The storm breaking

Three of us – producer Chris Eckman, videographer John Bosch and I – are flying back to Mali, a landlocked African country that, until recently, has rarely garnered international attention. We’re here to record a new album with Malian musicians for the Dirtmusic project. We’ve brought no songs, just a few pages of notes and fragments, and a plan to create something out of whatever comes our way.

Ben Zabo and Sidibe meet us in the arrivals hall. Ben, a rising star of the Malian music scene, was assistant engineer when we recorded Dirtmusic’s BKO album here three years ago, and his raging band will be our main rhythm section during the first week of sessions. Chris knows these players well from producing the band’s debut album a few months back.

Sidibe, our driver and wingman, we also know from previous visits. Sidibe has spent years as a specialist tour guide for the Sahara and northern towns such as Gao and Ségou. Built like a middleweight boxer, he speaks a little of many languages and wears a chunky silver bracelet inscribed with ‘Boss’.

Business is not good, Sidibe tells us. There is no work; nobody has been coming here since the beginning of the year, since the troubles began. But it will change, inshallah!

But if the situation does change, it won’t be in a hurry. Reports from Timbuktu and Kidal detail sharia law executions, amputations, rapes, mutilations and murders. Music, dancing and smoking have been banned, and the Islamic shrines of Timbuktu declared idolatrous, their cultural treasures desecrated and destroyed. Since January, nearly half a million Tuareg civilians have fled into neighbouring states, their homes transformed into strategic bases by Islamist jihadi. The refugees live in tent camps with minimal NGO support. Azawad, the Tuareg name for the independent state of northern Mali, is now the cover for an emerging terrorist base nurtured by al-Qaeda and equipped with heavy weaponry looted from the Libyan civil war. The abyss is wide open.

Outside, in the twilight, the airport car park is nearly empty. A hundred metres away the new airport terminal is frozen in mid-construction, a lean silhouette of girders and concrete against the darkening sky. We load our guitars and bags of electronics into the boot of Sidibe’s maroon Mercedes and join the stream of motorbikes and trucks flowing over the Martyrs Bridge towards the raw humidity and concrete of Bamako.

We check into Hotel Tamana, a split-level colonial compound with a lovely terrace and mud-brick rooms wreathed in magnolia and mosquitoes. We are the only guests. The aroma of the city is as keen as ever, but the background buzz of distant motorbikes and street life is strangely low-key, reinforcing the impression of a city holding its breath before an oncoming storm.

Ali, a guy from Dogon country whom I know from previous visits, greets me. He is dressed in a Disney-bright pants-suit, his bald head perfectly shaved.

How did you know I was here?

Everybody knows, he beams. Welcome back to Mali!

Great to be here, I reply. But what about the troubles? How is the situation here in Bamako, with all the fighting in the north?

Ali bares perfect white teeth and starts firing off an imaginary Kalashnikov from the hip.

Everything okay, he says. This is my answer to the troubles!

Ali’s sidekick joins in the charade, mimes a grenade launcher perched on his shoulder. They both start laughing.

Around us, a spectral light dances across the lush subtropical trees, jungle vines rustling in the breeze. I hear the muezzin’s distant night call from the mosque; the mournful wail evokes visions of heavily armed desert warriors in four-wheel drives, cruising the streets for hostages and flying the black jihadi flag. There are still some twenty-five hostages out in the desert, people whose names and circumstances have long since disappeared from the international media. They are kept in reserve as bargaining assets or as human shields for when the counter-jihadi blowback comes.

At breakfast we read grim news over a painfully slow internet connection: sixteen Islamist preachers shot dead at an army roadblock a few hundred miles away – they were on their way to an Islamist symposium in Bamako. This kind of massacre could be the tipping point for a terrorist counterstrike in the capital.

Nothing can happen here, Sidibe says. The rebels will not dare attack the city because there is no way they could win. Out in the desert, ayeee – he waves his hands – that was a different situation.

The Malian soldiers were from the south, Sidibe explains; the desert was not their home. The government gave them old rifles to shoot with, but the rifles grew so hot in the desert that the soldiers stripped off and wrapped them in their shirts so as not to burn their hands. They couldn’t see what they were shooting at, and when they could, their bullets passed right through the enemy. You can’t shoot them, they said. They’re phantoms! They don’t die! And the soldiers ran. Then an army patrol was captured, hands tied behind their backs – bang, bang, bang! The Islamists made pictures, put them on the net.

Sidibe cups a hand beneath his chin and splays his fingers, making a code sign – the sign of the beard – and laughs, shaking his head.

Here in Bamako, he says, the real concern is Islamist sleeper cells, suicide bombers, the enemy within.

Philippe arrives in his dusty dungarees and field cap. A French expat living in Bamako for nearly a decade – and a passionate supporter of Malian music – Philippe has been corresponding with us for the last months about politics, life and music. He was never in any doubt: you guys have got to come! We’ve got to keep the music and the communications flowing! The problem is just people. Mali is made up of many different tribes and for years they’ve lived in peaceful cooperation. Music is a way to bring everyone back together.

Samba Touré, formerly a guitarist with the late Ali Farka Touré – the godfather of Malian desert blues – and a rising star in his own right, has accompanied Philippe to meet us. Tall and powerfully built, in black jeans and a bright purple shirt, Samba carries himself with a natural authority. He is pessimistic about the situation: his home village, near Timbuktu, has already been overrun by the Islamists.

The music, says Samba, is very, very important. Right now, it’s all we have.

We’re talking in an empty Vietnamese restaurant on the desolate Hippodrome tourist strip near our hotel. Disorientated tropical fish swim in a tank of discoloured glass. Ben and Chris drink beer, while I order a bottle of French wine from a lonely shelf behind the cash register. The waiter makes quite a to-do of serving, dusting off the bottle and tying a serviette around its neck.

Nobody wants the mercenaries here – except the president of the Côte d’Ivoire, says Ben. This is what the people say, he continues. The president used the soldiers to get into power and now he wants to send them away so that he doesn’t have to pay them any longer. But the neighbouring countries won’t us send the weapons we need without also sending their mercenaries because they don’t trust the Malian army after the March coup. That’s why nothing is happening, why the beards are running loose all over the north. The guns and bullets the army needs are just sitting on the docks in Guinea.

In the background, a Malian news broadcast plays on the television: grainy cell phone footage of heavily armed jihadis patrolling the desolate streets of Timbuktu, then footage of Malian army militias in a barren field, belly-crawling, somersaulting and practising manoeuvres with faux wooden machine guns. The regular army is still confined to barracks after last week’s mutiny, about a kilometre away from where we are drinking soup served by an elderly Vietnamese exile with distant eyes drawing you back down the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Sidibe guns the Mercedes through hot streets, windows open to catch some breeze. We drive past packed fruit and vegetable markets; past the Libya hotel, the national museum and a giant statue of Mao Zedong in a rotunda; past the rampant hippopotamus statue; along dirt roads lined with shacks hammered together from scrap metal and oil-stained wooden planks; past hair salons in kiosks the size of a call box; past street kids selling cigarettes, phone cards, toy tennis rackets, rubber balls, used batteries, cell phone covers and other random objects. Old beggars led by children palm for alms through car windows. A girl says to me, give something to God; the old man’s glazed eyeballs gaze off into the African sky.

Traffic weaves around a sharply dressed woman picking herself up off the ground after a high-speed spill from the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, neither of them wearing helmets. She is smoothing her immaculate hairdo as if nothing happened. Busloads of hard-muscled itinerant workers shoot past, the rusted frames of their vehicles stencilled with faded images of Che Guevara, hammers and sickles, stars of Islam. Near the river, in a field by an overpass, a man in tattered denims vomits on the ground; beneath the overpass, women and children wait for a lift, an assignation, a sign.

We drive up a broad, red-dirt street flanked by acrid drainage ditches, eventually pulling up at Salif Keita’s Studio Moffou. Barefoot kids run about in thrift store T-shirts, playing games with bottle tops and stones. Toubab (‘white man’), they shout at us. Coulibal! (‘everything’s okay!’). We grin and wave as they cluster around.

The studio’s mud-brick verandah opens onto a small control room occupied by a 1980s analogue recording desk. After a heart-thumping handshake, our sound engineer, Abou, takes us next door to Salif’s club, a night-haunt concert hall panelled in beautiful red wood with a tiled cement dance floor and a mezzanine.

The band is tuning up. Jonathan, tall and lean, is on electric bass. He has a steady smile and keen, intelligent eyes. On drums is Jean, a powerful beat-maker used to playing for hours at all-night sessions. Kassim comes from a traditional griot family – hereditary master musicians – and plays balafon, a tuned percussion instrument at the heart of traditional West African music.

The musicians are from the Bwatun region, which is half in Mali and half in Burkina Faso. Ben, part-jokingly, describes the Bwa as the Germans of Mali: industrious, high-minded, beer-drinking and hard-working. And pretty much straight off, they connect with the Krautrock tangent in our music; long, monotonic, atmospheric jams will form the basis of our collaboration, giving us space to discover common ground.

John is up on the mezzanine coaxing the lighting desk back to life. After a series of electrical shocks – and some rich American expletives – a revolving discotheque gobo pulses out a looping pattern across the dance floor. In the club’s shadowy dark the effect is psychedelic, a play of shifting tones washing over our skins and instruments.

Two weather-beaten Peavy solid-state guitar amplifiers hiss behind their improvised sonic baffles. I plug a beat-up Japanese guitar into one of the amps and it sounds good – distorted, reverberant, knife-edge sharp, with a backwash of other-worldly white noise.

Invisible tensions are driving us, and the stress is good for the music. Each recording stems from a simple, spontaneous riff, an electronic pulse seeking that vanishing point where we all sync together and the music makes sense. The songs take time to reveal themselves; everything is a process of discovery. We don’t talk much about what we’re doing, just allow it to happen.

The band quickly gets used to Chris and I changing instruments or experimenting with tablet synths and effects chains while they nail a groove and just sit on it. Ideas slowly form during these takes: rising and falling in speed and intensity, occasionally peaking and crystallising as the serpentine rhythms roll on, morphing into new beasts, into the unknown.

Clouds gather across the sun, and the sludge in the open drains shimmers in the shifting light. Kids queuing up for free sachets of soap powder turn to point and stare at me; I smile and wave back. In Bamako, there are kids everywhere – half of Mali’s population is under fifteen. Most girls have babies strapped to their backs while they work, walk and talk. These babies might be younger siblings, but probably they are not. There is no infrastructure for the kids and no money – Mali is one of the poorest countries on the planet. At night they cluster around old televisions in the street, craning to look over each other’s shoulders at images of a world that doesn’t know they exist.

The low-pressure system over Bamako promises rain, but the storm is slow to break and the smog and humidity rapidly make the air unbreathable. Driving back from the studio we pass the grand marché, the great open-air market in the city centre. Along these streets, every window is broken from the coup riots. Pedestrians and motorbikes chaotically swarm through the slow-moving traffic. Boys scramble blithely in front of the Mercedes as if it isn’t even there; Sidibe waves them off the bonnet, while Lobi Traoré’s high-octane Afro-rock blasts from the car stereo. Everybody is shouting or hustling or in motion.

Ben and his band are playing tonight at a club on the city’s edge. People in the audience dance a slow, sexy shuffle that grows in numbers, speed and intensity, eventually becoming a circle embracing the entire courtyard. Ben works the stage like a prince, passing the mic to his wingmen on the stage, merging his presence with the collective. The music is wild, exuberant, fearless and free. I plug a guitar into one of the three amps and follow the D major drone into the cascading Bwa rhythms. Beers are passed around while guitarists feint and parry like swordsmen, taking turns on the lead. We leave before it gets too late, driving on backstreets to avoid police controls because not all of us are carrying ID papers.

Back in my room, a large black spider hangs suspended from the bathroom ceiling. Keeping a wary eye on it, I scrub myself down under the slow, cold trickle from the showerhead while bats shriek outside in the trees.

In the middle of the night I wake up with vicious stomach pains. The torment is relentless: machete stabs of fierce pain that allow no sleep or rest. Codeine eases me through the small paranoid hours into the hazy morning.

I crawl out from under the mosquito net,  pull on my jeans and stumble downstairs. Chris, John and Philippe look grim, each one scanning  online news reports. It’s the anniversary of 9/11 and the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, is ablaze. The US ambassador and other diplomatic staff have been killed in the attack. Simultaneous assaults on other Western embassies in Africa mean this is no coincidence. In Paris, cartoons satirising Wahhabi Islam have created an international media furore, while in the US an obnoxious video caricature of the Prophet has gone viral. Across the planet, people are deeply pissed off. Philippe recommends I don’t watch the gruesome footage on the web. You don’t need it, man, he says. Focus on the music!

In the studio, it’s our last day with Ben’s ace rhythm trio. Ben notices the delirious sweat shimmering on my skin and, laughing gently, says: ‘Mon ami! Mon ami, don’t you like the food?’

The drive back that evening is another suspension-thumping ride along pot-holed dirt roads packed with motorbikes and buses and ethanol-belching trucks. The fumes are inescapable. Along the road to the Tamana, Sidibe observes that electric light is nowhere to be seen. Sure enough, the entire district is blacked out. The grid might be down, but the sky is erupting with sheet lightning. The storm is growing closer.

Down by the Chinese Bridge it’s time for the Friday sacrifice. Roosters ruffle their feathers in bamboo cages. The shaman draws his knife across a throat and blood flows down a muddy bank into the heaving Niger River while Toyotas and Mercedes hum overhead. The gods are placated for a little while longer: we will eat yet, and breathe. But first, something has to die.

The city is dark and still, like the pause before impact. A few drops of rain fall, then comes a violent deluge. We drive along the flash-flood streets before the storm renders them impassable; Sidibe cranes his neck out of the window to see something of the road ahead, all the while honking the horn to let people know we’re coming. We stop briefly at a chemist to buy some salve for the strange rash that came up this morning across John’s throat. I don’t know what it is, he says. I don’t wanna think.

Midnight mist shrouds the terrace; a bird, hanging upside down from a mighty succulent towering overhead, chimes bell-like percussion in the quiet after the storm.

It’s no good, says Sidibe. The tourists have to come back. What else am I going to do? There’s no money in Bamako – I can’t even take a girl out and show her a good time. Is it easy to travel to Australia and live there? How much does it cost?

Between ten and fifteen thousand dollars, I reply, but you can’t trust the people traffickers: many people drown in the Indian Ocean before they arrive, and even if they make it, they’re locked up in detention centres on remote islands and left there for years without even a lawyer.

Ayeeee! The world is a dangerous place, says Sidibe.

The warlords are demanding a ransom, Ben says, you know that? Forty billion for northern Mali. But at the same time they’ve sent envoys to Bamako requesting technical help to run the electricity! And the water! These bastards don’t know how to do anything useful. It really makes you laugh, but the people are suffering and that’s not funny.

Later, I lie on the floor of my room in the dark and watch the roof tremble in the gale. Far away on the other side of the world I hear my girlfriend’s voice through a sketchy Skype connection on my mobile.

Are you alright?

I don’t know, I reply, I think so.

I love you, darling.

I love you too.

Then she says something I can’t understand, her voice muffled by echoes and white noise. I try to call her back but can’t get a connection.

Musicians dressed in long desert robes, their faces shadowed by elaborate white turbans, are waiting for us in the atrium of Studio Moffou, n’gonis (a type of guitar) and calabash gourds at their feet. They are the Super 11, living masters of takamba, a traditional music form from the Saharan fringe. Yehia, the main man of the band, gestures me to come closer. We need travel money, he says in French. The bus fare is expensive from Gao.

Gao is controlled by the jihadi. Super 11 had survived there playing at weddings, harvest festivals and social occasions, but now everything has changed.

How are things going there for you in Gao, for your music?

Mauvais, replies Yehia. There is no work, no money. He makes the sign of the beard and says, nous ne pouvons pas retourner – we can’t go back.

How was it, crossing the frontline in the north?

Very hot, he replies. The sign of the beard once more.

And with the instruments?

Yehia gestures hiding the n’goni under his robes with a knowing grin.

Hard negotiations follow. We move the figures around until everybody is satisfied, at which point the atmosphere lightens, palms slap together and we all grin triumphantly.

The band spreads a carpet out on the studio’s floor and sits cross-legged with their instruments. Yehia sets up his n’goni amplifier, an ancient valve device in a dirty bronze casing that gives the Super 11 their mind-bending distorted sound. And then they launch into raw takamba – a combination of ancient rhythmic patterns and arcane melodies that, more than anything, resembles mystic mathematics, a sacred geometry. Chris and I improvise with them for nearly an hour: wild, frenetic, unheard of – until suddenly the grid goes down again, plunging the studio into darkness.

Merde! The hard disc crashed, Abou says. We lost it all!

Hurrying to their next appointment, Super 11 wave goodbye, gun a couple of scooters into action and take off in a cloud of dust, two to a bike, robes flapping in the slipstream.

Excitement is building for Salif Keita’s Mali Independence Day concert at Club Moffou. Back-up generators thrum behind the dance hall while workmen finish covering the street drainage ditches and technicians do a sound check in the grande salle. Salif’s band arrives for the rehearsals on motorcycles and in cars, high-fiving and cracking jokes in different languages. Locusts leap and zoom around the atrium while the band slowly fires up some long reggae-style pieces, raw and flawless. Musically, these are giants, some of the best in the country – in the world, for that matter.

Come show time, the audience arrives in taxis and cars and four-wheel drives; glamorous women, handsome men and lots of kids greeting each other with jokes and boisterous enthusiasm. There is jubilation and anxiety in the air. A girl in a gold glomesh sheath dress, hair sprayed high, is busy helping old people find a seat. A bar is open downstairs, but almost nobody is drinking alcohol.

This Independence Day is charged with meaning. With the Malian state in crisis, the north overrun, half a million Tuareg refugees and war approaching, these people are scared for the future of their country. The excitement of the concert is tempered by a profound anxiety, but when Salif appears and takes the microphone, the house stands up and applauds.

Several songs into the first set, with the band pumping and Salif’s mighty voice in full flight, backed by two phenomenal female singers, a series of brutal electrical glitches surge through the cables, startling both musicians and audience. The grid goes down and the grande salle is plunged into silence.

Salif speaks to the house without a microphone, but everybody hears him clearly. We all know there are big problems at this time, he says, but we will find a solution with the peace in our hearts. We will never surrender our country. We are proud, and this place is the land of our people. Everyone applauds. We will be back, my friends, says Salif. Be calm, just a few minutes …

On the way home we are stopped at a police control point on the Chinese Bridge. They suspiciously check our documents and ask a few questions. When we explain that we are musicians, they smile. Welcome to Mali!

Driving out to the airport, surveying the half-finished shopping malls, abandoned housing developments and industrial complexes on the periphery of the city, it seems as if we are witnessing an apocalyptic Western future, rather than an emerging twenty-first-century society. It seems like we’re getting out just in time, that the situation is about to blow wide open. The weapons are packed and ready, the soldiers eager to deploy, the financiers calculating their investments.

The struggle is escalating as the globalised world shrinks before our eyes. Every action, every event, has repercussions far and wide. The storm is just breaking in Mali, but the rolling thunder can be heard in the distance, no matter where you are.

Hugo Race

Hugo J Race is a performer, writer, musician and producer. Based in Melbourne, he travels and works in Europe, Africa and the Americas. His latest release is Fatalists.

More by Hugo Race ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays