Saturday, August 18, 2007

The next big thing in music could be this man from Mali

The man they call Techno Issa cuts through the dust of Bamako with a curious instrument slung over towering shoulders. His arm folds casually over its crooked wooden neck, acting as a counterweight to the bright gourd behind his head.

Few electronica artists make music with a lute that they have made themselves. Fewer still do so from his neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Malian capital, where djembe drums pulse through the streets and the only “electro” is limited to light-bulbs and the odd refrigerator.

“Everyone calls me Techno,” explains Issa Bagayogo. A brooding man in his mid-forties, he attracts sidewards glances from women who pass with baskets on their heads and babies bound to their backs. “I know there are people who play much better than me, but I am the only one adapting this style. What I’m creating is unique. I am a pioneer.”

The one-man genre of which he speaks is West African techno, an unlikely fusion of folkloric hunting music and European trance. And, perhaps even more unlikely, it works.

Critics have sat up and taken notice. He has toured France, Spain, Germany, the UK, Holland, Switzerland and Belgium, and has performed at underground gigs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His forthcoming, as-yet-unnamed album is his most ambitious attempt yet to establish himself on the world music scene.

Despite his Techno moniker, the result is more Café del Mar than Kraftwerk, a hypnotic desert soundtrack that pays homage to his Malian roots while crying out to be played at open-air Mediterranean venues over the summer.

But the real star of the piece is that instrument. Called a kamanele ngoni, meaning “guitar of young unmarried men”, it resembles an overgrown banjo. Long seen as the poor relation of the kora, the magnificent 21-stringed harp/lute hybrid beloved of modern masters such as Toumani Diabate, it was the kamanele ngoni that would fascinate Issa.

“As a child I always liked the donso ton [a similar type of guitar]. But, unless you were a member of the hunter-musician caste (which I wasn’t) it was forbidden to play it, unless you went through ten years of apprenticeship. So, when the hunters came to our village, all the children in the village used to make instruments exactly like it, and copy the sounds.”

The sacred instruments of the Wassoulou hunting caste were traditionally used as a secret soundtrack for the men as they tracked game in the savannah of southern Mali. Noncaste members who played them were said to invite bad luck. Eventually, the kamanele ngoni developed in imitation of those closely guarded songs and Issa, the son of an impoverished farming family in the Bougouni region, became a master.

When we meet in the courtyard of his family home early one morning, Issa shows off his latest model. It took only hours to make. This one has ten strings, but others can have eight or twelve. The battered calabash base is decorated with drawing pins, and unfathomably, a phone card. This is not the one he uses for live performances, he says. He keeps a chrome-plated one for those.

Then he plays. Large, delicate hands move across the strings and his voice lingers somewhere between melody and monotone. The effect is bare, yet oddly hypnotic. His children, and other youngsters from the extended family, gather around his ankles, transfixed.

It was this mesmeric style that caught the attention of Philippe Berthier and Yves Wernert, two French producers who founded Mali K7 recording studios in Bamako and have been promoting local talent for 20 years. Intrigued by the imposing figure and his enigmatic style, they recorded some tracks together before an idea struck.

They added heavy sampling and bassline experiments. “I didn’t know about it all in the beginning. There is none of this ‘doof doof doof’,” he says, punching the air like a German clubber. “They just helped me do something different.”

His success could not have come too soon. Since leaving his village in 1991, he had been scraping a living as one of the bus boys who collect fares from the overloaded minivans that clog the capital. After dark, he joined Bamako’s night dwellers, sleeping rough by roadsides and markets.

There followed a wilderness of depression and alcoholism. “Sometimes I would be so dispirited. Other times, I promised myself that I would use music to make a better life,” says Issa.

“I have experienced poverty a lot. Some people I knew from home once discovered I’d been sleeping rough, and told the people from the village I had become mad. But what I didn’t have in financial means, I had in good relationships and I survived.”

Mali, a country which prides itself on its musical heritage, can be kind to its music stars. Ali Farka Touré, the desert bluesman, is mourned as a legend a year after his death. But the biggest earning performers in Mali are the griot musicians, who sing the praises of their patrons at regular rounds of weddings and christenings.

However, unlike top griot singers such as Babani Kone, who lives a bling lifestyle in a Bamako mansion, the only sign of Issa’s musical success are the backstage passes and tickets for foreign gigs pinned on his walls.

That does not stop him being fiercely proud of his work. “If a Senegalese musician were playing in the same room as me, and I started to play, I know everyone would stop listening to him, and pay attention to me,” he declares.

His success abroad has been slow-burning since he appeared at the Womad festival in Reading in 2002. But with his increasing exposure, all eyes will be on Wernert: can the producer do for Issa what the maverick producer Manu Chao has done for Amadou and Mariam, the blind married couple, whose album, Dimanche à Bamako, became the hit of 2005?

Berthier is hopeful. “Issa is one of the few stars in Mali just now who, I think, has the musical capacity to be successful as an export. Referring to the musician’s distinctive lyrics, which he half-sings, half-speaks in the local dialect, rather than French, Berthier adds: “He’s talking a very strange style of Bambara, which many people find difficult to understand, and that lends it... mystery.”

The Wassoulou hunting music is just one of the many styles to which the younger generation of Malian musicians are turning. Take Amkoullel, a young rap artist aged 28. He may be dressed in khaki combat gear and a baseball cap, but he is refreshingly critical of peers who prefer to copy American rap than explore their own wealth of Malian music. Like Issa, he too sings songs of social conscience, drawing inspiration from hunting styles, and singing, albeit not exclusively, in the local tongue. “Malians don’t have the opportunity to say things with griot singers. We have a whole social class whose role is to sing praise, to say that everything is cool. They don’t say the bad things.

“Historically, the Wassoulou were the only ones allowed to tell the truth to the king, and I think now in Mali, we are seeing the rise of the new generation of hunters.” Other stars include Tinariwen, a collection of turbaned Tuareg nomads who have been playing the European festival circuit this summer.

Their music is a bracing mix of old and new, like Issa’s. As he puts it: “Musical traditions are very important here in Mali, but the beauty of them is that they are adaptable.”



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