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Blues Traveling in Bamako

There is nothing to suggest at first glance that Bamako is a musical hot spot. It is the capital of Mali, a parched, poor, landlocked country in West Africa. The city is unprepossessing, an anarchic collection of bougous, or neighborhoods—more like a big village, really. But during the past decade of severe droughts, Bamako has grown swiftly, doubling to a population of a million as people have streamed in from the countryside. And it has numerous clubs, hopping till 3 a.m. most days of the week, with names like Akwaba and the Bla-Bla Club (named for a town in the interior), which resemble the juke joints in the American South of the twenties.

The bulk of Bamako sprawls up from the banks of the Niger River to a tiara of tall red cliffs; the presidential palace sits atop one of them. Most of the city's structures are single-story buildings with courtyards, where the women cook food on charcoal braziers. I am staying in a new luxury hotel called the Kempinski El Farouk. The glassy green river slides past my window on its way up to Timbuktu. The downtown is a five-minute walk away, and within 150 yards I can hear the competing sounds of blaring Cuban son, Jamaican rap, and bluesy ballads sung in Bambara, the language of one of Mali's largest ethnic groups. No music evolves in isolation anymore—fusion is happening constantly. The music of Africa and the Americas has crossed over and back and re-hybridized so many times that it's no longer possible to identify exactly what comes from where. But the music known as the blues, which emerged in the American South in the 1890's, fathered jazz and rock and roll, and is so infectious and cathartic that it is the world's dominant popular music form, arguably originated here, in Mali.

As I enter the labyrinthine central market, which takes up most of downtown, I catch the haunting melodies and intricate rhythms of Wassoulou, Malinké, and a host of other styles, mingled with the steady, low hum—punctuated with periodic eruptions of laughter—of people bartering with one another in mutually barely intelligible languages. The visual assault is no less riotous: the seven kinds of mangoes grown in Mali on display alongside proto-Cubist wooden sculptures; the dazzling, boldly patterned fabrics that the women wrap themselves in; the sumptuous turquoise, green, and yellow boubous worn by the men. It's a joyous hullabaloo.

The chain of events that has brought me here began in 1960, when I was 13 and incarcerated in an all-boys prep school in New Hampshire. We were allowed to go into town on Wednesday afternoons, and on one of these trips I bought a recording of a country-blues singer from South Carolina called Pink Anderson. There was a photo of him on the cover: an old black man with a strong face, dressed in bib overalls, standing with his guitar on the porch of his house.

I connected immediately with Anderson's raw voice and his searing guitar-picking. As the sixties progressed, a lot of other white, middle-class American kids had similarly powerful reactions to the blues, perhaps because we, too, felt a measure of cultural alienation.

I decided I had to learn how to play this music, and the next time I was in New York City, I went to Manny's, the musical-instrument emporium on 48th Street, and bought myself an $80 Epiphone steel-string guitar. Then I went down to the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, a storefront operation presided over by a man named Izzy Young, where musicians—including Bob Zimmerman, soon to be Bob Dylan—hung out and traded licks. I asked Young who could teach me how to play country-blues guitar, and Young sent me up to Harlem, to a blind old man named Reverend Gary Davis, who was living with his wife, Annie, in a shack behind a row of condemned buildings on upper Park Avenue. Davis was one of the legendary masters of country blues, ragtime, and gospel fingerpicking. He had made some great "race records" in the thirties (the artists were each paid with a bottle of whiskey), but these were long forgotten, and he was now playing in the many storefront revival churches in the neighborhood. He was about to be rediscovered, however. Peter, Paul, and Mary sang one of his songs, and they were followed by the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and Hot Tuna. He and Annie were able to buy a little house in Jamaica, Queens, where I visited them until his death in 1972.

Davis became my guitar teacher in the early sixties. The first tune he taught me was not the blues but a spiritual, from a much older African tradition. In much of his music, I couldhear echoes of his ancestral continent, and now I've come to Mali to find them for myself.

Having swapped some greenbacks for francs, I flag a cab to Mali Cassette, a shop in Quinzanbougou, where I load up on the music of Habib Koite, a Mande singer from western Mali, near the Senegalese border; Djelimady Tounkara, one of the country's best guitarists; and Boubacar Traoré, new to me but a veteran of the Mali music scene. On the counter of the store is a weekly broadsheet listing who is playing where.

In the evening I go to the club Hogon, where Toumani Diabaté, a master of the kora—a 21-stringed harp that has a calabash for a sounding box—plays regularly, but tonight some college students have commandeered the space for a disco dance. They invite me to join them, but I continue looking for Diabaté. I find him at a large open-air club called the Espace Bouna, which costs $3 to get into.

Toumani Diabatédescends from a long line of griots, or djelis, as they are called—the oral historians and entertainers of West Africa. Playing the kora is a family tradition: Diabaté's father, Sidiki, who died in 1996, called himself theking of the kora; his grandfather taught the instrument at the University of Washington; and his 12-year-old son is already spending so much time on his kora that he is neglecting his schoolwork. I begin to understand the fascination—how mastering this instrument becomes your life—when Diabaté starts playing, his two first fingers weaving delicate, ethereal, incredibly rapid arpeggios and tremolos on the two rows of strings while his thumbs pluck alternating bass lines. His music has a bluesy, minor feel.

After the show I introduce myself to him, and a few minutes into our conversation he says, "What are you staying in a hotel for?Come to my place." So I move to a room on the second floor of his house, sharing the hall with a dreadlocked percussionist from Gambia who makes his home in Denmark; a young guitarist from Birmingham, England (this is his first time away from home and his loneliness has been compounded by malaria); and a writer from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, here with her Senegalese fiancé. Diabaté is a big man in Bamako, and, in Africa, the bigger you are, the bigger your entourage is. More than a dozen Malians, young and old, some related to Diabaté and some not, are also living in the house. Most of them spend the day sitting in chairs out on the street, moving from one side to the other, depending on where the sun is. In the evening koras are brought out, and I jam with them on my little traveling guitar until it's time to watch a Brazilian telenovela that everyone has been immersed in, and a television is set up on the sidewalk.

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