The Siren Song of Mali
By JOSHUA HAMMER, New York Times, April 2, 2006

JOSHUA HAMMER is Newsweek's correspondent at large, based in South Africa.
WE were walking down a dirt road in a neighborhood of Bamako with the mellifluous name of Badalabougou, following the rhythmic beating of a bongo drum. Then we saw it: down an alley lined with dusty neem trees and flowering jacarandas, a few hundred wedding celebrants had gathered under a canopy made from scraps of United Nations-issue sheeting, intently watching a local percussion band play a rousing music known as deedadee.

Lithe male dancers wearing leather headdresses, cowrie-studded orange vests, burlap shorts and iron bangles leapt and shook rice-filled calabashes known as yabbaras. A jembe fola ("he who talks with the drum") pounded on a bongo fashioned from sheets of horsehide stretched over a gasoline can. Another percussionist banged a grooved metal cylinder called a karinyan.

Then the dancers disappeared and a petite female singer moved in, circling through the crowd and singing praises to relatives of the bride and groom. Suddenly, she began gesticulating in our direction, while guests looked on, amused.

"She is singing about you," one told me. "She is praising you for visiting Mali."

The band had been playing for six hours when we arrived, at 4 p.m., and the music would go on until long after dark. As the light faded, people spilled out of their houses and gravitated toward the tent. Street vendors circulated on the periphery of the crowd, selling peanuts, chewing gum, bananas, tea, firewood, sandals, toothbrushes and sunglasses. The whole neighborhood had turned out for the show.

"This band usually plays at weddings for people from Bamako who have roots in the Niamala region," said my companion, Paul Chandler, an American record producer and schoolteacher who has lived in Bamako for several years, "but their music is free to everyone who wanders by."

Bamako, a hot, dusty city that sprawls along both banks of the Niger River in southern Mali, near the border with Guinea, does not, at first glance, bear the markings of one of the world's great cultural capitals. Although it is the capital of the former French colony and has a population estimated at more than a million, in many respects the city feels like an overgrown village, with a handful of high-rises along the wide and murky Niger, goats grazing at roadside and a sprawling market, the Grand Marché, filling much of downtown. Yet its musical tradition goes back at least six centuries, and public open-air performances by itinerant musicians, like the one we saw, are as much a part of life here as pickup games of le football. Moreover, during the last decade, the city has undergone a transformation.

A Malian music boom that began in the 1990's, when the soulful vocalist Salif Keita and the singer-guitarist Ali Farka Touré achieved international stardom, has brought an influx of tourists, record producers and aspiring musicians seeking to emulate the stars' successes. (The news of Mr. Touré's death on March 6 from cancer resonated around the world.) As a result, Bamako has become a meeting place and incubator for West African talent, and one of the best places on the planet to hear live music.

Bars and nightclubs have sprung up, often intimate venues with thatched roofs, bare scuffed walls and a few dozen rough wooden tables and chairs, where some of the biggest names in Malian music drop by to play when they're in town. (Several of these establishments, including Mr. Keita's Mofu and Oumou Sangare's Hotel Wassulu, are owned by musicians.) Such Western artists as Robert Plant, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker and the French Basque star Manu Chao have visited Bamako to jam and record with the local stars.

The city has become a cultural hothouse, in which singers and instrumentalists from Mali's myriad tribes - the Tuaregs of the Sahara, the Sorhai of Timbuktu, the Malinkes from the border region south of Bamako, the Dogon cliff dwellers, the Wassalous near the Ivory Coast, the Peuls of central Mali - mix and fertilize one another's art.

"The number of ethnic groups here is vast, and each culture is distinct," said Mombé Traoré, a dreadlocked disc jockey in his 30's known as D. J. Vieux who agreed to be my guide during several days of sampling the music scene in early February. "Everyone meets up in Bamako."

Mali musical tradition goes back to the height of the Songhai Empire, in the early 16th century, when a caste of itinerant entertainers - oral historians called griots - emerged in the villages along the Niger River, the third longest waterway in Africa. Known as jeli in the local Bambara language, the griots developed musical narratives whose aim was to celebrate the achievements of kings and to chronicle the culture and history of their communities.

"If you think of West Africa as a body, then the griot is the blood," I was told by Toumani Diabate, a virtuoso of the 21-string, harplike kora who won a Grammy this year when "In the Heart of the Moon," a collaboration with Ali Farka Touré that the pair recorded in Bamako, was named best traditional world music album. "We are the guardians of West Africa's society. We are communicators."

Mali's griot music has developed many permutations over the centuries, but common denominators still exist: a hypnotic, haunting melody based on a pentatonic scale, the piercing vibrato of the kora, energetic drumming and the plaintive wail of the singer-narrator. (The griot still ranks low on the social hierarchy, however: Salif Keita, a descendant of a royal Malinke family, earned his clan's scorn when he chose the career of the griot.)

I arrived in Bamako at the end of the cool, dry season, when tourists from Europe and, increasingly, the United States converge on Mali to hike among the villages of the animist Dogon tribe, or to venture to Timbuktu and the Sahara beyond. Bamako used to be just a way station, but increasing numbers of tourists are staying a few days to check out the music scene.

Bamako remains one of the poorest capitals in West Africa (Mali has been independent since 1960). But it is also perhaps the most welcoming, and visitors find almost none of the hassles encountered in other cities in the region.

After having my credit-card number stolen at one of the best hotels in Lagos, Nigeria, and after bribing my way past roadblocks manned by drunken soldiers and club-wielding teenage vigilantes in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I found Bamako a relief. Taxi drivers are generally honest; street hawkers back off after a single polite "non, merci"; the streets are safe after dark. And if you can speak a little French and drop the names of one or two Malian musicians, you'll find yourself engaged in animated conversations at every turn.

At 11 p.m. on my second night in Bamako, Vieux, which my dreadlocked guide goes by, pulled up in front of my hotel on an aging Chinese moped and told me to follow him in a taxi. His peacock-blue traditional robe, a bubu, fluttered in the breeze as we rode through dark streets to Élysée, a barnlike club on the outskirts of town.

Dimly lit, it was packed when we arrived, filled with young Malian couples who danced slowly on a rough mosaic floor or snuggled on banquettes. (Mali's men and women, despite living in an Islamic country, are relaxed about displaying affection in public.) A popular local singer, Lobi Traoré, no relation to Vieux, sang melancholy tunes in Bambara, backed by a percussion band and two electric guitars. The music, which Lobi Traoré called the "Bambara Blues," contains striking echoes of American R & B, and, like that genre, is filled with themes of shattered romance and unrequited longing.

Lobi Traoré is not the first musician to cite parallels between the music of the Mississippi Delta and that of the Niger River. The late Ali Farka Touré, a Sorhai who grew up on the banks of the Niger south of Timbuktu, once said that the American blues were born along his bend in the river. Robert Plant found similarities between the assouf music of the Tuaregs and American blues when he played at the Festival of the Desert near Timbuktu in 2003, one of several multiple-day outdoor concerts that draw thousands to Mali each year.

The next night our destination was the Cheval Blanc, an open-air bar in Badalabougou owned by an American woman and her Malian husband, Lorelei Frizzell and Ssasi Traoré. Under a ragged thatched roof, we sat on plastic chairs at a crude wooden table, ate brochettes of beef and downed cold bottles of Castel beer while listening to a husband-and-wife band, Adama (Star) Dramé and Marium Koko Dembele.

A Dogon who grew up in the remote cliffs of central Mali, Mr. Dramé fashioned his first guitar out of tin cans, he told me during a break, and had done so well that he was recently hired as a guitarist by Mali's National Orchestra. A Dunhill dangling from his lips, he moved effortlessly and eclectically from reggae to Led Zeppelin-style blues to Dogon melodies, accompanied by percussionists, a xylophone player and Marium's throaty vocals.

Some of the biggest stars of the Malian music scene, including Amadou and Mariam and Habib Koité, were away at the Festival on the Niger, a three-day outdoor concert in Ségou, 150 miles northeast of Bamako. But Toumani Diabate, the kora virtuoso, had skipped the event so he could prepare for his trip to the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Vieux wrangled me a rare invitation to meet Mr. Diabate at his home on the outskirts of Bamako. I arrived at 1 on a Friday afternoon and waited for about two hours in an anteroom; then Mr. Diabate, a slender 40-year-old, appeared at the door and invited me to sit with him on a veranda and share a lunch of capitain, a succulent white fish netted from the Niger.

We ate communally, scooping the fish and rice with our fingers from a large metal plate. In the adjacent courtyard, a half dozen female relatives, including one of his two wives, were pounding millet, soaking string beans and simmering a stew over an open fire. It could have been a scene in any village in rural Mali, except for the occasional reminder of Mr. Diabate's celebrity. In the middle of our meal his cellphone rang: it was his producer from Nonesuch Records calling to finalize Mr. Diabate's flights to Los Angeles via Paris the next day.

The scion of 53 generations of kora players from the Malinke tribe, Mr. Diabate grew up in Bamako and began studying the instrument at the age of 5. He came to artistic maturity just as Malian music was gaining exposure in the United States, and played his first American concert at a club in New Jersey (he doesn't remember its name) almost 20 years ago.

Since then, he's performed "in 47 states," he said. He sponged up reggae, pop, jazz and soul influences during his travels, and has collaborated with the likes of Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and the jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd.

"I take the old Malian songs and give them modern arrangements, and I set new compositions to the old music," he told me. "Today people want 'world music,' mixing the old and the new, but you have to remain true to yourself. If you forget the past, then you'll lose your way in the future."

Although he has had ample opportunity to emigrate to the West, Mr. Diabate remains firmly rooted in his birthplace; shuttling back and forth, he explained, keeps him energized and inspired.

"I could never move away from Bamako," he said. "To me, it's the most beautiful city in the world."

MR. Diabate was scheduled to perform that evening with his band, the Symmetric Orchestra, at Le Hogon, one of the most popular music clubs in Bamako. I followed Vieux's moped along the north bank of the Niger, arriving at the club shortly after midnight. In contrast to the scruffy bars I'd been visiting, Le Hogon was a flashy, sumptuous place. Hundreds of patrons sat in the warm night on three open-air verandas, each topped by a thatched, Dogon-style roof that swept upward into a witch's-hat peak.

A few couples were intertwined on the terra cotta dance floor. Behind it, bathed in hot-pink light and arrayed in two neat rows, the 10-member Symmetric Orchestra performed energetically. Four percussionists stood in the front row, beating on jembes and dununbas, slim tapered drums that fit snugly in the armpit. Behind them, their backs against a colorful mural of Dogon village life, sat acoustic, electric and bass guitarists; a clarinetist; a balafonist (playing a kind of xylophone); and a kora player, plucking at the long-necked instrument almost imperceptibly with both hands.

The only ingredient missing was Mr. Diabate. "He likes to sleep in the evening, and he usually doesn't get here until 1 o'clock or 1:30," Vieux said.

A griot, swathed in a dazzling white bubu, swept across the dance floor, his melancholic voice reminiscent of Salif Keita's. The glittering notes of the kora cut through the pounding percussives and guitars. People left their seats, embraced the griot and stuck money in his gown, repeating a pattern that has played out for centuries.

"It is in our culture to reward the griot for giving us knowledge," Vieux told me. "In the villages, they give cattle or even houses, depending on how rich they are. It's not obligatory, but it is expected."

By 2 a.m., Mr. Diabate had still not arrived. During a break in the set, Vieux conferred with a friend in the Symmetric Orchestra and returned to the table with bad news: the virtuoso would not be showing up. "He says he's sick," Vieux said skeptically.

The disc jockey suspected a different reason: Mr. Diabate was involved in a running dispute with the owners of Le Hogon over the size of his fee, he speculated, and had decided to boycott the event. "He's a big star," Vieux said with a shrug.
Then the lights came back up, the band began to play, and soon, Mr. Diabate's absence seemed hardly to matter at all.