Posts Tagged ‘music’

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the river using what’s known here as The First Bridge and were looking at the water. What on earth was that, floating on the slow majestic flow of the Djoliba?

A portrait. On closer inspection it was a picture of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, attached to two pinasses. Irresistible photo obviously.

‘Ah look! Boua dans l’eau!’ The image of Boua, the old one, an at times affectionate at times not-so-friendly term for the 73-years old Keïta, floating in the water had a few connotations that were probably unintended by the advertising agency that came up with the idea. The idea was to present IBK as the Messiah, hands and gaze tilted skywards. And so he appeared on thousands of billboards. Sure enough, this floating image should conjure up images of a Saviour walking on the water, even though the biblical connotation would probably be lost in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

But my friend and colleague saw the image as a re-election campaign coming to an ignominious end, with Mali’s president ending up many miles downstream, lost in the Delta as the water made its way to the Atlantic.

That clearly did not happen.

Mali’s 2018 election, and especially the excessive amounts of boredom it engendered, has prompted another question: what’s the use of this circus? And that’s what I’d like to probe in this piece.

Elections are an industry. The costly campaigns, the expensive election material, the expensive logistics of getting it in place in a country many times the size of France with major security issues and a crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-four candidates took to traversing the country, holding rallies, paying for ads, making videos. And then there was the security apparatus, necessary to create (a semblance of) order and at the end the – now mandatory – accusations of unfair play, invariably launched by the losing side. Boua did it when he lost in 2002 and 2007, his main challenger Soumaïla Cissé does it now. The two final contenders are both every inch a product of the same system that has brought Mali its current and particularly odious cocktail of political rot.

And then we haven’t even mentioned the many journalists (including yours truly) covering the circus, the many pundits and experts and hacks and wonks pontificating about What This Means to Mali, West Africa, the Planet and the Universe.

Elections like these also attract a most curious cottage industry, brought to you by the international donor community that has decided to fund this circus. We have voter education campaigns. NGO activity goes into overdrive. And we have observers. Everybody and his cat and canary flies in, takes up space in expensive hotels, occupies rooms in conference centres for meetingsworkshopsmoremeetingsandconferences. There is some benefit to certain sectors of the economy. After all, folks eat in (expensive) restaurants, they drink in (expensive) bars, may buy a few (cheap) souvenirs, that sort of thing. If you called them luxury tourists you would not be far off the mark.

Press waiting in a Bamako voting station for the EU Observer Mission leader to arrive. This part of town is also where some Big Shots come to vote – hence the top heavy security. Compare and contrast with another voting station, later. Pic by Attino Doumbia.

In spite of their patchy knowledge of the country, its history, its political mores and particularities, observers are increasingly becoming the arbiters of these elections, even though they carefully avoid any judgement concerning the result. (The UN, operating a very costly and underwhelmingly successful mission in Mali has refrained from making any comments, still stung by its Côte d’Ivoire experience when they were called in to certify the elections and promptly accused by the losing side of backing Fraud/France/Uncle Fred. So they have smartened up a bit.)

Increasingly acting like royalty, the observer folks from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Democracy Heaven, Free and Fair Paradise send a few handfuls of observers to the safe parts of the country. Their findings they then put into handy statements that get read out by that other ritualistic element, very much part of this circus: The Press Conference (see picture above). Strangely enough, this observer element appears to be entirely absent in what is in all probability the most epically corrupt political system in the world; I am of course referring to the United States.

OK, I’ll grant you this. There is one thing a West African and an American election do have in common: they are won or lost with money. In this neck of the woods, anything up to three euros will do the trick. If you’re a smart citizen, you take cash from all sides and still make your own decision.

Street where the losing candidate’s portrait adorned every lamppost…

You can send fifteen armies of observers into the country, this will not change. And hence you hear observers having conversations in their hotels, their bars, their restaurants, their lounges and wherever else about all sorts of things – except what they’re here for. Office gossip, the new car they’ve just bought, house prices in Generic Suburbia Somewhere, anything but the experience of having to watch weird elections in some place or other. This makes perfect sense. None of them know Mali, let alone understand it. And next week it’s Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Malawi. Like the swarms dispatched here by the aid industry, they have loyalty to the organisation that sends them, never to the countries that received them. Exceptions duly noted.

And what’s the popular response to all this? This:

This, you may believe it or not, was a polling station in one of Bamako’s most densely populated areas. In full view of this was an elaborate and very well attended wedding going on, a rather precise indication of peoples’ priorities. However, and this is absolutely crucial to understand: an elected head of state in countries thus “observed” derives a great deal of legitimacy from the statements by the likes of AU, ECOWAS, OIF and especially the EU, the world’s largest aid donor. Even if nobody shows up to actually give you that strangest of things…a popular mandate. This is a circus, conducted for the benefit of foreigners.

On a day in August, the Ministry of Territorial Administration (part of Mali’s bewildering election architecture, but that’s another story) declared Boua the definitive winner. When that pronouncement had been made, I found myself walking between the elegant ministerial complex known as the Cité administrative and a road system designed to decongest this part of the capital, which it sometimes manages to do. Speeding along a bridge came one of Bamako’s ubiquitous green minibuses, with music blaring from its loudspeakers. It was covered in campaign posters and playing one of those forgettable campaign songs, written for the occasion. A monotonous beat with a disembodied auto-tune non-voice (omnipresent and toe-curlingly awful) intoning endlessly ‘IBK…IBK…IBK…’. The initials of Boua. No-one was following the minibus. It sped in and out of sight on its own, ignored by all.

Well before the poll was over the posters were already fading from view. A roundabout in Kalaban Coura, Bamako, late July.

That lone minibus and this roundabout. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the futility of it all. Much will be made of a 35% voter turnout. Democracy will be pronounced to have been consolidated. But in truth, the vast majority of Malians did not vote, realising the extent to which this entire circus is irrelevant to their lives. And this is happening in a country that gave the world a unique Magna Carta of its own, in the form of the 13thCentury Mandé Charter, or Kouroukan Fouga, an enumeration of the rights and duties of a citizen, part of the the world’s human intellectual heritage. Surely, with its millennium-old history, Mali can do better than maintaining an expensive political bubble based on a colonial model propped up by foreign money and symbolically re-constituted every five years in a ritual virtually nobody believes in?

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Four Easy Pieces – 2

December 23, 2012

Of course: it was the Left that had sent me on my way to Southern Africa. Teaching in Zimbabwe was my minute contribution to the project of constructing a Southern Africa where racial superiority thinking would be a thing of the past, sort of. Nearly every country in the region had shed it – at least formally – and in the late 1980s it was already crystal clear that the last remaining bulwark, apartheid South Africa, would be next.

That was the message of a massive musical extravaganza, the Harare leg of a series of world-class concerts called Human Rights Now. It had been organised by Amnesty International in 1988. I was fortunate enough to be there. Peter Gabriel! Tracy Chapman! Bruce Springsteen! Oliver Mtukudzi! And the high point? Music I had never heard before – mbalax, made by the man I share this city with and had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year: Youssou Ndour.

But there were other matters I was blissfully, stupendously unaware of, and not just inside Zimbabwe itself. Under my radar, something was happening to the movement I felt myself part of. This became much more evident when I had – reluctantly – returned to Europe. I noticed screed after column after thesis, with increasing frequency and loudness, denouncing a portion of society deemed congenitally “racist”, “sexist”,  “homophobe”. That portion was, inevitably, the only group that was able, by dint of breathing in and breathing out, to be all these things at the same time. In one phrase: people who looked – more or less – like me.

With hindsight the following question is legitimate: could it be, that when we progressives were busy throwing out one reprehensible form of thinking like apartheid…through the front door, through the backdoor, off the balcony if necessary…could it be that we were simultaneously inviting into the living room another form of reprehensible thinking? One that did not sound exactly similar but was, in point of fact, exactly the same? I think now that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”.

My other city, Amsterdam, where I was born, had a proud tradition of social-democratic rule. It gave us, among many other things, housing projects for the working classes that are still the envy of the world. It would have been utterly inconceivable for those who designed these plans that their ideas about “uplifting the masses”, to use that ancient phrase, would have excluded specific groups because of how they looked. That was precisely what fascism had been about and wherever it reared its head, progressives joined forces to ensure it did not  gain power again. Today, the left is powerless to defeat it. Why? Because it has been dabbling in what I prefer to call: feel-good fascism.

Sometimes, a dramatic event can serve to highlight this like no other. Part three, tomorrow.

If you work for the State…you won’t get paid!

March 22, 2011

Time for a bit of rant.

An old friend used to run a public space embellishment agency. Was in deep trouble because he had done his work and was now waiting for payment: from the local authorities.

Senegal is replete with these stories. It’s what the president, sorry His Majesty, sorry The All-Seeing and All-Knowing One, has famously called “the informalisation” of everything. You see, this government does not like contracts and such like very much. Backroom arrangements are much more convenient.

This is, of course, the stuff of politics. Take, for instance, the case of Bara Tall, a celebrated local entrepreneur who has been building roads and other infrastructure for the State – and is still waiting for his money. But instead of being pad for his troubles…he was put on trial for fraud.

Did he over-invoice? We don’t know. But his real crime was having a political partner who, over time, became the mortal enemy of the president (Google “chantiers de Thiès” for background). That’s why his life and business had to be destroyed; first by non-payment, then by a politically motivated court case. Like all ruling families past and present, the Borgias, the Blairs, the Mugabes and the Clintons – the Wades are ruthlessly efficient in that respect.

Unfortunately for them, Bara Tall is fighting back – and so far, he’s winning. Last week, a court ordered the state to pay him some of the money he is due.

And while on the topic – remember this one?

No, you don’t. Like most Senegalese, who have happily forgotten about it. But on March 9th this year I read a story about a young gifted kora player Noumoucounda Cissoko, who stunned the audience with his virtuosity on the opening night. Three months later, he’s still waiting for his money. He should have gone over to the Trade Fair Grounds, picked up one of those Apple G5 Desktop Computers doing sweet bugger all there – and hey presto!

You know, sometimes, just sometimes, one would wish that the usual “We have turned the page, let’s forget it” – or “Well, I am sure my money will come insh’allah” would make way for a little bit more, er, bite. I’m no fan of predatory lawyers US-style but Christ, in instances such as these, the only right response is of course: “Sue the ß@$+@Â∆$ till they bleed”.

It is all very well to say that this is not according to cultural mores. I prefer to live in a polite society and Senegal is a very polite society. But here is a fact: the shysters who organise this theft fest no longer live in this society. They orbit out there, in a gangland of their own making. They have forfeited the right to protection under Senegal’s politeness rules.

the song from above

March 11, 2011

You know it’s morning when you hear this quick succession:

click

woosh

“Allahu Akhbar!

It’s the call for morning prayer, loudhailed across the roofs and alleys and nooks and balconies and sleeping heads of the city.

And they fly over it all in many different ways.

Some are painfully off-key; message being more important than the music. Some are clear and loud, intoning the call to prayer in one perfectly pitched phrase.

And one, not far from my home, turns the daily exercise into an operatic experience. With frills and dramatic vibrato and a slightly higher pitched crescendo towards the end. The singer understands that his celestial drama must be taken in moderation. So you do not hear him five times a day.

But when you do, it’s breathtaking. Rigoletto meets God.

Relentless Trends – 3. What have we got here…?

January 9, 2011

The Mourides are Senegal’s most influential religious brotherhood, founded late 19th century in the holy city of Touba, by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a cleric whose teachings were strongly anti-colonial. The French sent him into exile for his troubles.

The Grand Mosque of the holy city of Touba

Today, the Mourides have become a business empire that encompasses international banking, wholesale, retail, petrol products and transport, to name a few. There are other brotherhoods as well but they none are as influential as this one. This also applies to politics. They have the ear of government.

Baye Fall before the Grand Mosque. Photo from anonimundo blog

The Baye Fall were established by Ibrahima Fall, with the explicit permission of Amadou Bamba. These were their values in the beginning: be non-materialistic, hard-working, pious – and musical. Cheikh Ndiguel Lô, for those versed into music, is a good example: a quirky, very laid-back man and a fine musician. He is Baye Fall. So is Carlou D, formerly of Positive Black Soul, who starred in the Sahel Opera a few years ago and last year released a truly wonderful album called Muzikr (a play on words, incidentally: zikr is the religious chanting you can hear all over Senegal).

Carlou D in fine form at the 2010 Hertme Afrikafestival. (photo: Bram Posthumus)

If you hear a zikr on the street, accompanied with the trademark clang of money in a calabash – that’s a Baye Fall. It’s an old ritual: religious folks giving some of their piety and spirituality in exchange for victuals. It  is practiced in India, Europe – and Senegal. But it seems that there is a tendency among some that makes a mockery of that old practice.

Picture this scene. A car moves slowly into the street. Zikr reverberates from two giant megaphones, attached to the roof. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they move in: large strides, robes aflow and clanging calabashes. They fan out across the street, stop cars – if the drivers don’t stop they pursue them; they move up to people and no longer ask for money – they pretty much demand it. Simple tradespeople, shopkeepers, children, mothers, they really cannot miss a hundred francs but awkwardly give in. Ten minutes on, the invasion has passed.

Something  jars between the original mission and this temporary takeover of a whole street.

 

Baye Fall in Saint Louis, September 2009. (Photo from gosong.)

 

Every September, thousands of Baye Fall occupy the centre of Saint Louis, and not all inhabitants are happy with this: they consider it an invasion. Ostensibly, the march on Saint Louis is in memory of a minor historical event (a religious leader refused to show sufficient deference to a French governor) but the real reason is simple: they do it because they can.

Now – let’s return to those demographic statistics: Senegal is overwhelmingly young and urbanising fast. If one subscribes – even only in part – to the youth bulge theory, a few uneasy questions must begin to be asked. Is this one of the many ways in which essentially redundant men create a niche for themselves, in a society that has no room for them? Then it’s a case of tough luck: if your environment constantly reminds you that you’re on your own, then said environment must not complain if you create your own…

And that opens the next set of questions. Does the state, or more to the point, do the religious leaders in this land have an opinion about this? And if they do: do they condone this kind of behaviour? How many steps away from not just demanding money but simply no longer taking “no” for an answer? And short of sending them packing, what other solutions may there be for the excess young male population?

Answers NOT on a postcard. There are no quick fixes. The West is very unlikely to have any answers to a problem that has ceased to exist, even in its collective memory.

Harper

March 24, 2010

Harper, Liberia aerial view

Paradise lost – to be found again. Probably the shortest possible description of the Liberian town you see above. It’s been there for close to 180 years but it was looted and destroyed in the 1990s.

Harper lies in a far corner of Liberia and feels closer to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire than it does to the Liberian capital Monrovia. One of the reasons is the roads. They are atrocious. So you just hop across the river to your francophone neighbours and get your supplies from there.

The word is potential. Look at this – also taken from the aeroplane.

Atlantic Ocean to your right; Lake Shephard to your left

Problem is, as hinted before: how to get there. The road is for those who are adventurous in spirit, or, as is the case with most Liberians, simply have no other options. The sea is definitely not an option: too may horror stories of piles of rust piled with goods and people and then sinking. There is an air link but it’s expensive, as I have found out (see previous entries on this topic…).

So for now, this undiscovered gem will remain just that. An undiscovered gem. HERE is a story on the Radio Netherlands website about what happened to this elegant but damaged town. More to come. (Oh and music lovers – I have NOT forgotten my forthcoming entry on world music…)

Podor and the small town syndrome

January 5, 2010

The mean streets of Podor

Lovely scene.

Fuels romantic notions of African sunsets in quiet stress-free backwaters.

Walking around a town on a Sunday does not really give you a feel for a place. But this is Podor, the northernmost town in Senegal, on the river that has given the country its name. Population around 12,000. It’s staunchly Muslim, so Sundays do not really matter much. And sure enough: the shops are open and the “commercants” (traders) are out in force.

On one street.

The rest looks pretty much like that picture above. Or below.

Podor riverside. The bar is on the far left corner.

Does anyone remember that John Cale/Lou Reed album “Songs for Drella”? It was dedicated to their friend Andy Warhol and it opens with a song called Small Town. One memorable line: “When you’re growing up in a small town/you say nobody famous ever came from here…”

Well Podor has not produced one but TWO world famous children. The first is Oumou Sy, who almost single-handedly has turned Dakar into an international fashion centre. Here‘s a brief profile I once wrote about her.

The second was the one I came to see. Baaba Maal. In concert in his hometown Saturday night December 26th – make that Sunday morning December 27th – in the company of his life-long friend Mansour Seck and his band Daande Lenol (the name means “Voice of the People”).

The crowd adores him. Baaba walks off the stage, stands in the middle of the arena. He expresses his thanks for the support the town has given him and his unique music festival Blues du Fleuve, held for the fourth time. And he has a message: I believe in the people of Podor, their creativity, the youth of this town and their energy. And just to show how much influence he can muster: one or two words from the master at the end of his mega show, at five in the morning – and the stadium empties out like a flash. I have never seen anything like it.

The festival over – and the town reverts to this.

My street for one day.

My Bed&Breakfast in the middle, beyond the road is the river and Senelec is the national electricity utility.

Baaba loves his town and its cultural heritage. Indeed: Podor is old. It was a royal capital in the 12th century. It was a French trading post (or “comptoir”) in the 18th century, when slaves, ivory and gum arabic were shipped downriver to Saint Louis, a journey of 200 kilometres.

But that was then and this is now. Much of the town, like the riverside, has fallen into disrepair. One world-famous son and one world-famous daughter cannot on their own reverse that. And besides, how long before their successors come along? Theirs are rare talents in any community.

And in the meantime…..

‘Aaaaaah, you’ve come to see Baaba Maal. Very good! He’s my friend!! I have known him since he was this small!!’ ‘My father taught him in primary school.’ I lost count of the people who came up to me, within one hour of arrival at the riverside bar pictured above, who told me of their connection with the great star, told me how great this town was, regaled me with their family history – and then proceeded to ask for beer, cigarettes, gin, money or a combination of the above. All convivial, all fine – but something felt not entirely right.

It all came together when I visited Baaba at his home. A fine building, tastefully designed, with a large garden. And instantly, it became clear why an interview here would be an impossibility. The place was overcrowded with family, praise-sigers, passers-by, hangers-on…and one Dutch journalist.

We had a two-minute chat. He smiled when I told him I admired the way he handled all the attention. Here, it’s an obligation – but one that would get on my nerves pretty quickly. But Baaba is graceful throughout, pays attention to everyone, talks, beams at a group of performers who have come to sing his praises. And when I leave after three hours in his court, the crowd shows no sign of thinning…

He also has a house in Dakar.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this. Podor has a lot of history – but not much of a future. It is far away from where the action is. Saint Louis: 215 kilometres; Dakar: close to 500. It lives off agriculture, a small amount of trade, a few visitors and its sons and daughters who have made it big. For the rest and especially the young ones, the options are few: hang around, become a sponger, or leave, just like the subject of the Reed/Cale song.

Across is Mauritania...and Dakar is far away