Posts Tagged ‘Salif Keita’

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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21st century African popular music is – mostly – shite

March 9, 2013

I am sitting in my room concentrating on a piece of writing and an editing job. Outside, there is a constant, never-ending annoying metallic drone. Someone got hold of the latest pop tune and seems to be playing it incessantly on an infinite loop. It is the kind of metallic mobile phone noise, an audio pest around the world. A pox on the houses of those who invented it…

But where am I? Not in Amsterdam, where this occurs daily. I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. And the music’s not from the UK or the US. It’s from Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana. YES – it’s time we said it: the bulk of pop music from Africa these days…is…utter fecking shite. Boring, formulaic, monotonous, the same electronically modified voicelets droning on, and on, and on. Unadulterated crapola.

It’s not necessarily a generational thing. There was a clip of a band playing on Burkina Faso’s national television at the weekend. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked. One of the young men helping out at the reception said: ‘Ah, that’s from the time when we made really good music here….’

‘What do you mean…?’

‘Music today? Ah – it’s nothing.’ End of conversation.

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This has pretty serious consequences for a branch of the music industry known as world music. It relied for a significant part on musical discoveries from Africa. Of which there were a lot in the 1980s and 90s, not least because there was a massive back catalogues that could be culled. Some artists from those catalogues decided to ride the World Music Wave, some pretty successfully: Youssou Ndour, Mory Kanté, Salif Keita, and of course Miriam Makeba was there before everybody else.

Sure, some rich seams remain and a label like Analog Africa continues to lovingly uncover them. But here’s the problem: there is little new input. You don’t wow an audience with 21st century shite pop music. Well, not a “world music” audience anyway.

Ah yes, that audience! The “world” music scene was, and is (let’s just continue to be honest) overwhelmingly Western, well-educated, well-heeled – and white. A part of this audience uses sounds from the rest of the world as a backdrop for endless excited conversations about their awfully eventless lives. Take Amsterdam, where the moneyed set jumped from Buena Vista Social Club to Orchestre Baobab and Cesaria Evora. They spoil concerts with their inane cacklings, play their CDs once and return them to their racks after the fad’s gone.

****

But there is a group of real afficionadoes, including yours truly. Snobs? Yep – and proud of it. But we are having to do a lot of thinking lately. What happens when the music well dries up? And the answer, in my mind, has been surprisingly simple: re-label. I am slowly but surely effacing the label “world music” and consigning it to memory. Three things make this exercise even easier than I thought.

1. Music today is bought or stolen online, so the original rationale for the “world” label no longer exists. Personally, I think it’s a terrible loss but record shops are no longer the first port of call for someone looking for music and that’s what the label “world” was designed for.

2. The artists who were put in that category never considered themselves “world” artists. They make pop, funk, soul, mbalax, bhangra, rumba, salsa, chimurenga, hip hop. File under those. The “world” category will shrink markedly.

3. When MTV shows clips from Côte d’Ivoire and popular radio stations ask me for a Q&A about music from Mali and Staff Benda Bilili (now split, unfortunately) plays to 50,000 people at Holland’s largest pop festival, we know that the case for “world” music is both lost and won. The consumers of that music don’t care where it’s from. They either like it or they don’t.

Which means that away from the obsolete genre discussion, we come down to the same equation: there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. Or as a musician quipped: yours and mine. That still leaves me with the question what to do about that blooming radio outside my window. Simple: file under “shite”.

Dear Oh Dear, BBC

December 4, 2012

At its best, the BBC World Service’s From Our Own Correspondent offers interesting insights into countries that radio listeners may never visit.

On other occasions, the program gets things rather spectacularly wrong. Such as when Celeste Hicks, in her own tale, wanders into the dressing room of Nahawa Doumbia, one of Mali’s most celebrated jelis and gushes ‘I’m from the BBC!’ To which this national icon, tired of an evening-long performance, will probably have thought: et alors (so what)? Mercifully, there are still plenty of places in the world were someone who waltzes in with the three magical letters “B-B-C” on her lips does not find red carpets immediately being rolled out. Bless.

Anyway, Hicks gets her interview in the end and then proceeds to pontificate about how and why Mali’s musicians, renowned the world over, are not using their voices to comment on the situation in the North of their country. To which I, an order of magnitude less polite than Nahawa Doumbia, can only respond with:

W—-T—-F?????

Well, alright, she has probably missed Salif Keita in this week’s Jeune Afrique stating: “Anyone who bans music is not a Muslim.” Amin to that, by the way. But really: how long does the list have to be of Malian singers, musicians, performers who had plenty and then some to say about what is going on in their country. Let’s say, off the top of my head:

♪Singer/instrumentalist Fatoumata Diawara

♪Mali’s premier diva Oumou Sangaré

♪Singer/guitarst Samba Touré, whom I interviewed in Amsterdam this summer

♪Fadimata Walett Oumar of the band Tartit

♪Amkoullel, Mali’s very outspoken rapper

…and that’s just one cull of a few months trawling the Radio Netherlands Africa website. (Here’s a radio show I did on Mali just a few months ago, if you have a little time.)

You can add the likes of Cheikh Tidiane Seck, Bassékou Kouyaté, Toumani Diabaté and many more. And then you can add the story of the radio presenter in Gao who was beaten up by the Salafist invaders as he refused to obey their orders. And the youth protests because the Salafist invaders have taken their music away. Or indeed my own interview with Manny Ansar, director of the Festival Au Désert, which will become a caravan for peace this year (and I’m joining, yes!). 

And, incidentally, if by any chance you cannot make it to this festival – you have two things in Amsterdam to look forward to…

Manny Ansar told me that the (mostly foreign) Salafist vandals who are destroying North Mali ransacked his festival property and emptied a Kalashnikov on the sign of his festival. ‘The message was clear,’ he added drily. But never one to give up, he then told me about his audacious plan. His festival was going to travel, in a wide, elegant double arc around Salafist-occupied North Mali. One through Mauritania and South Mali; the other through Algeria and Niger. The gesture is very clearly designed to say this: you cannot stop us.

Hicks has at least four years of experience in the Sahel. How could she have missed this plethora of Malian music commentary? It’s genuinely puzzling. I guess that in her defense one may say that she works in and for a bubble. The BBC, like its newspaper cousin The Guardian, recruits from a limited pool of white, middle class, uni graduates – or, in the name of diversity, from a slightly larger pool of people who don’t look like white, middle-class uni graduates but who think like them. But is that really the explanation?

So, for those of you who were as genuinely flabbergasted as I was by this episode of From Our Own Correspondent, apparently done in Bamako, it’s not you. It’s the BBC. Again.

The music in my head

January 18, 2011

Quite fitting. I live in Dakar, have a nice little archive of West African music, write about it sometimes…and then I come across “The Music In My Head”. It’s a novel by writer and music critic Mark Hudson and published just over a decade ago. I know the music, heard about the book but never read it.

So, I am very very late with this but that mere fact (in keeping with the main character of the book) just shows you how totally cool I am. Right?

Everyone who has dipped even a small toe in the music business knows that it’s peopled with all kinds of characters and that there is among them a fairly sizeable contingent of individuals who are just, how shall I put it…not very nice. Even though they say they are.

That’s Andrew ‘Litch’ Litchfield, for you, our hero. In the book, he runs a label (of course), he claims deep, profound knowledge of non-White music, he never stops talking, and, oh yes: he has been everywhere. Bolivia. The Caribbean. Seville. Albania. The Himalayas. But nowhere feels better than here, this city, so thinly disguised in the story that the reader immediately recognises Dakar.

A full blown classic

Dakar is of course home to Youssou N’Dour who fronted the legendary Etoile de Dakar. Again thinly disguised, N’Dour (and he does have a melting syrup quality voice like no-one else) plays a major part in Litch’s life. Our World Music Expert, however, makers a mistake. He thinks that he also matters in the life of the great artist. He does not.

Oh and by the way: don’t ever make the mistake of associating Litch with World Music, OK? That’s a totally uncool bland marketing term.

In spite of all his bluster it all ends pretty badly for our authentic music expert. In fact, it ends so badly that he gets deported from the country, after a security officer has told him that he is ‘insignificant’. Ouch!

In the intervening pages a host of characters passes by. Salif Keita, other Senegalese musicians like Pape Seck, Youssou N’Dour’s band, Peter Gabriel, a world music DJ who has never been out of London, an A&R woman who would not know a kora from a balafon but ends up stealing “his” artists, a university graduate who sees the country and its people as a decor for her own larger-than-life drama…

A few of them come out fine, most do not. Which is one of Litch’s rare charms: he is unapologetically judgemental because he thinks he has earned the right. And dammit – sometimes he is right, even though this deep music expert cannot get out of his hotel room without putting his foot quite terribly wrong…

Downtown Dakar. You cannot see my house from here...

But in a way, all these characters are marginal. There are two main players in “The Music In My Head”. One is Dakar, the magnificent home to some of the best music on the planet and, in Litch’s words, ‘the most arrogantly beautiful women on earth.’ (I would agree with “beautiful” in that statement) The only thing I do not recognise at all is the level of danger he associates the city with. Sure, there are places to avoid but Dakar is nowhere near as paranoid as say, Johannesburg. Far, far from it.

 

The other, the main player, the music. Frenetic drums at a street party that play rhythms you only begin to understand after listening a thousand times. Soaring religious chants at the great annual Senegalese pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba. A band that records one psychedelic song in a garage using pre-historic recording equipment and scores a massive hit – the next day. And of course, Youssou N’Dour in concert and in full majestic flow.

Hudson describes these very well and so you’ll forgive him for some of Litch’s overlong clunky sentences, his ramblings about World Music (long but interesting) and his musings about life in England (long and boring).

But most of all: get the CD, will ya? Classic and I mean utterly classic tunes. Including that garage hit I told you about. Must end here, or else I’ll start sounding like Litch. Now there’s a scary thought…

La Différence

February 15, 2010

If you are only buying/legally downloading one album this year, then it must be Salif Keita’s La Différence. His most heartfelt and maybe (putting my head on the block here) even his best. I’ll tell you why when I get round to writing the story of Ségou and its wonderful music festival. For now, you’ll have to make do with this piece here (in Dutch) or this one here (in English). And don’t miss the excellent “Making of…” – it’s on YouTube. Look it up – it’s worth it, promise.