From Walter in Mali: March 2012

From Walter in Mali: March 2012

Beacoup de miles since my last missive, as the internet has been elusive here. I arrived 2+ weeks ago in Bamako, Mali. It’s been a wonderful adventure so far. I’m staying with Toumani Diabate and his vast family – what would be extended family for us in the west is all immediate family here. All are together. I participated in Toumani’s kora master class, a first, considering I am playing the kora music on guitar. It’s been amazing – pushing me to really expand and define my approach to playing the kora music on guitar. I’ve played with beautiful Mande musicians on varied instruments and all have been tremendous. The people are kind, soulful and relaxed without exception.

My guitar is being very warmly received here. Last Friday, Toumani invited me to open his show at The Diplomat, a popular concert venue here in Bamako. The audience was a sea of surprise, cocked heads at this white American fellow playing their beloved kora music on guitar. Faces turned to smiles and the entire audience got to clapping heartily to the rhythm of my playing. Tres bon! I’ve played with kora players, guitarists, ngoni players, a hunter playing traditional hunter’s music on a very rough gourd harp called called a simbi. More to follow…

Toumani has been keen to get me together to play with his son, Sidiki, who is a fine and celebrated kora player here. His band is at the top of the Malian charts, and their music includes rapping alongside the kora. We had our first collaborative session yesterday, and it was very fresh and felt magical. Toumani said it was as though a flock of birds flew into the courtyard as soon as we started to play. Sidiki’s playing is full of life. He plays the traditional music but he’s very open. We’re getting together a few times in the coming days and I very much look forward to seeing what transpires.

It is a whole other reality here, so many new experiences both here in Bamako and in my travels. One of the excursions was a trip to Segou with my friend and photographer Douglas, his sweetheart Jane Ann, and two Malian compadres. It was a big weekend in Segou as the annual Festival sur le Niger was taking place. The festival was certainly special, but the most inspiring part of the trip was our visit to the village of Segoukoro. A very old village and ancestral home of Biton Mamary Koulabaly, who created the first government of the Bambara Empire in the early 1700’s. An ancient and exquisite world to my eye, all made of earth, everything. You can feel the age of the culture in the people, their community, their kindness.

We were received by the chief of the village, Koke Koulabaly, the 29th descendant of Biton Koulabaly and actually chief of all Segou. After a time sitting with this calm and regal earthy man conversing through a translator, he summoned Abdoulaye Kouyate who is the griot of the village. Griots are the hereditary musicians of West Africa, born into griot families. Toumani Diabate is a griot.

Abdoulaye plays numerous instruments, his primary instruments being ngoni and guitar. He arrived with his guitar and we jumped right into Bambara music on our 2 guitars.Though my playing is very different from the Mande guitar style, I’m able to approach it in a way that retains the heart of the tunes. Many ah’s! and laughs from friendly staring faces, smiling as I joined in on the Bambara songs. A special kick for me when I included some of the West African rhythmic leanings into my improvisation… a smile and a nod from the chief.

Many more Mali stories to tell, which I’ll save for a future letter. I’m learning much daily – foundations of the kora that are inspiring my guitar playing and improvisation to deepen and grow, traditional songs, the venerable place the kora holds in the culture, the happiness and kindness of a people who materially have so very little. Toumani and his family have been gracious hosts of the first order. I’ve basically been living in a garden of music, a courtyard overflowing with kora music at all times of day and night, numerous griot kora players jamming and teaching their magic, women and children laughing, a constant flow of people and greetings, all generously sharing their soulful ways.


It’s been a kaleidoscope of culture and music thus far… More soon –>>