We're bound for Mali, West Africa!          
Page first created May 10/04      
(with more added May 12/13/15/17/18/20/21/22/23)

Three days from now, on May 26th, 2004 I'll be boarding a plane with friends and musicians Dave Clark and Dale Morningstar to join Lewis Melville in Bamako, the capital city of Mali where Lewis' brother JP and his family currently reside. We'll be freshly poked (Yellow Fever vaccine is mandatory) and bearing gifts of money, supplies and instruments from the generous folks around Guelph and Toronto. The whole project began last summer when Mansa Sissoko, a kora playing griot - a griot (or female 'griotte') is a troubadour belonging to the caste who traditionally sings the history and heroic deeds of noble family - neighbour of JP's was making plans to visit Quebec. He made a detour to spend a musical week in Guelph with Lewis and the idea was born to reciprocate by taking a group of musicians from  the Woodchoppers Association over to Mali.

Lewis forged the way over a couple of weeks ago with a whole digital recording system and is recording Mansa and his band, and other local musicians in order to make a compilation for The Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. Check out the DCFRN, they're very cool.

Here is Lewis' description of the project, Dave Clark's touching description of his visit to his daughter's classroom to describe the project and an entry on overwhelming support, a letter from Dale Morningstar to his musical friends (Dale is owner of the Gas Station studio), a fantastic little slide show of scenes of Mali on the Lonely Planet website, and a map to show you where Mali is, but be sure to come back for what's below! 

We're going to be travelling to Mansa's village for a grand spectacle! Lewis explains below in the second letter. There is so much more, but for now here are.....

7 Letters from Lew:

May 2/04

Hi Tannis...
I hope all is well in Canada. All is well here, and I've been busy since I arrived recording Mansa and his group. We finished all the bed tracks (pistes) yesterday and I have the day off to sift through everything. The music is great, and all the players are excellent. We've been recording in a studio on the other side of town - it's basically a sort of soundproof room in a family compound dans le quartier de la famille des freres Giroux, two twin brothers who won the studio. Everything is patchwork and falling apart, and so I use only my own equipment. So far everything is working properly, though there were some unique electrical challenges at the beginning.

Did I say that it's hot? Yup, durned hot. I must be drinking five or ten litres of water a day! Well I could go on forever about the music and the recording... Bamako is something to behold... a giant village of one story mud-walled compounds. The streets are full of holes and rocks and cows and goats and people and non-stop vendors selling mangoro (mangoes) and lottery tickets and everything else you can imagine. There are a few paved roads. There are no traffic rules and few working streetlights. You'll see all this when you get here - I can't find the words to describe it.

The flight was ok, not as bad as I thought, and my equipment all got through somehow. No problem with the transfers. The flight to Addis Ababa was great. It was only about half full or less, and we flew over Venice, and Crete, the North Egyptian desert, Cairo, the Nile. The view was stunning - almost worth the cost of the flight in itself. The food was good, and the service excellent, though the aircraft a bit run down.

The flight to Bamako seemed to go by quickly. Bamako was the end of the line, and the plane was almost empty by then.  It was morning by then, and I had a nice view of the country around Bamako. It took about ten minutes from the time I left the  plane until I was in the parking lot. No problem clearing immigration, though they were a bit curious about the musical gear at customs (a radar machine right behind the passport desk). I didn't have to show any papers, but Mansa was there to talk my way through everything.

Well, I must go now. Everything is kind of crazy here, and it's hard to be specific about how it all works - I can only say that it all works somehow, and everyone is friendly and keen. Lots of jamming, and I think the musicians here are looking forward to meeting you all.

I'll think about things you could bring, though I can safely say that they can use anything. Bass strings comes to mind. A cheap playable mandolin? The banjo has been a big hit.
Pass this message on to the rest of the team. It's going to be amazing... you have no idea...
I'll talk to you soon (maybe in a week or so when I have more time and access to email.
p.s. did I say it was hot?
Rains are on the way... big blustery storms which will turn Bamako into a sea of mud.

May 9/04

Hi Tannis...
Glad to get your message - it's good to know that there's still a world out there. I've been completely out of touch with everything outside of the immediate tasks of recording and getting around in Bamako. No news to speak of concerning the outside world. For the most part it really doesn't seem to have much immediate relevence. The big news is that Momar Ghaddafi is coming to town in a week or so for a conference. He's a hero figure around here. I am getting along pretty well in French, picking up most of what is said and making myself understood. It's easiest talking with the Malians - but the French expats are a bit more difficult to follow as they speak at a pretty good clip.

There's certainly a lot to tell. Firstly I've finished tracking Mansa's album. It's even all backed up on disk. I think this is a major accomplishment around here, judging from what I've seen, though by now I'm kind of getting used to the makeshift way of doing things. All those years of recording live shows and juggling equipment are coming into play here. Dale will fit in really well as a studio guy, as he too is used to this kind of thing. Nothing works and everything breaks and is held
together by tape and fishing line. They really don't have much in the way of anything. It's very cool how all the musicians make do with whatever is available and come out playing the most amazing music. Music really is everywhere here. Radios blare out, it pours out of shops, even the mullah's calling everyone to prayer at four in the morning and during the day. It's not quite as loud and annoying as Thailand, as they don't have the same loud equipment, or PA systems, or Chinese Opera.

I've been busy setting up musical activities with the local musicians for when you guys get here - jam sessions, recording, going to clubs. Anything is possible and the locals are keen. Of course I can't say for sure exactly what will happen, but happen it will. Tell everyone to rest up as much as possible as you're going to need as much energy as you can muster up when you get here. Le chaleur (the heat) is constant, but everything goes on just the same. It's even hot for Malians. Hopefully we can record some stuff for your new album when you get here. The Ngoni player I've been working with for the last ten days is fabulous, and a really sweet guy. He's keen to do anything - I'm going to try and record an album with him over the next few days. Practice as many songs as you can in the key of F or D minor!!!! Even ideas for songs. Pass this on Dale and Dave too, as it will come in handy for jamming with the Ngoni and kora.

All the work JP has been doing is mind-boggling. I can't begin to describe what he's accomplished. We had a second meeting today with the village elders of Balaya (where we are going), and the whole expedition is taking shape. All the people are very excited about our coming- tout la monde es tres content- and great plans are under way. The advance man who went out to the village over the past week returned with all positive reports, and it looks like it's becoming a plus grande spectacle for the entire region. It's never happened in this area before. It seems like people will even be coming over the border from Guinea to attend. We will play some songs for them Canadian style, and Mansa and his group will play as well. They will also perform for us, and we'll probably do tons of stuff together. There's even a huge pavilion that's just been finished for the event. All our festival experience will be useful. There will be two full days of this sort of thing. We may also be involved in a mini version of the spectacle in Kita on our way to the village.
The practical stuff is also falling into place, including hauling three or four hundred kilos of water into the village for us to drink. We discussed all these things and more for the entire morning while sitting under a mango tree in the compound of a grande famille from Balaya living in Bamako. Rounds of water, thick sugary green tea with mint, and even palm wine brought in specially from Balaya by our ambassador passed back and forth.

 I'll be quite busy until you folks all get here with recording and musical stuff, which I'm sure will lead to even more stuff for when you guys get here, though there's already quite a plateful. I spent most of today out of town just down the Niger hanging with and listening to Jah J'Esseff play his songs under the central pavilion of someone's compound. Quite different than Mansa, but equally good. He has about three cassette albums here and is very popular, though not so active at the moment. He works with his wife, and two other women singers, and plays the kamal N'goni accompanied by percussionists and guitarists. We ate a lot mangoes, drank more hot green tea and mint syrop....Looks like I'm going to record him and his group at JP's next Saturday...I recorded about an hour of his songs on minidisc, and did a great interview with a retired American woman who lives in Bamako, and is a bit of a patron of the music here. She too is very excited about what we are doing... nobody really has done this sort of thing - especially making recordings of local bands. She's really knowledable about the local scene, and knows which bands are worth seeing and hearing. Hopefully this will help us to choose a few clubs to go to on our few days that are not already booked.
Well, I had better be going. Miss you and can't wait till you guys get here. It's too much for one person, I need someone to share it with.
a la prochain
love lew

p.s. pass as much of this along as you like.
the malaria medication makes your skin crawl a bit, but it's tolerable, and better than getting Malaria. I haven't seen too many mozzies, and the moustiqieres keep them at bay at night. Lots of lizards doing pushups, and big fruit bats at night.
Bring light clothes that cover you up, as well as light Canadian summer fare for when you are inside the compound. JP has a pool so bring a swimming suit.
Can you bring a bunch of different Chicken shakes? You know, those plastic shaker things. Remember those plastic eggs that came with smarties in them? They were quite a hit here with Mansa's percussionist. I'd like to give him some of the more professional egg shakers. They will make nice gifts to percussionists if you want to bring a few extra.
Any instruments will be welcome at the INA. (The National Institute for the Arts)
We will have a small PA system for our journey to Balaya, I think, but tell Dale to bring some kind of acoustic instrument for jamming.
gotta go
more love

May 17/04

Hi Tannis,
I'm off to the INA this morning in a short while for my first round of recording at the national institute for the arts - lots of students are prepared to record a song or two, and I hope I can make things work, given the improvised nature of where and how I have to record music. There is
absolutely no sound isolation, so the music comes with motocycles, power saws, and street noise of all sorts. I think the school bell will also go off between classes....
Peace love and music to ya

May 18/02

Mali auto parts:
Sunday is a good day to look for spark plug wires for a 25 year old Renault. Not new wires, but any second hand wires that are the right length: they can be made to fit. This means driving down to the neighborhood where everbody is in the car parts business. Picture a ramshackle Canadian wrecking yard, then squeeze everything into an area the size of a single familysuburban home. Place that home on a street of similar home, all attached at the waist, and build a neighborhood of streets nestled into the biggest village in the world.  There is not an inch of space which is unoccupied. Every part from a car in piles and boxes and stacks interspersed with projects underway on the floor-transmissions, engines, carburators, suspensions. Cars are completely rebuilt from odd pieces and and old frame. All the computer things and every unecessary component is removed from a car so it will work in a sub-saharan environment. We find huge bundles of old grungy spark plug wires in every shop, but nothing that fits. Finally one shopowner wanders down the street to a place where he thinks he can find the right set. This will take some time, so I settle in for a wait while my brother goes off into the depths of narrow muddy streets filled with the skeletons of of cars, and walls of shops with hand-painted signs displaying the wares buried therein: Murals of shock absorbers, tires, batteries, and steering wheels abound - each announcing the specialty of a particular vendor.  While I sit on the street I entertain myself by naking note of the things that people carry on their heads while walking along the street. Fruit of all sorts: mangoes, bananas, oranges... potatoes, tomatoes, onions piled into large multi-coloured plastic buckets balanced atop a wrapped cloth in the centre of the head. People carrying racks of clothes the colour of the rainbow, boxes of mystery goods, ghetto blasters... etc.  Drugstores in a bag, watches, sunglasses, lottery tickets, phone cards, sandwhich snacks, prepared food,  the whole world walks by over the course of twenty minutes or so, anything you need here is not hard to find.  Finally my brother returns with the shopkeeper sporting a set of wires. They will fit the car, but he wants too much money for them - over twenty five dollars Canadian for an old set with no guarantee they will work any better than the ones already in the car, if at all. We decide not to buy. This has taken about two hours. One option is to place an order with someone who will have them stolen to order. This is not a real option for us, but it is easy to see why people resort to this in order to get their vehicles back on the road.
must go.

May 20/04

Hey Tannis...
Another missive from the steamy depths of the sub-saharan interior. Last night there was a big wind, ripping up from the coast and tearing at the mango and palm leaves as if to strip them bare. Usually a wind like this brings rain, but the big "ourages" and "tempets" are still gestating, and so not a drop was spilled. Sunrise brings a sweet coolness, and all the smells of city dust, smoke, and humanity drifting through the air. There will be mangoros to collect on the ground from last night's bluster. One thing about the wind: the tinny voices of the muezzin calling the good people of Bamako to prayer at 4:00 in the morning were scooped up by le vent and redeposited somewhere in the middle of the Sahara, No doubt there will be a higher attendence of camels and Tauregs at the mosque tomorrow.

Only one moto accident yesterday on the way to my last recording session at the INA (Institute National des Artes). A good omen. The driver, Al-Assan, navigates through the streets with great skill and caution. Al-Assan is a qualified mechanic by trade who has taken work as a driver because jobs are at a premium here. I know that if I were driving here there is a pretty good chance I would have already had an accident. Al-Assan has a wry sense of humour, and makes funny comments about other drivers, especially motocyclists, who cut in front of him or do something particularly foolish. Every once in a while he shouts out the window at someone, either in greeting or castigating a pedestrian or a particularly annoying tout or beggar. Greetings are important here. Whenever you meet someone you know there is a busy round of Bonjour, Ca va?, Est-Vous bien restez, and perhaps a bit of rapartee about being the slaves of one another in former times, depending on historic family ties. When he is not driving he is working on the car, a 21 year old Renault completely rebuilt from the parts of many different cars. The Renault is about the size of a Ford Escort (or smaller). It has the suspension of a small pickup truck. This is necessary on Bamako roads. Once one leaves the few main paved roads the streets are not much more than dried up river beds full of potholes and rocks, and garbage - mostly plastic bags. Every day a herd of cattle wanders down the street, and on every corner there is a cabine de telephone, a foosball table, someone selling a pile of mangoes, or the Bamako equivalent of a corner store selling cigarettes, candy, toothpaste, an odd assortment of plastic things like combs or hair clips, and everything one might need in a pinch.

I can't wait for the big rains. Apparently the street becomes a river (about 50 meters across and one meter deep). What a mess!!! Back to the recording. Al-Assan delivered me to the School safely, and I proceeded to set up for the last round of recording. I've recording the students for the last two days - total of five different groups and about twelve songs. The instruments are usually guitar, balafon, and voice, but the main group has a traditional lineup of Kora, Ngoni, Balafon, and young, aspiring women singers called Djelimusa (sp.?). Typically one women sings the lead and two others sing the response chorus and the instrumentalists play along in the background, setting the groove, and playing the melody in between vocal breaks. There is not much harmony here. The vocals usually comprise main melody and counter melody, and the accompaniment is a polyrythmic counterpoint of arpeggios that add up to create a monster groove. All the main songs have been recorded and the music ranges from good to great. The singing is the strongest... one has to be a good singer here, given the standard which has been set over the years. Some of the groups include the Maitres of the school (the kora player, for example), and are probably the equivalent of the A level jazz bands at Humber College. Today I am recording saxophone overdubs by the the Maitre, Monsieur Soulymans Dembele, who is in charge of all the students who are recording. He is very keen and enthusiastic about this project, as it is the first chance the students have had to be recorded and hear themselves. Certainly one of my greatest rewards has been watching the students listening back to the tracks, big smiles (or frowns on occasion, when they hear themselves make some minute error that I can never detect) blossoming on their faces. Todays overdubs are over a bit earlier than expected, and I have time to pack up and go out to the courtyard and hang with the students who are sitting around playing guitars and other instruments. In one corner a Maitre de Kora is teaching a couple of women the rudiments of the instrument. This is rare, as the women don't usually play instruments here. Within minutes a jam session and show-and-tell develops. Most of the guitarist play repeating melodic riffs, kind of like fingerpicking with only one finger. They show me some of these riffs and eventually I figure it out and settle in for what ends up being ten or twenty mintues of holding on to the foundation while the different players take turns playing additional different melodic riffs in counterpoint or improvising solos. Playing chords and rhythmic chord progressions is not common here, and so they are quite interested in my approach to the guitar. These players would fit in extremely well with bluegrass style pickers and grinners. I can't wait to see and hear this combination one day. The speed, riffing, and attitude matches perfectly, but the blend of styles would produce a totally new sound!!!!

I always carry a banjo (thanks Graeme - I'll be handing it over to an amazing young jazz Ngoni player who I'm sure will take take the instrument to a new universe)  with me, and this has been an object of great interest and much curiosity. One of the main reasons they like it is because it's a bit louder than the Kora, guitar, and Ngoni, and the melody stands out (the small Ngoni- some fishing line tied to a stick and a gourd with a skin head - grandfather to the banjo) is a quiet instrument which is often difficult to hear which the band fires up full-steam. All the Ngoni and guitar players want to give it a try, and sometimes it's hard to get it back when it's time to go. The banjo fits in well with the Kora and Ngoni, as they are all related instruments, and the musicians here especially like the banjo's potential for speedy melodic riffs and its quick adaptability to Malenke and Wassalou music.

One of the highlights of today's jam occured when one of the Djelimuso divas and I traded verses of a tradional Melenke song and one of my tunes to the same instrumental accompaniment. Also had a great jam with Ali Farka Toure's son, who is attending the arts school here in Bamako in his third year. He plays and sings like his dad, which leans a bit more towards the western blues tradition. This Niafunke sound is distinct from the Malenke griot style, or the Wassalou kamal ngoni-based sound. I'm really looking forward to when Tannis, Dave, and Dale show up for the workshops here in a couple of weeks. Heads are going to be twisting and turning in all directions by all parties. I think it will be a great exchange, full of confusion and magic.
Just another days work and five liters of perspiration. Later I will go home and start working on some quick mixes so I can hand over a collection to the director and the students early next week.

P.s. When I arrive home, I have a visitor. It is Toumani Diabete's younger brother, a kora player in the house orchestra at the Le Hogan. He wants to jam with the Canadian musicians when they arrive, so we set up a convenient time - the first afternoon Dave, Dale, and Tannis set foot in Mali. Sorry guys, but it's like that here!
Well, that's it for now! I'm off to record some talking drum tracks on twelve songs for Abdoullaiye the King of Ngoni.

May 21/04

Hey Tannis....
PLEASE put the donor names up on the Website. I've taken pictures of different musicians who have received strings. These are very much appreciated and I've explained to all the musicians here that the strings are a gift from the "Boutiques de Musique" in Canada to the musicians of Mali. New strings are very hard to get here (all types) and cost two or three times what they do in Canada. Combine that with the fact that the musicians here make only a couple of hundred bucks a year...Yesterday when I was jamming I lent my guitar to one of the students. We really got into it, and he broke a string while he was playing. You should have seen the crestfallen look on his face. I think the custom here is when you break a string you replace it... and this is a big expense for the musician. He was greatly relieved when I told him it was no problem. Equipment is shared around. If a musician has a good gig, he borrows the best guitar or amp he can find, and they all give priority to a fellow player who lands a good gig. For my recording sessions, different groups share the best instrument - usually the same one for all the tracks. I lend my guitar to anyone who needs it for recording, as it is better than anything I have yet encountered!
Must go... the talking drum player Baaba is at the door.
love lewis


May 22/04

Hi Tannis...
There was a grand sunset this evening over Bamako. Sunrays streaming out from under a single mountain of cloud that got stuck over the city. The rays were quickly swallowed up by the thick layer of dust, wood smoke, and vapourized hydrocarbons that blankets everything when tout le monde heads home from work. The strange combination of old vehicles and questionable fuel gives the desert sky an orange blue patina - and when the moon cuts through the deep blue-black of the desert night one feels kind of small. It's kind of like the prairies on a clear summer night seen through a haze of two stroke engine oil.

There's a big pile of mangoes waiting to be carved. We knocked them down from the trees the other day with a bamboo pole with a wire hook on the end. Occasionally there's one with claw marks on it. The big fruit bats tear at them for dinner. One has to catch the mango before it hits the ground (I got walloped on the back by a big one).

Must go and check on the generator, the power has gone down three or four times today.
See ya.
love lew

That's it for now but I will try to add more as it comes, and will post photos of the trip when we're back. Thanks for your interest!...Cheers!...Tannis


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CONTACT: tannis@tannis.ca