In a previous post, we told of Canadian banjo picker Jayme Stone’s journey through West Africa in preparation for an upcoming CD based on African banjo music. He has agreed to send us a series of updates from Africa – a banjo travelogue of sorts. Part 1 follows – with photos.
Your morning is my afternoon here in Bamako, Mali. We’re currently sweltering at about 100 degrees.
I’ve been here about four days and starting to find my rhythm and my wits. It a rather serious culture shock. I’m in the capital, but it hardly looks like a city. No maps, hardly a paved road in sight and people everywhere. The sun is blazing, the earth is a burnt orange and everything (goats, children, banjo cases) is layered with dust.
The scale of poverty is astounding. The home I’m staying is considered more ‘European’, which only seems to mean there is electricity, running water and flushing toilet. I am trying hard to re-calibrate my scales, because these amenities are hardly the case for most. The typical household is a concrete box, a hole in the ground for a toilet, well water nearby and an outdoor thatched patchwork canopy for a living room. There are beautiful children everywhere, occupying themselves in the sun, the older ones often caring for the little ones. They swarm when I bring out a camera and can’t get enough of watching their faces appear on the screen afterwards. We eat with our hands out of one communal bowl, a custom that has my western alarm bells ringing. Oh well…
When the music begins, everything melts away and everyone participates. Dancing, clapping, singing, playing calabash. I spent the last two days with a powerful kamel n’goni player and singer named Jah Youssouf: jahyoussouf.calabashmusic.com
We mostly played his original music the first day. Even though I can always find something to play, the rhythms are snaky: just when you think you found the downbeat, look out! Smiles abound and the connection is tangible and joyous, even with very little speaking. When I meet new people, I’ve been playing an ali farka toure song that I once learned. They instantly recognize it and the whole room is singing and clapping by the end. Ali Farka is something like the Bob Mylan of Mali. No one knows what a banjo is, though they are excited when I manage to learn a song.
Most of the women and children speak Bambara, for everyone else it’s French. When I ask if people speak English, the response is a grin and “small, small” (which is all they know how to say). My French is hopefully improving, but in the meantime, it’s just “petit, petit.”
I could go on forever without truly capturing the spirit of this place. Hopefully a few photographs will do. If all goes well, I might be online every few days. Blessings to everyone over on the other shore.