So, Oz, did you check out the legendary city of Timbuktu when you were there, or were you too busy working?

  2. Tom, I didn't make it to Timbuktu. The KSK crew made the trek up there the year before my first trip to Mali. It's something like a 12-14 hour horrendous bus trip there from Bamako where we were based. Now it seems too dangerous to go there after the war. Even a few years before the war it was considered risky to travel up north,.

  3. Get all the best alcoholic drinks on Duty Free Depot!

    All the world famous brand name drinks for unbeatable discounted price tags.