Music CyclesBeginning as a grey-skyed daydream, we cycled to Bamako, Mali, recorded an album there and finally released it in July 2014
Record number of takes in 100 degree live room before sneaking a break- 5
Spontaneous dance breaks from Baini our electric guitarist- around 5…
Best use of resources- Kona (studio owner) for his ‘egg box sound proofing’
Exclamations of ‘ne nodo’ (‘my mistake’)- countless
Hours worked in studio- something near to 8
Tracks recorded- 3 (and we had only aimed for 2!)
So, with the first 3 tracks recorded, our album is finding its feet, getting its groove on, and taking some kind of shape for its inevitable late-night London mixing in May…
Reaching Ke-Massina had been stressful. Imran had watched his guitar fly off the roof of our moving bus onto the dusty road behind us and we had both begun to wonder if our long journey from Bamako would be worth it.
But to our surprise the guitar survived its fall at 50 km per hour and as we arrived in the tiny village things began to look up.
Greeted by dinner and friendly faces, we had a quick jam before jumping in a pinasse to cross the River Niger reaching the small island of sand where the Festival Culturel Waakono would take place.
As we left the pinasse and paddled through the river water to the island we spotted the small stage area. Fairy lights flashed neon blue, strung over wooden poles with electrical cables creeping over one another. Large crowds of locals gathered, a circle formed around the stage and the smell of brochettes warmed the fresh river air.
It was not difficult to see that this festival was different. A little bit special. Organised and financed by Malian musicians for the benefit of the local people and for us, a lovely place to play our first gig of Mali…
‘Salam, Do you know where Jaliba Kuyateh lives?’
‘Jaliba..? Of course. His house is the most grand in Brikama, it’s beautiful, you cannot miss it.’
Four stories high, looking over the fantastically green city of Brikama in The Gambia, Jaliba’s house was indeed beautiful and we had turned up unannounced and uninvited, expecting at best a cup of tea and a chat.
But as we rolled our bicycles into the driveway we were greeted with a scene of busy women smiling up at us and welcoming us to their compound. They quickly informed us that Jaliba was out, and that we must wait for him over a large bowl of Maffe.
After attempting to finish the meal that could have fed six, we watched on as the women forced a kora onto the youngest of Jaliba’s sons, Jaliba junior. But little Jaliba, only interested in Imran’s guitar, grabbed it and held it like a kora announcing simply that he too wanted a ‘toubab kora’. We laughed and discussed the certainty of his musical career, owing to his strong griot lineage.
It wasn’t long before Jaliba arrived home to find us, the mystery cyclists, stood on his doorstep. Feeling a little sheepish we introduced ourselves and the project ‘music cycles’. Jaliba in his gentle manner insisted that we come along to a few of his gigs and stay at least one night with the family.
Later as we sat watching the band tune up, begginning to feel the birth of a street party atmosphere build, Jaliba told us of how frequently he plays for baptisms and weddings. The attendees of the baptism arrived in their hundreds, women in elaborate dresses, their sequins and bold prints owning the dusk air.
Intrigued by the sound of drumming and saxophone we strolled around the corner to find a group of 30 or so singing, dancing and clapping to the rythmic beat of the drummers accompanied by a pentatonic saxophone line.
We stood back in awe of the scene in front of us. Before we knew it Mikaela had been grabbed enthusiastically and now stood in the centre of the circle of women, clapping her on, determined that she would dance.
The crowd swelled and flowed moving us back towards Jaliba’s band who had now started to play. The crowd went wild, the women moving forwards to dance as the men took a step back to witness the energetic raising of the purses high above their elaborate hairstyles; hairpieces, painted scalps, head ties, a mass of bold colours and sparkling beads.
Jaliba has been performing in and around the Gambia for more than 20 years and he has achieved true celebrity status. Jaliba is a griot, and as a griot he has an important role to play in society.
“[Griots] are mediators, they connect people and they are the most vocal people in society”, he explains.
Historically, griots were the closest advisors of kings and were the holders of historical knowlege and lineage.
“Today our role is lighter’ he says simply, ‘today we are less linked to politicians and more connected to the people’.
In a country where only 20% of the population can read government campaign posters on issues such as AIDS and Malaria, it’s no suprise that Jaliba’s topical lyrics run deeper that a Baptism celebration.
At a political rally in Sedhiou in the Casamance region of Senegal, we find ourselves once again in front of an enourmous crowd of Jaliba fans. This time though they are attendees of a political rally.
As we look into the crowd we are faced with an audience of t-shirts bearing the faces of bored looking politicians with promising slogans. Worn with little enthusiam but for the fact they are distributed for free, the crowd becomes disinterested in the dullness of the political speeches and race for Jaliba’s stage.
The women rush to the front, the faces on the t-shirts are forgotten and the dancing begins.
‘I sort of preach’ he tells us later.
Jaliba laughs as he tells us that in the beginning of his career the griots turned away from his music.
‘Musicians here can enlighten people, make people laugh, make people cry. Why shouldn’t I talk about things that can benefit the people? But at the start the traditional griots said I was spoiling things… because I went further than to just talk about a king or a chief or a warrior doing good on the battlefield.’
Now though, that pressure is in the past and Jaliba’s popularity could not be stronger in both The Gambia and Senegal. Now a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Jaliba is an established public figure here, his words are trusted by the people who follow his music and for some his lyrics educating people on HIV/AIDS, may be their only source of information.
Wherever you go with Jaliba the children race towards him,
They lean through the windows of his car as they chant his lyrics about malaria prevention loudly, smiles beaming, jumping at the car just to get a glimpse.
Back at home Jaliba’s family once again welcome us. We have stayed far longer than planned but by now Mikaela has developed some kind of epic cold involving multiple sneezing, constant nose blowing and a voice like a tired camel. One of Jaliba’s wives Fatu, orders her to bed for a day where she is waited on by the children of the house as Fatu fusses over whether the quantity of cornflakes will be enough for our breakfast.
In the evening we try to play some of our songs to Jaliba, but with Mikaela struggling to sing and creating Janis Joplin-like sounds, we focused on guitar and kora. The growl of Jaliba’s deep voice dances over the gentle sound of the strings and we are all lulled into a relaxed state for a perfect evening of conversation and hot goat stew.
The following day we once again find ourselves saying a reluctant goodbye to friends we will not see for some time.
Jaliba turns to us and with a warm smile states, ‘I will miss you both’.
We tell him how sad we are to leave and that we now feel part of the family. Concerned we will be tempted to stay longer we make a quick exit and cycle away down the sand piste to cross the border into the lush green of Casamance, Senegal.
After much reassurance that our new friend was a trustworthy chaperon to lead us on our musical outing, Aiwa the President of the Human Rights Association we were staying with finally agreed, ‘ok, you may go, but you must be back by 11 pm’.
It was already 9 pm and feeling rather limited by the mothering Imran replied quite perfectly, ‘Inshallah‘. Aiwa flashed a grin in our direction and nodded.
Armed with a guitar, camera and sound recorder we made our way through the dusty cratered streets of Nouakchott to the house of a family we had been told were great traditional Mauritanian musicians. Jeick Ould Chighaly welcomed us with warmth as we entered the busy household. Scattered around the generous sitting room were instruments of Mauritania. Jeick approached us with his electric guitar.
‘It as a quarter-tone guitar’ he casually exclaimed.
With so many notes at his disposition, Jeick’s playing style is somewhere between the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré and a proficient oud player. After playing the electric guitar he then demonstrated his agility on the tidinit, a Mauritanian lute almost identical to the ngoni. We sat mesmarised by the improvised lines that could rival Bassekou Kouyaté‘s.
As Jeick played to us his intimate audience Noura his wife and fellow musician joined us. With little more than a brief salam Noura picked up the ardine and began to brush across its strings with eloquent skill. As she played we sat in awe of the beautiful harp-like sound.
The ardine is a 20-string harp with similar ancestry to the Kora. Unlike its Mande cousin, the ardine is played exclusively by women. In the region of West Africa where instrumentation is dominated by men, this female tradition is unique to Mauritania.
Noura Mint Seymali and her husband are very successful musicians both in Mauritania and on an international level, playing at Festival au Desert amongst many others. Her voice is rich and deep with resonating strength, Noura tells of of how she is not afraid to mix Griot traditions with other sounds,
‘On my album, I have traditional songs that are recorded as reggae pieces with drums, bass and saxophone’, she says with a smile.
But there is little talking, soon it is our turn to play. As we finish sipping our tea we play my song ‘Wine Merchant‘. There is no discussion of who we are, our cultures or traditions, yet a sense of musical connection hold on to us for the a couple of hours before Imran and I are forced to leave for our 11 pm curfew.
Noura invites us to form some kind of music project together, presumably blending our styles, Imran and I are instant to accept. We are forced to explain our visa situation, expecting this to be a major problem but Noura simply tells us to come back or they will meet with us in Mali. Relaxed to feel a natural sense of this only being the first meeting we would share we said our goodbyes, but not before I was welcomed to play the Ardine and presented with a gift of a stunning Mulafa (the traditional dress of the Moor women in Mauritania).
Cross-legged I clumsily plucked at the strings without a trace of the beauty and grace that Noura had displayed. Jeick sat with me and in the last moment of the evening we played the traditional song ‘Wading Deep Water’ with Jeick accompany on tidinit.
We parted leaving Jeick and his beautiful wife, Noura the Diva of the Sahel in Mauritania, the country we were only just beginning to discover.
UPDATE: since we wrote this blog Noura Mint Seymali has released a new CD (September 2013)!