Damon Albarn in Mali

Between staging an opera and preparing for Blur’s Olympic show, Damon Albarn travelled to Mali to spend quality time with an old friend. But Islamic extremists had other ideas.

IT’S A SCORCHING July afternoon, a few days after Damon Albarn’s pastoral opera, Doctor Dee, has finished its London run, and a few weeks before his band Blur are due to play warm-up dates for the Hyde Park concert that will form part of the Olympics closing ceremony. But right now he’s in Mali, jamming with five other musicians on the veranda of his friend Afel Bocoum’s home inBamako, the country’s capital. “I feel like I’m sitting in on a masterclass,” Albarn enthuses. “It’s like manna from heaven for me.” By choice, he’s taking a back seat, playing guitar, harmonica and pocket piano on different tracks while Bocoum sings the main vocals. His soulful, plaintive voice was honed by playing weddings with his father in their village of Niafunké, in the north of Mali, then by touring with his uncle, the internationally famous singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré. One of the tracks, Bamako, was written in rehearsals the day before. Bocoum’s lyrics talk about the crisis in Mali since the coup of March, and counter-coup weeks later, followed by the installation of a shaky interim government — and the occupation of the north of this huge country by radical Islamists with links to al-Qaeda.

Sitting on the veranda with his friends, Albarn looks totally at ease, but when Oxfam first approached him to be an ambassador 10 years ago, he wasn’t keen. “I felt the Live Aid generation had got it wrong. They played too much on the inability of Africa to help itself as opposed to the amazing resourcefulness that you see here.” He had, however, been listening to a lot of the African music stocked by his local record store, Honest Jon’s in west London, and after thinking about it for a while suggested that, instead of visiting Oxfam projects in Mali for the standard celebrity photo opportunity, he just went to hang out with musicians there, recording whatever happened.

The only instrument he took with him was a melodica, an instrument that looks like a child’s toy. “I felt it was such an early learning instrument, it was appropriate to start with. And everyone loved it. I just found them all incredibly open, and I had that epiphany you need if something is going to become a part of your life.” The result of that 2002 trip was Mali Music, an album of collaborations with local musicians that continues to raise funds for Oxfam. But for Albarn, it was the start of a love affair with the region that has resulted in fruitful collaborations, new friendships — and many raucous nights out drinking and listening to music in Bamako’s bars and nightclubs.

Albarn has been back to Mali several times since, taking musicians such as Norman Cook and Martha Wainwright with him, and eventually founding Africa Express to promote such cross-cultural collaborations. In September, he’s taking the whole idea around Britain in a train, stopping to perform concerts in schools, factories and stations. Last year he made another fund-raising album with local musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa One Two. He’s also forged a close friendship with the Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen, whom he works with often. After contributing vocals to the Mali Music album, Bocoum has become another good friend, and they’ve performed together all over the world — although Bocoum says he wasn’t aware how famous Albarn was until they went to Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, and he saw the huge crowd. “Damon is a very sociable man, and this makes you feel at ease with him,” Bocoum says.

“Some people would boast about how famous they are, but he mingles with everybody, and tries to pull down the barriers so we’re all on the same level. So you can take from him, and he can take from you.” Underpinned by Pedro Sankaré’s agile rhythms on the calabash, the music at Bocoum’s house is undoubtedly spellbinding, but the audience for this mini-concert is tiny: a couple of Oxfam staffers; a few members of Bocoum’s extended family; and by the end, a group of kids who’ve climbed up on the roof of a neighbouring house to see what’s going on. Hopefully a bigger audience will see a short film featuring two of the tracks, that has gone up on YouTube to draw attention to Mali’s troubles.

“There’s so many different elements in the music,” says Albarn. “Then you’ve got Pedro playing calabash, which sounds like future music to me.

“It’s impossible to keep up with his ever-changing bass patterns — it’s something that could just set music on fire.” He stresses that he has always taken away much more than he has given on his trips to Africa. “I come because I find it exhilarating. It just allows objectivity, a bit of space. And musically, I’m learning. This inadequate, rhythmically clumsy musician came and played with amazing people, and slowly discovered that I can play in rhythm, and that actually I’ve got a really good ear.

“I realised that I felt very comfortable here and that this was the perfect antidote to everything I’d accumulated in the previous 10 years as a musician that I disliked. Here, they wouldn’t dream of just playing a tune for three minutes, because in their mind you haven’t really got started by then. It’s just healthy for a musician to come hang out in places like this.”

When Oxfam asked him to return, he was happy to come at short notice. He had also promised he would at some point return to work on another album, which he’d hoped to record in Bocoum’s home village, Niafunké. “I had this romantic idea of going and living with goats for a month, but sadly that’s not possible at the moment.” It is not possible for the most dramatic of reasons. During the first day’s rehearsal, Bocoum got a text telling him that the radical Islamic forces had arrived in Niafunké, and that everyone had been told to stay indoors. By the next day, sharia had been imposed, and the women were told to cover their heads and bodies. All music, television and radio are now banned, as are cigarettes and alcohol. Males and females can no longer walk outside together unless they are related, and sex outside of marriage will be punished by flogging. The village meeting place, where people gather to drink tea, play chess and discuss problems, has been closed, to make it harder to organise opposition. Just over a week ago, a witness in the town of Goundam, in north central Mali, said Islamic forces there had rounded up and whipped a group of local protesters. He claimed the protest had erupted after a young Islamist militant whipped a woman carrying a baby, for wearing what he considered to be an inadequate veil. The baby had fallen and was critically injured, according to residents.

With his wife, children and parents still living in Niafunké, Bocoum is shaken. “We’re not used to sharia,” he says, when I meet him the next day. “Mali is a free country where one can praise God, but with these guys coming, we’re really afraid.”

For the last few months, people have been fleeing the north to stay with relatives elsewhere. Bocoum’s house in Bamako is small and very basic. It’s hard to see where he is fitting the relatives and friends who have arrived so far, let alone managing to feed them and provide for the family remaining in the north. They used to eat three times a day, he says. Now, once a day, they have rice with a bit of dried fish. Other households tell the same story: they are hosting extended family fleeing from war or famine, and with the failure of last year’s crops, food prices have soared.

To understand the scale of the crisis in the Sahele, that vulnerable region at the edge of the Sahara that includes the top half of Mali, a few days before Albarn arrived I travelled out of Bamako with Oxfam’s regional policy director Steve Cockburn, catching a UN flight out to Kayes, in the north-west of the country. The rainy season had just begun, and, already, the dry red earth was covered with grass, with spindly goats, cattle and donkeys grazing eagerly.

But a few miles out of Kayes, at the village of Goumera, we find sobering evidence of last year’s drought: the bodies of cows that died of starvation. It costs the equivalent of £240-£360 to buy a cow, a vast amount for farmers, and these rotting carcasses represent a substantial part of the village’s wealth. We’re shocked and saddened, but after a few more miles, we get used to the sight of dead cows by the road.

The food crisis here is not as bad as in Chad, where Cockburn found women digging through anthills to retrieve grains of cereal the insects had stashed away. But Oxfam is trying to intervene now to stop famine, identifying the poorest villagers and giving them vouchers to use with local traders. As we arrive at the village of Mello, our welcoming party starts clapping and singing, a throng of women in vibrant dresses singing “Ox-a-fam!”.

Someone is banging a plastic oil container with a stick to keep rhythm, and it’s hard to imagine what life would be like in a place like this if music were banned. Chatting to the women while they wait for Oxfam’s vouchers, they all tell of failed crops, soaring food prices, animals and people dying. In nearby Diandioubera, the chief’s brother, Santoutou Dialla, reveals how Mali has been hit by the recession in Europe. Kayes is a region with a tradition of men working overseas and sending money home. Dialla himself had four sons working in Spain, but all have lost their jobs.

Doungue Tante, a feisty lady who entertains the waiting women with her jokes, tells me that her son died last year, and she is now caring for her two grandchildren. “My brother will work to grow crops if we manage to get seeds. And if it rains, we will all have food. But it’s all down to luck, no matter how hard you work.” Luck is one term for it. Global warming another. The kind of droughts that used to come every 10-15 years are now occurring every two or three years, giving no time for vulnerable farmers to build themselves back up before the next round of devastating losses.

Back in Bamako, on our first day together, Albarn suggests we visit the recycling market. Set on a steep hill, it’s a noisy, dirty but industrious and creative place, where everything from cars to food tins get taken apart, then pass through blacksmiths, cutters, welders and painters until they emerge by the roadside as new and useful objects, from cooking stoves to ploughs. It’s a lesson in green industry, and an example of the resourcefulness he loves. “I feel very strongly that Africa is the future. The first time I came to this market a decade ago, I was struck by its willingness to embrace s***, basically, rubbish and detritus. It really was Modern Life is Rubbish. When we’ve run out of all our resources, we’ll suddenly find the stuff on our landfills far more valuable.”

Albarn wants to show us the Bamako he loves, but it soon becomes clear that the city has changed since his last visit. Le Relax, the Lebanese restaurant we visit for dinner, still has excellent food, but the buzzy atmosphere he remembers is gone. Half its terrace is closed off and there are few customers. The following night, we meet Bocoum in a small bar — more a yard, really, with us as the only customers, sitting under a tree lit by fairy lights. We then spend a few fruitless hours in search of the once vibrant live music scene, with Albarn getting increasingly frustrated as we go from closed bars to empty nightclubs before finally giving up. I’m going home the next day, but he’s staying on for Saturday night, when another friend, the kora player Toumani Diabaté, is playing a weekly residency that has always been packed. “If there’s no one there,” he says mournfully, “I’ll have to accept that live music is gone here, for now.”

“Most people are having problems eating, so they prefer to save their money for their belly rather than going to pubs and clubs,” Bocoum explains the next day. “Everything is at a standstill. Hotels are closing. Hotels live on tourists and there are no more tourists, so they are bankrupt too.” Bocoum is famous in Mali, where he has used his music to comment on everything from forced marriage to irrigation. But fame and wealth don’t necessarily go together here. “In Mali we make music for the love of it. But you don’t get rich from music. You become popular, everybody knows you, everybody shakes hands with you. But you don’t make money.” Until recently, his band made a living playing festivals, mainly overseas, but his last paid gig was in the United States, 11 months ago. On his land in Niafunké, the last harvest was poor, and he lost a fifth of his cattle. He has seven children, ranging from a one year-old to a 30 year- old. All are still in Niafunké, except for a daughter who is due to take her junior high school certificate this year. She is in Bamako so that her father can keep an eye on her studies. She is hanging outside the house with some friends during the concert, a pretty young woman dressed like any other urban teenager.

“I’d prefer to have them all here with me,” says Bocoum, trying not to show his anxiety, but close to tears. “I asked Dad to come and he refused, saying he would rather die in Niafunké.” With his parents now in their nineties, they need his wife and daughters to do the hard work of collecting fuel, fetching water and cooking, so their brothers and uncles have stayed too.

Niafunké was a well-organised community, with a pump to help irrigate the fields and a co-op to buy seeds and fertiliser. But now there is no fuel for the pump, no fertiliser can be transported from the south, and the young have all fled. “Even if it pours now,” says Bocoum, “there’s nobody left to work.” Albarn came here to draw attention to his friend’s story, which is also the story of Mali. Until he got here, he had no idea how bad Bocoum’s situation was, and he doesn’t feel he should be the one to pass comment. “I feel that the message, the heartfelt expression is in safe hands with Afel. On this subject, the less of me the better.” Bocoum knows the message he wants to convey. “We want peace,” he says firmly. “We had problems before, but this new problem — the invasion — has come to change everything. To feed our families, we need to go to our farms, and we can’t work on the land if there is no peace.”

© Sheryl GarrattSeven, 23 July 2012

Leave a Comment