Torn from today's headlines...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I've taken a much longer break than I planned from my "Magical Tour of the Music of Mali" series (Part 1: Father & Son, Part 2: 14 years later). I had originally planned for this to be Part 4, but decided to go with it now because of its ties to Libya.

In the earlier pieces I talked about how West African music moved across the Atlantic with the slave trade, passing through the Caribbean and split north to the U.S. and south to Brazil. It evolved in the New World during the relative isolation of the Age of Sail, but eventually the music reflected back to Africa, where Latin and blues influences can now be heard.

I happened to see some of that reflection. During the Yom Kippur I was on a ship that ran a blockade of the Bab El Mandeb strait and had a port call in Massawa, Ethiopia. Being a sailor, as soon as I got off the ship I headed to the nearest bar. 

Most of the bars were just an empty room lit by a bare light bulb, with folding chairs to sit on and beer and ice served from a card table. Entertainment was 45 records played on the kind of record players American teens used to have -- the kind where the covers could be detached and had the speakers in them. The records they played, with the volume cranked up to an ear splitting 10 on the dial, were all Motown tunes and featured a lot of James Brown. That, and American pop in general, was the music that dominated many of their radio stations.

The videos accompanying this post are from the Malian band Tinariwen. The rhythms and chorus are definitely African, but the electric guitar and bass are unmistakably influenced by American blues. Specifically,  American blues filtered through rock bands like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix according to their lead guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib.   

The band is composed of rebel Taureg tribesman from the Sahara who moved to Libya in the 1980s to receive military training from Gaddafi. Another name they call their band is The Collective, so that should give you an idea of at least one component of their politics. Today, the mercenaries Gaddafi brought in to bolster his regime are primarily Tauregs.  And so we have West African rebels in blue jeans, listening to rock and soul music, spouting Marx, waving the Koran and worried most of all about clan feuds as we drop bombs on them. Tilt your head a certain way and I suppose it makes some sort of sense.

Of course, in between then and now Tinariwen and other Malian bands landed record contracts and tour dates in the West, but how that happened is a story for another post.