I like to think of it as a continuum, with “boogie chillun” somewhere in the middle……. if ZZ Top’s “LaGrange” took John Lee Hooker’s boogie into the amped up future, then “one drop” is somewhere way over to the left – on the sandy banks of the northern reaches of the Niger River delta, where they play this groove on the calabash. The heels of the hands are like the bass drum, and the fingers, sometimes with rings or 2 small sticks are the rest of the kit. Calabash gourds are used in preparing and serving the food, and when the meal is over, someone would turn the gourd over and start playing it as a percussion instrument. Hamma Sankare, the late great master of the calabash who accompanied my friend and inspiration Ali Farka Toure, played this groove in all kinds of traditional music, from songs to spirit-possession ceremonies.
All I did was start playing the boogie / shuffle, and he jumped right in and started nodding his head and smiling. It turns out that in those years, John Lee Hooker (along with Jimi Hendrix) was the most popular US musician among traditional African players. Ali Farka Toure told me that when he first heard JLH, he thought he was hearing an African guy.
But also as AFT pointed out, when it’s all up and running – the groove, the sounds of the instruments – a song is about the words. And this one says what it wants to say in one verse:
one drop don’t make a sound
two drops make no mud
put your ear to the ground
can you hear the flood
There is a history of old Blues songs about floods, and it’s such a great metaphor. But what got me was hearing about how the Niger river – which starts way, way to the South, from rain in the mountains of Guinea – by the time it comes all the way up North to the lower edge of the Sahara, around Niafounke where Ali Farka Toure and Hamma were from, fans out into a huge inland delta. And the flooding and receding waters make farming and grazing possible in a desert region. So the the rhythm of the river’s flooding is a major aspect of life there. And like in any desert, water can appear in a flash flood suddenly, without warning.
Hamma and I went on to play a lot of variations on this groove, and I still do, with the Wassonrai, often with full-on fuzzed-out abandon, going for 20 minutes or more no problem. But this short (1:40) recording with Hamma was the first time.
When Hassi first appeared late that night, looking as he did like a Jinn, and very ceremoniously pulled his instrument out of a small leather bag, I played the riff and before I new what was happening he took the song into some kind of dreamland.
For the Sonrai people of Northern Mali, the one-stringed violin called the Njarka is used to call the Jinn, the spirits of the river; it’s got a magical quality, culturally and sonically. To make the string (and the bow string), you can only use the hair from the mane and tail of a horse that is strong, healthy, and beautiful.
Musically, Goin Home is based on a simple Blues riff, and Hassi’s Njarka adds an ethereal element, something about the way the breathy, flutelike notes flutter and float around the riff. Up there, some of their music gets into trance territory, and they can play the same riff for a long time, with small variations. As my friend Ali Farka Toure pointed out, the musical elements of a song – the groove, the sounds of the instruments, the melody – all serve as a vehicle for the words. Goin Home, as a title, is a pretty timeworn theme, but each of the four verses are different – Moses, the Princess, Savior Montana, and someone you carry with you. I’ve played it live many times, both solo and with other accompaniment, like the kamele N’goni – the 8-string rhythm harp of the Wassoulou – and I’ve always felt like I was entering into its world. But this first version, thanks to Hassi, had a mind of its own.
We went on to do a lot together and I came to think of Hassi as my conscience; he always seemed tuned into my process of finding the way in a completely different world. He had a way of patiently explaining some cultural things that I would never have had a frame of reference for.
Once we were in a remote village, kind of a crossroads place, waiting for hours for a 4×4 bush taxi to take us on the next leg of our journey, and while walking around, we came upon a dead sheep. I asked him why was this sheep dead? Meaning in my mind, I wonder what killed this sheep. He looked at me and quietly said “Parce que sa vie est finis.” (“Because her life is finished”), and gently smiled, like he was trying to explain something obvious to a child. And I guess in some regards, that was not far from the mark. Beyond the parallel universe of the spiritual / cultural context of their music, just surviving in Northern Mali is hard, in ways I couldn’t conceive. Hassi once told me he had lost 5 children. That was part of life there. He had a quiet depth about him that will always be hard for me to describe.
Years later, I travelled several hours on the upper Niger River starting up near Timbuktu, in a long canoe called a pirogue with a small outboard motor, along with Hamma and Afel Bocoum, to pay our respects to Hassi’s village and his family. This was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been; it’s a village called Danga, on an island in the Northern Niger River. People have been living there forever,
in the same adobe walled houses and sandy compounds you find throughout that region, but separated from the rest of the world by water. After visiting his compound and then his grave, the whole village escorted us to the river’s edge; the sun was going down, kids were jumping around in the water, fishermen were just coming in off the river, and Hamma was pulling on the ears of one of Hassi’s kids, who had the same, giant, elfin ears that Hassi had.
When I think of that first song we played together, and where home was for Hassi, what a kind of paradise it was (he had always described it in those terms – that no place was as beautiful to him as Danga), and that I finally made it there, albeit after he had passed, it all seems like a dream, beginning to end.
I had put out 3 albums, more or less in the indie-rock vein , 2 of which got picked up by a French label, and the 3rd led to a tour of Pacific Northwest rock clubs; these were the days of Nirvana-influenced grunge. After that, my life changed completely. I became a family man, and found myself traveling to Holland, where my wife’s family lived. This put me close to West Africa, where I had been twice before many years earlier, on music-learning adventures; and I talked my way into a gig as field producer for 6 episodes of the award-winning NPR / PRI series Afropop Worldwide. I fell in love with the pentatonic music styles of Mali, especially Sonrai (Northern Mali) and Wassoulou (Southern Mali), and at the end of that trip, I connected with Solo Sidibe, who played the 8 string hunter’s harp called Kamele N’Goni. I recorded the two of us on a portable DAT recorder, with my backpacker guitar through a stick-on pickup on one channel, and his N’Goni on the other side though a mic. We recorded outside, sometimes in the moonlight on a narrow path that various shadow people passed by on while we were playing. These became the basic tracks for “Where You Wanna Be”, the title of which was inspired by Ali Farka Toure telling me how much he loved being home in Niafounke (“je suit tres, tres content ici”).
I was still in the process of finishing up an album called “eyelid skies”, which was just acoustic guitar, drum machine, and vocals, and I learned a lot from that minimal approach. I never released that album, and it was several years before I woke up and finished “where you wanna be”. During that time, I was visited by an old musical accomplice, Peter Amidon, a great folk music artist, and was knocked out by his musical kids. I played his older son Sam some of the Kamele N’Goni – based tracks and he started jamming with it in his Celtic violin style and it was an instant lock. He came back later for a few days to record violin, and I added some minimal percussion and that was the record. Sam has gone on to become a stunning musical artist, and while this is a minor footnote in his story, I love what he added to those songs, “sunlight and zero” being a particular favorite of mine. Eventually I released WYWB, with very little promotion. It got a good response and I knew I wanted to go back and record with more traditional players in Mali, especially Hamma Sankare, Ali Farka Toure’s calabash player.
At the end of my first trip to Mali (early 1994), I had recorded with Solo Sidibe, a young kamele n’goni player, with each of us going into one channel of a stereo DAT machine. We recorded mostly outside, including out in the moonlight, and several years later these tracks became the foundation for the “where you wanna be” album. Since I hadn’t put anything out in a long time, and the last things I did were in the alternative rock realm, I had no idea what to expect. But it got some some encouraging feedback, and I knew I wanted to try to take this basic idea – recording original songs with certain traditional accompaniment – farther. I reached out to Philippe Berthier, who had hosted me in Bamako when I was there earlier as a field producer for NPR’s Afopop Worldwide. He was sympathetic to what I was talking about. He told me although his studio was not working, and he wasn’t even going to be in Bamako, if I brought my own ADAT machine I could use the room, and the mics, etc. and he would just let this happen for free, I would just need to hire a young guy named Marlo, who had been a second engineer there and would help me pull this off. He also helped me get in touch with some of the great musicians I was looking for. I knew I wanted to record with Hamma, and Philippe, who was close with Ali Farka Toure, had calmly assured me that Ali was fine with this. So the whole thing was based on Phillippe telling me when Ali would be coming back through Bamako (from a Euro tour) en route to Niafounke, and so Hamma would be there for a few days. I would have been thrilled to do all the songs with just Hamma, who I had first met up in Niafounke, and then hung out with a few times in NorCal when AFT came through (seeing and hearing him at the Fillmore in SF was a paradigm-shifting experience for me – the sound of the mic inside the calabash amplified through those subwoofers was unlike anything I had seen or heard). I really didn’t know what to expect. He showed up with a big smile, his calabash on his back, like a hat on a string, and said “let’s go”. After each song he kept saying “next”, and this turned into him coming back a few times, then he vanished into the sandy, windswept savanna of northern Mali.
It’s hard for me writing this now. Hamma and I went on to do a lot together, traveling in buses, jeeps, pirogues (long canoes), living in adobe-walled compounds in Timbuktu while recording endless musical ideas, playing the Festival In The Desert 3 times, the AFT Memorial Festival, concerts in Goundam and Dire, Timbuktu, and in the village of Toya, where he effectively directed and starred in the video for “Child See The Rider”. He gave my daughter a special calabash, with a “secret” attached to the inside, and he loved that she could play the Takamba rhythm. Hamma left this world just a couple of weeks ago, and it feels like the Earth is a bit off-kilter, kind of wobbly. What helps is knowing that he would take this in stride, like when we lost Hassi. And I’m trying to get there.
Anyway, I had begun recording with Solo again, and this felt like something that had been going on forever.
Solo is an amazing time-keeper and feel player. One day his cousin Brehima came in and he spoke English, the first I had heard in a while. He told me that they had played the “where you wanna be” album in their compound for 40 people the night before and when it was done they had all applauded. And Brehima said “this thing you are doing, it’s important, keep going”. That meant a lot to me, gave me some confidence.
One kamele n’goni driven song from Nightbird (“Rain”) made it on to a compilation album that features big-time artists (“Sahara – Blues Of The Desert”). I think that happened because of our playing at the first Festival In The Desert in 2003, but I really don’t know. One day Solo led me to the house of Mama Sissoko, who had been the director of the National Traditional orchestra, and unlike anyone I ever met there (with the possible exception of AFT) he knew all the traditional styles of Mali. And of course, he was a master of Mande music, translated to the guitar. He was enthusiastic from the get-go. I wrote Pharaoh’s Daughter while sitting by the river watching the floating islands of water hyacinth coming by, and hoped it could be a relief from the other, pentatonic songs; and on the day, Mama came by on his motorbike, with his guitar on his back, played it once and that was that. The instrumental segments between the verses got the attention of someone at NPR and I was amazed to hear it a lot on Morning Edition for the first couple of years after the album came out. Back in my life, driving home from dropping my daughter off at school, then here’s 5 seconds of music I remembered like a dreamlife coming over the radio, then back to the news. That was pretty surreal. Because basically, I couldn’t ever really describe what became my intermittent life in Mali to anyone here in the US. I tried, but there was just no frame of reference.
What can I say about Hassi Sare? he appeared late one night, and just sat in the courtyard smoking while we were busy inside. Everyone there kept saying this was a very special musician, a Sonrai from the North. He looked like a Jinn, kind of elf-like, with what can only be described as amazing-looking the ears. He was quiet, patient, like a deep river flowing silently by.
I knew about the one-stringed violin, having seen it played by Guidado in Niafounke for the AfropopWorldwide “Ali Farka Toure: Live From Niafounke” program, and I had seen Ali play it briefly at the end of his concerts. But I never heard anything that sounded like what Hassi could produce on that one string. The most obvious association is a flute, but the way the notes move is different from that. I had a riff and he played it with his fluttering nuances,
we went in and recorded it together very quickly, and I remember thinking you always need to be ready for what life my bring your way, you just never know. Doesn’t matter if you’re tired (which we all were), tapped out, or whatever. You’ve got to respect the serendipitous or the destiny or however you choose to see it. That became one my favorites from those years: “Goin Home”. He breathed the life of the Jinn (river spirits) into it. The next day I went to where he stayed when he
was in Bamako (Hassi was a Sonrai, and lived on the island village of Danga, in the Northern reaches of the River Niger), and we played the song for the whole compound, maybe 20 people, and some girls started clapping and dancing. In the years that followed, Hassi became the person I would turn to when I was lost and trying to understand what was happening around me. The next year we shot scenes to go with Goin Home, featuring a nomad family who were camped out in a tent next to our compound in Timbuktu. Not sure how that translates as a music clip, but we were working pretty fast in those years. Hassi was a beautiful dancer. Check him out in the clip for “Tele” (from the Timbuktoubab album); he was so elegant doing the most simple steps, it made Solo want to exaggerate the other extreme, like a stiff old man. God knows what I look like in there. But that was an example of having an idea in the morning, then acting it out in the afternoon, including having a friend play the part of the motorcycle driver who breaks down in the hot sun. But back in the summer of 2000, Hassi came and went like a breeze that roils the surface of the river and makes the water liquid gold for a few moments, then everything is as it was.
One other thing about making the Nightbird album: Philippe gave me the best advice I ever got; he said look, you don’t need a studio; just bring your own gear, and go up to Timbuktu and rent a “campement” (an adobe-walled compound, for a family to live in). “It will be way cheaper than being in Bamako, everyone will feel more comfortable that way, and you’ll be free.” So that’s what I did the next year. Solo and I went up to Timbuktu and met Hamma and Hassi there, and I started dragging what they all called “studio du sable” (studio of sand) in a suitcase, a carryon, and my wife had even sewn giant pockets in my pants, shirt, vest, in which I carried all kinds of cables, adaptors, etc.
But back to Nightbird: those photos were taken the next summer, in and around Timbuktu, and gave the album the visual sense of the players, and where it was happening. The release was set for October, 2001. A friend had introduced me to Massamba Diop, the Senegalese master of the talking drum (tama), who played with Baba Maal, one of the most well-known African artists. He came by my barn studio on a day off from the tour he was on and played on the song “Child See The Rider”. Since we had shot the video in the village of Toya, with 5 horses and the entire village participating, and since the tama was such a featured part of the song, I felt I needed to show it in the clip. So in a miracle of calculus,
Massamba and I rendezvoused in NYC the day after his tour ended and he sync-played along with the track – jumping around, he’s a phenom, superlatives run short. That evening I was to meet the only kamele n’goni player that anyone knew of living in the US, Mamadou Sidibe, Solo’s cousin, and we met at a restaurant up in Harlem, and discussed playing shows in the US. Everything was glowing that night. That was the night of Sept 10, 2001. The next day I watched from my brother’s apartment in Brooklyn as the World Trade Center started smoking, and when I went to the airport, they announced that Kennedy was now closed. I had to wait a week before I could catch a train back to NorCal.
Anyway, when we finally sent the album out (my wife, my daughter and myself), there was a lot of 9/11-related fear about anthrax being sent in the mail, and it was crazy to take 300 bubble packs with CD’s into the Post Office, they made me go around and come in the back and test it for anthrax. As with “where you wanna be” I had no idea what to expect. But it got the attention of some influential people, who wrote some very flattering things about it. My first gig was with Mamadou, live in the studio of WGBH Boston, on PRI’s “The World”, for an audience of 3 million. Of course I wish I could tell you this went on and on and led to someone’s idea of over the rainbow. And I guess when I think about all the things that did come from it, I don’t even know what to make of it all. And now, after having taken a break for a few years (during which I released and toured behind “Head For The Hills”, recorded in North Mississppi Hill Country), I’m excited to release some music I recorded with my African friends who are based here in the US. But that’s another chapter of the story that began that summer, 2000, in Bamako.