Update 31st January 2007
Mali

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Leaving Mauritania was a straightforward affair of stamping my carnet, the only ‘request’ from the very friendly customs man was for a pen, with which I obliged. It was half an hour to Nioro on the Mali side of the border, where I was dealt with by a very serious, officious customs man, who after stamping my carnet, sent me along to the Gendarmerie at the edge of town to be signed in to the country. There was a slight stand off as the police officer on duty declared there was a ‘fee’ of twenty euros, which I politely deflected. After a few minutes of his explaining the ‘entry fee’ – I already had my visa, issued to me on Christmas Day in Nouakchott – and me refusing to understand his request, in my very halting French, I referrred to my journey through Africa for charity. Seeing a way out of this for both sides, he grandly waived the fee as the trip was ‘for charity’. “Welcome to Mali,” he beamed. “I’m happy to be here,” I smiled back.

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Near the Mauritanian Mali border, the neighborhood butcher with the remains of the carcass of a recently slaughtered (or possibly road kill!) cow.

Asked before leaving which country was I most looking forward to, Mali would have been near the top of the list. With its borders reaching up into the Sahara desert and the Tuareg nomad culture, the mighty Niger river flowing across the country eventually into the ocean in Nigeria, the pictures I’d seen of the isolated Dogon Country and its strange cliff side architecture, and of course the rich and intoxicating stream of music that originates in Mali, all served to entice. And of course, it was the first ‘black African’ country on my route.

A day and a half later, sooner than I expected despite 150 kms of badly corrugated piste, I rode into the busy streets of the capital Bamako and found accommodation at the Catholic mission by the city’s Cathedral. After five days on the road bush camping, the prospect of a shower and a room was looking very attractive, no matter how basic. And as one of the cheapest accommodation options in town, it was pretty basic. Fortunately for me I ended up alone in the large dorm room.

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Bamako was actually closed down for the first three days I was there, coinciding with the weekend around New Year. I have a strong memory of strolling out in the darkness on the first evening, a certain excitement at being in this city famous for music, sandy streets barely illuminated, activity and noise all around. Coming upon three lads lounging on easy chairs on the side of the street, listening to big speakers on the opposite side booming out a familiar sounding gravelly voice, with accompanying bluesy electric guitar, I asked who it was. “The most famous musician from Mali”, was the reply. “Ali Farka Toure!” What an introduction to the city for me.

Despite its reputation as being unpleasant and not a place to linger, there’s a certain charm to Bamako. It is dirty, there is a bad air pollution from the traffic and at this time of year the dusty Harmattin winds, there is hustling. But there is also so much good cheer, I felt safe at night, and then the music…

The first night I visited ‘Djembe’, a recommended neighborhood bar that had live music. As it was a Saturday night, the place was packed – I was the only ‘blanc’ there. It was such a novelty for me to see Africans on a night out, drinking locally brewed Castel beer or Guinness from Benin, dancing, singing along with the band, chatting animatedly in groups, shouting greetings across to one another. In fact like a regular Saturday night in a Dublin bar! Except I noticed there didn’t appear to be any couples, and most of the women were very dolled up, mixing with various customers. In fact, bar girls I think is the euphemism. The band, a revolving group of musicians, were mainly guitars, drums and djembe or West African tom tom. The singer was the main man, and generally seemd to direct his singing to a particular individual. This type of performing was known as ‘jeli, where the singer would sing the praises and attributes of an individual – sometimes for as long as twenty to thirty minutes – and accordingly get rewarded in some way, usually with a large denomination bill. As the evening wore on things got looser, with the boundary between band and audience as we understand it getting less obvious. Various audience members were taking a turn at an instrument or sang, with the singer spending a lot of time in the audience. After about twenty minutes of a loose, repetitive build up, the tempo would turn suddenly to an energetic stomp, where folks would jump and dance frenetically for only thirty seconds before the song would disappointingly end. It was a Malian equivalent of a loud and raucous blues bar.

The following evening, strolling by the main train station, I thought I would see if there was still a Hotel de la Gare. This had been a legendary venue since the sixties, when the then head of the national railway – a big music fan – in a bid to boost business began to employ as railway staff musicians to play at the railway station’s hotel restaurant. In a country where a regular salaried job was a prize, this encouraged dedicated practice and very talented musicians emerged. What became known as the ‘Rail Band’ became well known, their recordings influential throughout West Africa. In the darkness outside the entrance to the capital’s train station, I was directed towards the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, where I asked at the door if there was music that night. Indeed there was I was told, though didn’t at first understand the doorman’s pronunciation of who would be playing. A second guy repeated the name “Djelimady et Le Super Rail Band, le groupe de Salif Keita!” This I understood, and couldn’t believe my good fortune. Djelimady was the brilliant guitarist associated the past two decades with this band, and Salif Keita – now an international superstar– had indeed been the contracted singer at an earlier stage of his careeer. The reference to “his band” was a little generous with the truth!

Returning later, I paid my three euro at the gate (actually the ticket price was six euro a couple, I was the only single person there) and entered this revered space. An outdoor venue, tables were arranged under mango trees around the dancefloor before the stage, coloured fairy lights adding some atmosphere. It was surprisingly lightly supported, being New Years eve, mainly by what appeared to be respectable, well dressed couples or small groups of couples. After the previous night’s boisterous celebrations, this was an altogether quieter affair, couples shuffling softly on the dancefloor to the rhythms, returning to their tables after each dance. To my newly arrived eyes, it nearly looked like this was how it was thought middle class people were supposed to behave at a dance. The delicious irony was to see Djelimady, at times strolling onto the dancefloor, wringing some blistering, drawn out guitar solos from his instrument with tight accompaniement from his ‘orquestre’ of guitars, n’gomo – a four stringed instrument believed to be the precursor to the banjo – djembes, and kora, or African harp. The music was of a very high standard. On entering I had been instructed by a fairly burly waitress to take a seat at one of the tables, but after a while couldn’t stay seated for any longer, sidling over to a nearby wall and jigging away uncontrollably on my own. The beat was infectious, though it seemed any urges towards enthusiasm by the audience were kept tightly reigned in.

With fireworks going off around the city the band stopped mid song when informed of the passing of midnight. The house lights switched off, rockets were lit in the garden, the first few shooting up gloriously in arcs above. Until it all began to go a bit wrong. The already primed rockets were falling over, shooting spectacularly across the garden into a wall, or tree. It appeared they had all been primed, because they kept coming, illuminating the darkness in streaks of showering sparks, punters ducking and jumping aside, women sqealing. There was pandemonium in the darkness. I just could not believe this accident was happening – it was a brilliant spectacle. Eventually, with waiters scuttling around aborting any few remaining rockets, order was restored. There was now silence as well as darkness as the power had gone, and after hanging around a little longer I gave up and hopped in a taxi for Hotel Wassoulu across the river on the outskirts of town. Ringing in 2007 in Bamako!

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I had heard a rumour the renowned Oumou Sangare was performing in her own club tonight. Arriving there after a lengthy taxi ride to be told it was sold out, I pulled rank and declared my journalist intentions, the manager was called and I was ushered in past the frustrated fans who couldn’t get in. I felt a twinge of guilt. It was a classy affair, and at €90 a couple for the cabaret evening, had attracted quite a select audience including I was told a government minister and other dignatories. There was that air of affluence and privilege about, wives immaculately dressed, deference paid by a few on passing one particlar table of four. But no participation by the mainly black audience, as Oumou belted out her songs. “Like an African Tina Turner” a Dutch group I’d sat down next to, the only foreigners, declared enthusiastically. A powerful voice singing in the more traditional Wassoulu style, she had a magnetic stage presence, effortlessly dominating the space.

The following evening I met Paddy, John and Paddy at the airport, three pals arriving for a visit to Mali culminating in the Festival-au-Desert near Timbuktu. It was quite a culture shock for me to welcome them – from a life I’d left four weeks and 8,000 kms earlier. For them as well! There was no Arrivals lounge, my unsuspecting friends stepping out from the customs, into the sultry tropical evening, where throngs of exotically dressed Malians waited behind barriers for returned emigrants and ex pats heavily laden with huge luggage (what was in those large cardboard boxes and massive travel bags piled high on trolleys?). As per request for “nothing fancy” I had arranged accommodation in the same hostel as myself. It didn’t take them long to acclimatise. Bamako woke up with a bang after its three day holiday, the noise, dust and traffic picking up to uncomfortable levels. After a couple of days the lads had made arrangements with a guide and vehicle for their time in the country, I attended to a few things, and it was time to leave. Without regret.

The largest earth building in the world, the mosque in Djenne, Mali
Djenne