In search of Mali’s music

It was only one night but I ran all over Bamako (Mali, West Africa) looking for that world-class live music scene I heard so much about. It had a slow start: I first went to Toumani Diabaté’s Le Diplomat, but they had a Christmas dinner (in a Muslim country, yeah) with a set menu, 12,500 francs entry and happy-family environment, which wasn’t exactly what a solo traveller like me would be looking for. Then I was misguided by my guidebook and lost an hour walking in search of Le Savana, where I saw a band with a very good cora player. Still, it was too much of sweet couples and romantic atmosphere. Next venue, Le Campagnard, was a characterless hotel bar with a poisonous white-executive-in-an-unwanted-but-meritorious-African-destination environment, so I didn’t even stay for a beer.


Finally I got lucky. In the other end of town, I fell into Djembé, a dark hole which looked pretty much like a poor-artists-squatting-in-a-1950’s-cabaret place, something like the dream of a French colonialist who had to go back home all of a sudden because these Africans, well, you know, they now decided to be independent, and the venue was left to rot. I thought I’d leave too. There was a band, but they were almost hidden behind an irregular column, the sound was terrible, and nothing fun seemed to be happening. Those young ladies sitting on their own, waiting for company, and those many a young-lad-with-no-drink-staring-at-the-ceiling, made it look even more boring.


It was cheap, though. And then this woman came out to sing. Bambara blues man! Amazing voice, energy, attittude. And this other singer who showed up after, a tall black bloke in traditional clothes. The sound was terrible, as I said, but they’ve found a way to use that as another feature of their music, that roughness was actually cool and deep. And their mikes had cables! No sans-fil here, no funny FM transmitters weirdly attached to the girl’s waist. I’d forgot that a singer trying to reach her audience pulling the chaotic wire behind her was actually passionate and intense.


The bass, the guitar, and the percussions… oh, the percussions! The drummer had the most basic set, just four pieces, but he knew how to make the best of it. And the djembé guy… well, he was honouring the venue’s name. The best I’ve ever seen. He was leaving his skin there, gettin’ everyone to move and jump, I bet they heard him rockin’the place as far as Brazil!


I also learned that some Africans can have bad rythm in dancing too. This guy who was trying to hit on the singer decided that him dancing in front of the band (now we had him and the column hiding the musicians) was all what we needed to see, and he was a terrible dancer, disregarding (or not having) any sense of ridicule. Near me, there was a kind of pretty girl looking for my (financial) attention, and I bet she thought that I wasn’t interested because I hadn’t seen her sensual moves, so she put her jeans right next to my nose in order to make sure nothing else would distract me. I think she’s deaf because she couldn’t hear the beat, or maybe she just has a different concept of music.


So I headed off. Last venue of the night: Appaloosa. It is… a far-west bar just south of the Sahara? Not sure. They had a big Mexican flag and a map of Mexico, which didn’t make me long for anything. There were Native-American-wisdom posters, dream catchers, buffallo-imitation skins. The black waiters, all male, wore black business trousers, red shirts and black cowboy hats… oh god, poor boys! And the female staff… behind the bar, thirteen Eastern European blondes, laughing and having fun with the only-male customers: rich Africans with a lot of bling, Macho Lebanese businessmen, a few stupid white guys who showed up with red large cone hats and thought that the girls were laughing with sincere amusement.


Two Lebanese were dancing with another blonde, whom I first thought to be part of the staff. I realised I was wrong finding the differences: still in her teens, she was younger; she was pretty (the others may be a huge attraction here, but they’d breake no hearts back home); and she was enjoying herself, you could believe her when she laughed.


I needed a beer and went to talk to the only free bargirl, who happened to be the unique exception behind the bar: beautiful and Black. She didn’t look local. Maybe French. She was aggressive and pretended to be offended because I only ordered one drink. “Une biere seulement? Et une boisson pour moi?” Then she asked where I was from, said she loved Mexicans, kissed me twice in each cheek and insisted on a drink for her –champagne it was. I bet she’s still waiting there.


I had found a tall sit from where I could watch the whole show and stay apart. Interesting phenomena. I was sipping my second and last beer when the boss came to talk to me, a Lebanese guy with a long poney tail and an Italian shirt half-chest open. He claimed to be a Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) follower. Not the most devout, I unwisely said, would Nasrallah approve all this –alcohol, sexy blondes, stupid cone-hatted guys?


There was loud noise by the door. Two big security guys were kicking someone out. Hummm…, I thought.


“I own them”, he stated. “I own them all”. He calmedly pointed first at the blondes, and at the beautiful, angry Black girl waiting for her drink. Then at the Cowboy Black waiters… and then at the rich, blingy Africans, the Macho Lebanese businessmen, the stupid White guys… I saw his finger nearly pointing my way… but he stopped. “I own them and they want me to own them. That’s the law here”. He was looking into my eye. Smiled. And left.


So I did. Three blocks away, I found a group of kids on the street, around an old TV set. They made an omellette for me and put it on a piece of bread. They invited me to sit down among them. And we watched a Chinese movie of a Chinese zombie chasing a Chinese young girl, and killing many failed Chinese heroes on the way. Until dawn.


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