it was Philippe Berthier’s idea: “you should do this in Timbuktu –  live together and record there in a family compound. It will be more natural for all of you, and way cheaper than Bamako”.


Philippe ran Mali K7 (“cassette”) and Studio Bogolon in Bamako, in which he was partners with Ali Farka Toure. He had let me use the studio for free the summer before –  if I brought an ADAT machine, which fit under the seat – because he wasn’t going to be there anyway, and Hamma would be passing through Bamako after a tour with Ali.  Going back years before that, Philippe had hosted me while I was doing field recordings for the NPR series Afropop Worldwide.  He called me “l’Americain”, and knew I was a DIY, home recording, singer-songwriter type, and had a few indierock releases out (coincidentally, on a French label).  Back then when I had told him I’d love to record some songs with traditional players he was very enthusiastic, said “go for it”, told me the going rates, and there was Solo, just hanging outside the studio, looking for work. Those recordings I made with Solo on the portable DAT recorder (which I had been using for interviews), made mostly outside with just Solo’s Kamele N’Goni and my Backpacker guitar, became the “where you wanna be” album; and the response to that was encouraging.  So I came back and worked in Studio Bogolon while Philippe was away, and that became the “nightbird” album, featuring Hamma, Hassi, and Solo, which I again finished in my barn in NorCal.

Everyone involved was really into it, and so when Philippe suggested I bring some portable gear and get together with the guys in an adobe-walled compound in Timbuktu, I was all in.  And then I learned from Hamma and Hassi that we would have to go through Haira Arby, who they said was “la reine” – the queen of music in Timbuktu –  and everything went through her.  This began a years-long relationship with Haira and her family, which culminated when she invited me onstage to play calabash on a Takamba at her show at the Great American in SF.  Haira told us where there was an empty compound and we moved right in, her kids were there all the time, and probably most importantly, she introduced me to Moulaye Sayah.  Sayah was a part-time regional cameraman for ORTM (Malian national TV) and also very supportive of artists.  When I played him what we had done so far, he loved it and offered to help us, which turned into him using my “pro-sumer” Canon camcorder constantly.  Besides making videos for songs, which Hamma, Hassi,  Solo and I were really into doing, he also documented all kinds of things, including live shows we did in Timbuktu, in nearby villages and the Festival In The Desert, and just scenes of us living and working together, which became the film “Timbuktoubab”.  Sayah became the fifth member of our group, and was an important part of everything we did.


Child, See The Rider:  

I remember when I was singing the words I felt it needed a woman’s voice, like some of my heroes –  Blind Willie Johnson, Fred McDowell, and others had done.  I called my friend and collaborator from a previous musical incarnation, Sarah Baker (from Parsons, Tennessee), and amazingly she happened to be driving nearby at that moment, and came right over. I took that as a good sign.

It’s a story song; more like a scene in a story. I think it originates from images I memorized from my first trip overland from Niafounke to Mopti, back in early ’94, through the Savanne (savanna), the desert, and numerous river crossings on pontoon boats.  That was my introduction to the peoples, animals, and topography of Northern Mali, which for someone who loves desert places is a familiar feeling of vast space and time, with a river running through it.  Also, my love of Westerns maybe, and the musical setting,  especially Hassi’s Njarka (one-string violin) gave it  an old-time, down-home feel, which lent itself to the narrator being an old man talking to a child.  

When I played the song on a boombox for Hamma and Hassi, they were into it – this, what was for them, unusual combination of a Wassoulou rhythm, a Sonrai Njarka (one-string violin) line, “Americain vocals” – and then when I started translating the words,

Hamma’s eyes grew wide, and he said “this is a famous story!  this is our story of Jay Bere, the famous horse thief!  this is a true story!”.  In the sand I drew the scene:  the well is here, with the old man and the child, and in the distance they see dust; as the rider approaches he comes up and over the dunes, and he is being chased by a posse.  He comes up to the well and asks for water for him and his horse.  He tells the old man and child there are people chasing him, who think he stole the horse. He thanks the old man and child and dashes off, and then after a short time the posse comes thundering past in hot pursuit.  For Hamma, and thereby for all the Sonrai (Songhai people in the region from Timbuktu to Niafounke) who heard about it, this became a scene from the bigger story of Jay Bere, which is longer than this one scene.  Nonetheless, as this unfolded, everyone talked about it as the story of Jay Bere.  In the film (“Timbuktoubab”),  Hassi says:  “Jay Bere is someone who, no matter what is being said about him, he has great pride in himself”.  



In Northern Mali, there are no longer many horses.  They are used some for work, but mainly for festivities, in which they are decorated and presented as symbols of strength, beauty and power, both natural power and also status.  But going way back, to the history of “l’Empire” (The Songhai Empire goes back to the 11th century, and peaked between the 14th and 16th centuries), Songhai horses and their riders ruled a vast area which at times stretched to what is now Morocco. So the horses you do find have very noble lineages.   In the film (“Timbuktoubab”) Hassi is very moved while describing the importance of the horse when making the one string for the Njarka violin, and its bow string:  “It must be the hairs of a horse, but not just any horse; it must be strong, fast, and beautiful.  This is important!”  


Visit to Toya, on the banks of the Northern Niger River: 

It turned out that Hassi knew the chief (headman) in Toya, a village about an hour from Timbuktu on the Niger River, where they had horses.  So we all went and met with the chief and about ten of the village elders, all of us sitting on mats in the sand in the shade of an adobe wall drinking heavily-sugared gunpowder tea.  They were intrigued by this visit having to do with horses (this village is very proud of their horses; each one is known and loved by the whole village), and when Sayah played them the song on my boombox, they nodded their heads thoughtfully and studied me.  Hamma, it turned out, was well-known as Ali Farka Toure’s calabash player, and also for his playing in the Hole Hoire (spirit ceremonies) in the region.  He took over, telling them that this Toubab (white person) wants to make a short film for this song which is about the story of “Jay Bere”.  At that point, they really got into the whole idea.  A man named Tonton stood up, and was introduced as the previous chief of Toya, and the main horseman in the village.  He said yes, we can do this, and pointed to the dunes outside the village and the main well – the best settings to tell the story, and which men in the village would ride which horses.  The chief said “in our culture we are obliged to help a stranger, so you are welcome.”  With Sayah’s help, I offered a certain amount for the horses and riders, and the chief said the whole village will want to see this, and be a part of it, so it will be a day off for all of us; whatever you give us will go to the whole village.  So we were on;  Sayah would film it, Hamma would be the old man in the story and he and Tonton would direct the action.  As it turned out there was a lot of action and on the day, no one wanted to stop.



This was and is different from anything I’ve ever done.  For various reasons: first, because the images relate directly to the words in the song; but also because this had immediately become a group project involving so many people, animals and things I didn’t know, I had to be comfortable with just letting it happen.  My idea had been that the musicians (me, Hassi, and Solo) would be like witnesses to the story, like a Greek chorus,  playing the song like a narration in the background.  And in the foreground, the simple scene unfolds:  the old man, the child (it turned out that several women in the village wanted their child to be in the scene, and when we got there, it had been decided that it would be twin girls), the rider (wrapped in blue, like so many people wear in that region, especially Tamasheks), and most dramatically  – the posse of four riders.   

When we arrived, everyone was there, checking us out, ready to see what was about to happen; Tonton introduced us to the horses and the riders, especially the star, a beautiful black horse named “Taylor”. We shot the scenes at the well in the morning; and because we only had the one camera, Sayah would reset for each take, some shots from on top of an adobe house, some in close to the action, some at ground level as the riders came racing past.  

I kept thinking that so much was going into this, and all we had was this one, pretty cheap little camcorder with a flimsy tripod; but Sayah was like a pro director of photography, and he and Hamma were the de facto directors.  Each time the scene was acted out (the old man pointing into the distance, the rider coming in, the girls giving the rider and horse water, the rider speeding away, the posse flying by in a cloud of dust), the people in the village got more excited, whooping and hollering to the riders.  It gets really hot there, and the mothers wanted to get their kids under some shade;  the leather band inside my hat actually melted with sweat.  Hamma kept saying “let’s do it again!”, until someone said, that’s it, break time.  We went to the compound of the chief and everyone kicked back in the shade, drank water and tea, snoozed, and got ready for shooting the main horse scenes in the afternoon.  When the time came, Tonton and his crew were amazing;  those horses are what we call where I come from “trick horses”. They did all kinds of things, most notably rearing up like the Lone Ranger on Silver.  They don’t just start at a walk, and gradually pick up the tempo, gaits-wise; they rear up and shoot forward like they’ve been launched by some invisible slingshot.  All the scenes of the thief going up a dune, across the top, down the other side, the posse had to do it too, and Sayah ran around and reset the camera.  Someone had the idea to go down on the floodplain, where it’s good footing, and race the horses, Sayah hanging out of the car with all of us in it pacing alongside them, and that’s my favorite scene.  You can see these guys and the horses, just so into it.

At the end of the day, they wanted to keep going, but we were wiped out and we had promised to return our borrowed car by a certain time in Timbuktu, so with big embraces all around we said goodbye.  



In the following years, we started playing shows around the region, the “cercle de Tombouctou”:  in Goundam, Dire, Essakane (Festival In The Desert), Niafounke (Festival for Ali Farka Toure), and other places.  The musicians union of Timbuktu would let us use a guitar amp and a very funky old PA system (several of the faders were frozen with sand) and a few mics, because Hamma and Hassi were respected local musicians, and also because of Sayah’s stature in the community.  We came back to Toya on a market day, when many people from all around come there to buy and sell things, and at one point the crowd in front of us parted and Tonton appeared, riding “Taylor”, the horse that the “thief” rode in the story.   We were all really moved to see the two of them, and afterwards we talked for a long time, and Tonton said they’d been hearing about our group playing around in the region, and we heard about how life was in the village, the rice crop, the fishing, and of course, the horses.


Massamba Diop (talking drum), and beyond: 

My friend Margot said there’s a guy here for a few days, he’s Baaba Maal’s talking drum player, and you should meet him, maybe ask him to play on some of your tracks.  So, that’s how Massamba came to be on this song.  When he understood that it was a story involving horses, he just got really into it.  None of my Malian friends knew him, but his part in the song had become something we all got used to hearing, and I realized it would be strange if we didn’t see that instrument in the video.  So, after I came back from Mali, I started trying to figure out how to get some images of Massamba into the video for “Rider”.  There would be one day off at the end of Baaba Maal’s US tour, and so I went to NYC, stayed at my brother’s place in Brooklyn, and when the time was right, picked up Massamba from his hotel in a taxi and we went to a friend’s photo studio.  Massamba, besides being a very arresting performer having traveled the world with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal’s group for decades, is also an interesting and philosophical person and I’ll never forget when we were sitting in the taxi and an unbelievable, epic downpour happened, to the extent that all the cars had to stop where they were, as if frozen in time;  it felt somewhat apocalyptic, which as you will see, was not far from the truth.  Massamba looked at the flooded streets and gutters and casually smiled and said “God is great”, an image I’ll never forget.   

I had shown him some of the footage of the horses and the musicians playing by the well, and he got way into dramatizing what he had played on the recording, like lip-syncing  for the film, and it’s great to see him and the Tama (talking drum) as the music goes by.  In subsequent years, when fate allowed, Massamba joined me in the US for some shows, and our daughters became pen pals.

That night I went to an African restaurant up in Harlem to meet someone I had heard about, a Wassoulou musician from the same family as Solo, who played the kamele n’goni.  That was Mamadou Sidibe, and we had been introduced via our connections in Mali.  When we were setting up this meeting I said “how will I recognize you?” and he cracked up and said “don’t worry about that!”  When I got there, he was standing in the doorway, beaming a huge smile and I realized that, again, like in Africa, I was the only white person in sight.  This meeting led to my playing shows in the US with Mamadou for many years, including Lincoln Center’s Outdoors Series, Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Concerts Series, and opening for Tinariwen on their first major US tour.   That day that I filmed Massamba, and met Mamadou for the first time was Sept 10, 2001.  And the next morning was 9/11 and everything changed, to say the least.  After a week, I was able to take a train back to NorCal.  And eventually I played live for the first time with Mamadou, on  BBC / PRI’s radio program “The World”, in WGBH’s Boston studio, with two  people in the room, and, we were told, two million people out there listening.

Stream Nightbird