Artists Project Earth (APE) Founder and Music Director, Kenny Young and Photographer Sophie Molins, recount their travels in Mali during the first recording sessions for APE’s upcoming new album.
This year, APE will be launching its fourth album and with Africa very much in mind. The United Nations COP 17 conference is being held in Durban in December 2011, so APE decided to produce an album that mixes some of the most popular Western artists with some of the best musicians in Africa, in a collaborative fusion of colourful sounds, enhancing and combining the musical heritage of both worlds. The resulting album to be released later in 2011.
Recording began in February 2011 in Mali, with plans afoot to record further sessions in Kenya and South Africa. “I landed in Bamako, capital city of Mali to start the recording sessions, and was immediately knocked-out by the climate: a blistering 40º in the shade!” says Kenny Young, “but this was Africa and comfort was not top of the agenda for this trip. I was whisked off to a gig by my coordinator and all around good guy, Paul Chandler, a Nebraskan who visited Mali and fell under its spell, and has lived and worked here as a teacher at the local American School for the past 8 years. We went to see Baba Salah and his band playing a gig at a mysterious club in the middle of nowhere. Baba, the ‘Jimi Hendrix of Mali’ was treating the audience to some wild licks on his guitar. “
Mali is world-renowned for its astonishing diversity of musicians: Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Amadou & Mariam, Rokia Traore and the late, great Ali Farka Touré, all hail from this spectacular country. Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabate won a Grammy for ‘Best Traditional World Music Album’ in February this year, the second time in a row that Malian musicians have won that category. Also nominated for a Grammy was Basekou Kouyate who APE worked with on this most recent visit as well as some of the others mentioned above.
The following day Kenny and Paul went to check-out the recording studio, which whilst a little basic and lacking in ventilation was to be the hub of activities for the following weeks. Working late into the night in heady temperatures, some of the region’s top musicians came to lay down tracks, whilst the Malian philosopher/musician Andra composed lyrics for the backing singers: “Every woman has a destiny, Every man has a destiny… Insha’Allah” (God willing). It is the Malian mantra: do your best, but the rest is up to fate – an ethos that weaves a very harmonious atmosphere.
Several of the artists that APE worked with are ‘tenth generation’ musicians: they learned the skills to play a particular instrument from their fathers and forefathers – a tradition handed down over centuries, part of a caste of professional musicians and orators called the ‘Jeliyav’, the n’goni players of the Diabate family being an example.
Musical instruments are also part of Malian folklore. Maninka music, which is a major influence of American blues music, traces its roots back more than eight centuries. In Jeli folklore the balafon (a type of xylophone) is said to have been the source of the great sorcerer Soumaoro’s power.
For a change of scene and inspiration, APE visited the Ségou Festival on the Niger (but sadly just missed the world famous Festival of the Desert in Timbuktu due to visa delays). An annual celebration of traditional African music and dance, the Festival is set in Ségou, a very picturesque town on the Niger river. “It was a giant WOMAD-like event that spilled out into the town, where everything was available to buy, to hear, to see, to dance to and to laugh at and with,” said Kenny. “The stage was unique, a sort of floating giant barge sitting right on the river Niger itself, where one could watch the fishermen casting their nets while some of the bands struggled with their sound checks, sending feedbacks of ear-shattering sound to the frustrated musicians on stage! The usual nightmare of every musician: the ‘will it be alright on the night?’ syndrome.”
The Festival highlighted some of the shining stars of Africa, including Femi Kuti, Amadou et Mariam, Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, Oumou Sangare, Ismael Lo, Neba Solo, and many others. Luckily, APE managed to get permission to film and record all the acts and some of this footage will hopefully be included in a forthcoming film, APE in Africa. “We headed back to Bamako after 5 non-stop days of music, dance and festival overload,” says Kenny. “It was certainly a brilliant high, filled with unforgettable moments of traditional and not-so-traditional African music at its finest.”
Upon returning to Bamako it was back to the nitty-gritty of recording. “The days and nights were spent recording with some of the top balafon, kora (harp), n’goni (4-7 stringed lute), the jeli dununba (drum) musicians producing an array of brilliant sounds, weaving and shaping the existing Western artists’ songs – not to be divulged at this stage – into new musical landscapes,” says Kenny. APE also recorded Rokia Traore at Salif Keta’s wonderful studio, where the unmistakable man himself arrived with his entourage to listen to the proceedings.
As well as recording and producing music, APE’s major remit is to help communities affected by climate change. So the APE crew headed north to see some potential projects to support. “The region north of Bamako is restricted by the British Foreign Office because of brutal Al Qaeda kidnappings and murders in that area,” says photographer, Sophie Molins. “But we were somewhat more concerned by the potential for car accidents on the only highway – a narrow road with many crashed buses strewn alongside! When we discovered that we could get insurance, we hit the road for nine hours: the flat land jolting past until finally, we crossed the Black River on a small ferry shared with carts, while their horses swam beside.”
At sundown they arrived at the iconic Djenné Mosque, the largest mud-built structure in the world, and stayed nearby at ‘hoteldjennedjenno.com,’ built and run by Sophie Sarin, a Swedish woman, who has created an oasis inside the mud walls of her home, which she manages along with many projects run under the auspices of the self-supporting training organization MaliMali.
MaliMali makes beautiful textiles and clothing using the ancient West African technique bogolan, which means ‘made from mud,’ and other items such as beautifully soft, blue-weave handbags that incredibly, are made from discarded plastic bags. “We left Sarin, after breakfast, with the taste of her home made jams, peanut butter and honey lingering on our lips,” says Sophie. “The privilege of working for APE is the opportunity to meet such inspiring people! She rode off into the savannah on her horse and we headed to the Dogon region, a series of villages built into, on or below a giant escarpment, and populated by the ‘animists’ Dogon people, who some say, have come from the dog star Sirius.”
Prior to this journey The New York Times ran a piece that illustrated the conflicts a country such as Mali has between traditional lifestyles and a the desire towards development. The people of Djenné understandably want to develop and modernize their homes: “Who needs a mud floor?” they ask, but the World Heritage Organization insists that the traditional vernacular must remain. At present Malian lifestyles are ‘sustainable’: the carbon footprint per person scarcely exists. Many villages have no cars, no electricity, no running water, no shops and no packaging: they are self-sustaining rural communities living off their land and using animals for transport food and labour. It is a dilemma throughout the developing world: how to create a more comfortable life without increasing carbon emissions to unsustainable levels.
“By now, we had fallen in love with Mali,” Sophie continued, “so it was hard not to idealize what appeared to be an idyllic rural life with strong communities; fields of intense green bursting with onions, tobacco and millet; healthy sheep and cows roaming freely, but as we romanticized rural life, Dodo, our guide kept emphasizing how incredibly hard life is in Dogon.
“Agricultural life is dependent on climate stability and while we bumped our way along rutted roads, grey clouds brooded overhead. Dodo said, ‘It will not rain, the rainy season in not due for another three months. It is so reliable that Dogon people time the New Year by the start of the rains.’ But minutes later, the unused windscreen wipers groaned into action as raindrops fell.” The fact is, the climate is changing. Added to this difficulty, the desert is also pushing relentlessly forward claiming land and villages in its wake. The Dogon village of Anaquila is being swamped by sand, its agricultural lands eaten by the desert. The village is producing 50% less food than it was two years ago and the youth are leaving for the city, as they are throughout Africa.
APE is continually supporting environmental projects that address issues of climate change adaptation and mitigation, so it was an honour to meet with the elders from the Barahogon Association that educates, supports and encourages the women not to cut down the trees in the millet fields. On arrival at the village a boy went to fetch the men from the Toguna, a low slung building where they rest for much of the day, especially throughout the heat of the dry season. This is where they discuss affairs and make important decisions. The low ceiling prevents arguments because lying down keeps things calm. If the men leap-up they bang their heads!
The Barahogon men arrived with the elaborate ‘Sewa’ greeting that takes minutes to perform and happens every time people pass. The meeting took place in a family yard in the late afternoon amongst chickens and sheep. “Although somewhat blinded by our deepening love of Mali and being in a state of culture-shock, we could still see that in some parts of Mali, particularly urban areas around Bamako, there is much room for environmental projects,” Sophie reflected. “There is rubbish everywhere, which is then burnt, belching clouds of toxic black smoke into the atmosphere, creating the ‘Bamako cough’. Mali could also really utilize solar panels, which we did see for sale propped against buildings, but are too expensive for most people.”
But resourcefulness abounds in Africa: there is a book called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by Kenyan William Kamkwamba, published in 2002. At the age of fourteen, William built a windmill to power a few electrical appliances in his family’s house in Masitala, using blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrap yard. Since then, he has built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first piped drinking water in his village and two other windmills, and is planning two more.
This ever-present resourcefulness and ingenuity can be seen in the relationship and use of the baobab trees strewn like giant ancient fire hydrants across the savannah, witnesses to millennia,
and known as the Tree of Life. They provide shelter, food and water, and the bark is fire resistant and used for cloth and rope. The leaves are used for condiments and medicines and vegetable stews. The fruit, called ‘monkey bread’ is rich in vitamin C. The tree is capable of storing hundreds of litres of water, which is tapped in dry periods. They are strewn with beehives and have straw stored in their branches so that the sheep can’t steal it! They look like trees that have crash-landed on earth with their branches buried and their roots in the air. A timeless, endless source of sustenance.
Before APE left Dogon they witnessed a funeral ritual called a ‘damas’. The elder men came first in dreamy indigo suits and wide Kilimanjaro-shaped hats. Two of them played drums. Then the young men come – masked, some on stilts, each with the specific dance of their mask and each mask symbolizing an important aspect of folklore and tradition. The elders check that the dance is passed on correctly while the dancers of the future, young boys, sit above on the rocks waiting for their turn.
APE’s last day in Bamako was spent in the studio of the great photographer Malik Sidibé. He has been awarded the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2007 (the first time it had been presented to a photographer). He also received the Hasselblad Award for photography and the ICP Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement. He won these awards for his life-affirming portraits and studio work made in the 50’s, 60’s and 70s. ‘La Dolce Vita Africa’ is an appropriately named film made about his work: his happy subjects are a welcome relief from the constant reporting of war, famine HIV AIDS, corruption and genocide – the usual images from Africa fed to us by the Western press. We sat with Sidibé and his sons chatting about the old days as camels walked by and he took our portrait against his famous black and white backdrop! We looked at his work full of everyday scenes; happy people, lovers, dancers and youth culture. They are so vivid – as with everywhere in Mali, it seems you can hear the music playing.
APE’s time in Mali was inspirational, and hopefully, you will feel and hear this in the new album released later this year. APE hopes that when the album is released, it will be able to thank the people of Mail for their hospitality and creativity by supporting further projects in the region. For information about the new album and our other activities please sign up for our Newsletter on the Home Page of this website.