Stepping Into the Musical Mixer in Mali

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Bamako, Mali (cc) Lee Cohen

Bamako, Mali (cc) Lee Cohen

Emily Capderville follows the music and stumbles into a neighbourhood tussle in Mali  – but does she get out alive? Follow her story and see how the music lead too much to temptation for one African drummer.

After being in Bamako for two weeks, I thought I had a handle on things. Despite the fact that there is no map, I knew my way around. With no clear indications on how to get on public transportation, I managed to take sotramasBamakois buses – around town. And with a little help from some friends, I managed to rent an apartment. On a clear and sunny Sunday, I visited the apartment one last time to meet with the proprietor and fork over my rent. I meant to lazily walk to my temporary accommodations, in order to Skype the afternoon away to family I had been missing, but I was lured to Rue 44 in my new neighborhood by hypnotic drumming and an androgynous voice screaming into a microphone.

Following the music, I started to see well-dressed women in shiny bazin – beautiful cotton fabric that is dyed and tailored to the customer’s satisfaction – mixed in among the more common sights of boys rolling bike tires in the dust for fun and girls selling bananas or mangos from trays or buckets atop their heads. I turned the corner and all of a sudden, at the intersection of two busy streets – clay but busy nonetheless – were two large rainbow-colored tents busting at the seams with women. Women were sitting, women were dancing, women were standing outside the tents talking; they were everywhere, and the ranging colors of their bazin matched the multi-colored tents under which they socialized.

I had no idea what I was looking at, but I wasn’t ready to get into the mix uninvited. I found a shady corner and parked myself there, watching the festivities from a distance. The screaming I thought I heard was actually a jeliw, or female griot, singing into a microphone. As she sang, groups of women all wearing the same colors came forward to dance. The green and orange group was fiery and coordinated, the brown-and-orange-clad group was less practiced, and a few of them kept tripping over microphone cords. The group dressed in red and gray, however, were inspired. While they were dancing, everyone in the crowd quieted down, and the women’s feet beat down on the red dust with every hand on the drums.

After their turn, the drummers took a break and one of them started to walk toward me. Normally, that would have been my cue to turn and run, but bolstered by my confidence of understanding Bamako in full in only two weeks, I accepted his offer to sit underneath the tent. Underdressed in a skirt that barely covered my knees and casual flip-flops, I started to grow nervous when more women flooded the tent than there were chairs. I attempted to give mine up, but one woman insisted I stay seated.

A fight ensued over my shoulder, and while I was unable to understand the Bambara being flung back and forth, I knew the fight was about me. The woman who insisted I stay didn’t seem particularly concerned about my well-being, but happy that I took a seat from this other woman. They were dressed in opposing colors, and despite the language barrier, I could tell they weren’t exactly friends. Uncomfortable at being used as a pawn, and confused about what exactly I was watching, I waited for the song to finish – in Bamako, this requires much patience; the song went on for about twenty minutes – and I scurried out of the tent, thanking the drummer for having me.

As I walked down Rue 44 back to the main road and to my place, I saw a man on the street, dressed very well for Sunday afternoon. I assumed he was participating in the male version of whatever festivities I just witnessed. As we walked passed a crowd hanging out of a car, I heard an insult being hurled at the house in front of us. “Oh, so she’s a Coulibaly now. Huh, we know what that means…” I knew about the good-natured Malian insults associated with last names: Coulibaly’s are definitely bean-eaters. Finally understanding what I had watched under the tent, I asked the man walking next to me, “It’s a wedding, huh?” He shrugged his shoulders, said yes, and kept walking. For him, the tents, the singing and the joking were all completely normal. For me, I realized there was a lot about Bamako I still had left to learn.

Have you ever got into a similar scrape like this abroad? Would love to hear your thoughts…

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2 Responses to “Stepping Into the Musical Mixer in Mali”

  1. Phil says:

    Great piece, Emily. A sunday in Bamako is a special experience and you captured it well. So you’re not a coulibaly–good news :) i jamu?

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