Posted by John Bosch, Director on February 23, 2013
Every day here in Bamako is an opportunity to look, learn, and most importantly, to listen. In listening, we realize that Earth's citizens' deepest concerns and fears are shared by all individuals on the planet. There are basic needs that must be met, and a secure environment is necessary in order to try and meet them. In Mali, extreme poverty is so ubiquitous it wants to be filtered out. It feels terrible to have 200,000 CFAs in your pocket, yet unable to really help a kid with a stump leg on crutches begging at your car window.
You see these people, as in every country I've been to and in the city I live in, trying to survive on the kindness of strangers and the mercy of God. Here the scale of poverty is massive. And yet everywhere in Bamako, you see people doing incredible work with very little means.
Singer Djebi has a degree in accounting, but he learned to sing as a child in the Christian church in his hometown of Tombouctou. His band, Djebi 5, has been unable to get gigs since the military/political turmoil began in Mali, so he is actively looking for accounting work to pay the rent and feed his family.
Our daily routine is to walk a couple minutes to the main road and hail a yellow cab, most often a beat up yet reliable old Mercedes driven by a dude -- the "taximan" -- with his name and license number written in white ink on the dashboard. It's great when you can get a car that has window handles, but at least the driver's window is always down. Most often there is music blasting, and we've been keeping track of our drivers' diverse music of choice. [Last night, DMX and Ruff Ryderz. Days prior: Celine Dion, Salif Keita, Arabic-sounding pop music, etc]
So yesterday morning we leave the house at 7am, toting our gear, en route to the main road to hail a taximan. We heading down to the riverbank to catch the morning rays, or "magic hour" in the parlance of movie-making.
On the corner of our street there's a vacant lot, and a small group of three workers were building perfectly-shaped cinderblocks with their hands and a few simple tools in the pleasant morning sun. When we returned, they had made enough for a building foundation (photo: Musicians Arouna Coulibaly [Ben Zabo] and Tiken Jah Fakoly on the roof of Jah's club RadioLibre.)
Our focus being on musicians, we are seeking out singers, songwriters, and players who find a way to work everyday, even if for nothing. They are playing music and singing songs to keep their culture's soul aloft, as music is the heartbeat of the Malian universe, and without music, Mali will die, plain and simple. Just as importantly, they are thinking deeply about their country's situation, and responding intelligently and passionately to questions we ask regarding their deepest concerns.
N'goni master Bassekou Kouyate records a song he wrote, "Essakane", at Studio Bogolan, with Afel Bocoum, Ami Sako, Ahmed from Amanar, and other excellent musicians. The song is about the cancellation of the festival au desert, and the desire for cooperation among Mali's ethnic groups.
Last night, Ahmed from the Tamishek band Amanar (the word meaning "north star") tells us one of his recent stories. One day, recently, when he was away from his home in Kidal, bandits claiming to be Muslim stormed into his house demanding to know where the electric guitars were. Ahmed's sister claimed ignorance, but the intruders found the guitars and other music gear, took them out into the street, and burned them.
We're not talking about ritualistic sacrifice to a peaceful, psychedelic God here, a la Jimi Hendrix. This is brutal language of control and violence toward another person's sacred possessions and means of livelihood.
Ahmed, from the band Amanar [the word for North Star in Tamishek language], describes his guitars being burned by rebels in Kidal, Mali. He was forced to flee with his family or risk brutality.
After the burning, they conveyed a message to Ahmed through his sister: return home, continue to play music, and we will teach you that you are not "using your hands to pray" to god in the correct way. We will cut off your hands. Or return, and we will show you how to be a leader of a mosque, in the correct way. But you must first do just as we tell you.
As a musician and guitarist myself, I must truly admit I have never experienced concerns as deep as these, and therefore, perhaps my original statement doesn't hold up. All of us in the world don't share all of the same concerns. Some of us face threats that only in a nightmare could our imagination conjure.
Feb. 21, Bamako