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Blues Traveling in Bamako

Every afternoon Diabaté appears in his Lexus with a steaming tub of rice and meat and vegetables, and we all sit in the courtyard and eat from it together, using our fingers. Then he and his entourage go into a room for Muslim prayers, clearing out whatever impure thoughts and deeds might have arisen since the last time they prayed, a few hours earlier. The prayers sound like the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. It is a beautiful scene. "Toumani opens his doors to everyone, and Allah opens his doors to him," one of the elders tells me.

Diabaté has no trouble getting into "Candy Man," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," or "Twelve Gates to the City"—the Gary Davis tunes I've picked for him.

But the precise transcultural process that produced the blues is impossible to reconstruct, because there is a 200-year gap between the emergence of the genre in the American South and the arrival of the first slaves, and because the blues has returned to Africa and cross-fertilized with the indigenous music, as well as with other music from the diaspora, such as Cuba's rumba, Jamaica's calypso and reggae, and Brazil's samba. But the echoes are unmistakable, heard in the pentatonic scale(like the black keys on the piano), the scale of the blues and most Malian music, and in the beats, like the 12/8, shuffle-hip-hop rhythm or the five-pulse clave.

One evening I go to Matignon, a funky local dive where couples are dancing slowly in the darkness and a torrential rain pours through holes in the roof, and hear Jakob Soubeija and his band, Afuni, whose members come from three different countries, infuse R&B and soul classics like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" with their own spritely West African sound. On another night I go to a restaurantto hear a group from the Ivory Coast called the Go Girls, who have been rehearsing at Diabaté's house. They sing lustily in five languages and ethnic styles: in Bété, in ziglibiti rhythm, from the Ivory Coast; in Malinké; in Wolof, from Senegal; in Songhoi, from northern Mali, around Timbuktu; and in Sousou, from Guinea. I also visit the Djembe Club, where Lobi Traoré plays what sounds like straight, hard-driving, proto-Howlin' Wolf blues but is actually Bambara music from Ségou, a town 240 miles northeast of Bamako.

I meet Ali Farka Touré at Mali Cassette, which he co-owns. Touré, 65, is one of Mali's most famous musicians, a guitarist, and he spends most of his time on his farm in Niafounké, up near Timbuktu. Touré is duded up in a blue suit with a blue hat and a blue and yellow flowered shirt, like a Malian John Lee Hooker. But Touré takes exception to his music being called blues. "We don't have the blues," he tells me. "We aren't sick. This word blues is for doctors of musicology—and nurses. The word doesn't exist in Africa. The translation of blues is 'African music.' Our music has been modernized with European instruments, and there has been some Western influence. But the big influence is our tradition."

Back at Diabaté's house, I record a gospel-highlife fusion song of mine called "One Morning Soon" with the guitarist Fantamady Kouyaté. His inspired runs on the electric guitar, which give the major rumba-chord progression a bluesy, Malian feel, are his response to the feelings he gets from my singing and playing. He doesn't understand the English lyrics, yet he comments on them with sensitivity and passion. Diabaté invites me to come back next winter and make a record with him. "But I'm not anywhere near as good a musician as you are," I say. "What's important," he replies, "is that the music comes from the heart."

ALEX SHOUMATOFF is the author of 10 books and the editor of www.dispatchesfromthevanishingworld.com.


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