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jamie catto road-journal -- the second world tour after "1 giant leap" -- this time it's "2sides 2everything"

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Joking stops fights

I came downstairs to our sofas again to find Duncan, Rokia Traore, her husband and manager Thomas and the others discussing possibilities for the session. So it was a yes! It was pretty obvious when they said that we might go to her home village a few hours away to do the song that it was a long shot, after all, we had to fly out tomorrow night on the red-eye to Paris and there was no guarantee that we wouldn’t get stuck somewhere along the way. I entered the conversation half way through Rokia speaking about her grandfather’s house where she used to go as a child. He was an old old man when he died and a prominent elder in his village. Rokia’s family were (and still are) Nobles in their area and it would be a very big deal to just roll up unannounced. She would have to go with her Aunt who lived some way away, and pay respects to all her relatives before we could do anything. Why was she telling us all this? “So there really is a possibility?” I asked, surprised, not least, by the fact that she’d be willing to put aside a whole day for our session, not just a couple of hours. “Yes.” She replied. Her Aunt was arriving in Bamako early tomorrow morning to accompany us and we should leave no later than 8am. What an end to the trip!

Back to today’s concern’s though. It was time for our long awaited interview with our local fixer, and now lifetime friend, Sekou Camara. He’s a teacher. In fact, he was Rokia’s teacher when she was at school. And he had twelve kids, so I asked if we might do the interview at his home. Since we arrived, he has been coming out with gems which always make me kick myself that we weren’t rolling at the time. He very much reminds me of Linesh from our last film. For instance, when we were discussing our themes at breakfast one morning, he volunteered that in Africa, when an old man dies, they say it’s like a library has burnt down.

When we got to his place, there were kids all over the road playing and running about. Some of them chanted a word I couldn’t quite make out, they were so playful. “What are they saying?” I asked, amused. “Whitey! Whitey!” said Erich.

We entered Sekou’s home through his courtyard where his different sized kids were in various stages of business. Some cleaning things, some carrying water, and some holding smaller kids. His front room was dark and cool, and down the other end his wife and one of his daughters were watching a small TV which was on so loud that it’s little speakers were violently distorting. We set up down the other end of the room and I requested that they kill the sound for the interview which they did, still watching the muted screen.

Sekou was such a great subject. I just can’t wait to see his footage and cut his gems into the film. He talked beautifully about just about every subject on the list. When I asked him who was more important, a rich man or a poor man, he said that in the cities it was important to be rich, but in the villages it was more important to be honest and hard working. He said “It doesn’t matter how high you rise when you leave your village, how rich you become. When you return to your village, you will always be the same level, whether it be former slave, noble or midwife. I am a learned man,” he continued. “I have a Masters Degree and I am a respected teacher, but when I return to my home village they will not care,” he was laughing sweetly as he spoke “they will say ‘Ah at last! Our blacksmith is home!” There is such a rich tradition of teasing in this country. He explained how it so often stops fights. “I was on the bus last week,” he said “and I accidentally stepped on a woman’s toe. She began shouting at me rudely so I said ‘I know why you are shouting, it’s because you are a Fulani and your husband treats you badly. You are so angry with him so your trying to take it all out on me’ – the people in the bus began to laugh – the woman replied ‘how do you know I am Fulani?’ – ‘Because you have the face like a monkey’ I said. Then she replied ‘Ahh and I know why you stepped on my toe because you are a clumsy baboon. You see?” he went on “Joking stops fights, everyone on the bus was laughing.”

The next stop was a dancer friend of Sekou’s who we interviewed in her small home off a courtyard full of women sitting on mats having ‘a meeting’. I have no idea what they were talking about. During the interview I asked, as usual, about hitting kids. They, like everyone else, looked at me like I was mad. “Of course you have to hit kids.” It’s so polarised here the way we treat elders and kids, and the way they do. We have a cult of youth. We think smacking kids is a big taboo, that kids are everything. Less and less boundaries, more and more freedom. Our old people however, we couldn’t really care less about as a society. Here though, elders are cherished, revered, and always deferred to. The kids however, if they are disrespectful, better watch out!

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Oumou Sangare

Still no definitive word from Oumou Sangare or Rokia Traore. It all seems really positive when we’re talking to them (or their people) but they are both is huge demand, especially as it’s very rare for them to be in Mali. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed. This morning, however, Oumou’s Kemel N’Goni and M’Balon players agreed to do a session with us which was a great touch. They are the cream of Mali’s players and very used to playing along with tracks, which for us has become problematic with many musicians we collaborate with. It’s one thing to play your instrument beautifully, but quite another to be able to jam along with what your hearing in your headphones. These guys are international musicians and the moment they started playing it was obvious.

After we’d done the usual fee negotiations in the hotel lobby (that pair of sofas has become our new office) they volunteered that they knew the security guards at the Palace Gardens on the river, not far from where we were staying. They blagged us in on the gates looking very quirky astride their precariously balanced mopeds in their terribly dignified African robes, and we set up by the river with the long, misty, bridge stretching off into the distance.

The M’Balon is a gorgeous bass instrument with 4 strings (or was it three?) and the rich, deep notes that it emanates are just like a double bass. The song he sang as he plucked it was really cool about how great Mali is, and his mate on Kemel N’goni, a large, Cora-sounding instrument, plucked along but wouldn’t sing. Sometimes, when we’d switch tune, they spend a while with Duncan going note by note through their strings to re-tune to the new key. The N’Goni is tuned with silver keys like a guitar, but the M’Balon is a thick stick wound with leather thongs, sunk into a gourd or calabash. To tune it he has to hold the sound box (or sphere) between his knees, and visibly strain to twist the mast. I swear I heard it groan and creak and was sure he was one twist away from snapping his instrument in two. I winced every time he did it.

I was really happy with the shot too. The perspective of the bridge, all washed out so we could expose their dark skin on the bright day, looked authentically filmic and the Hi Def cameras really came into their own. Although members of the public wandering around backgrounds of shots can definitely add to an atmosphere, the local security guards who’d let us in were officious in the extreme and kept the poor guy who wanted to walk behind us with his donkey way out of shot. Shame.

The only slightly dodgy moment came when I saw a weird looking guy taking a leak about a hundred yards away, and then, when he over-enthusiastically came over to check us out and greet us, wearing an immaculate 3-piece, natty, black ensemble, he offered me the same hand I’d just seen him holding his dick with, and I reluctantly had to shake it.

After lunch it was time for the Oumou Sangare session. Hooray! She and her husband had agreed to do a song with us and I’d been on the phone for ages with their London label to sort out the preliminary business, but they’d also insisted we call to confirm about three times. Noon today was the final confirmation to make sure she really would be there at 3pm, so at a quarter to, we were off. Did I mention that she has her own hotel in Bamoko? We arrived, ready-clip-miked and entered the lobby past posters of her old concerts and waited in the courtyard for her. There was the black-suited guy again, he must have been one of her musicians, no wonder he was so keen to say ‘Hi’, it all made sense now.

She arrived a bit later and once again Josh translated me explaining our project and what we hoped to do today, and we all filed into the hotel’s air-conditioned restaurant to show her a bit of the DVD on the laptop. I have to say, it was a real treat to see her so enraptured. She was into it before, but seeing the DVD got her really excited “This is good!” she said, almost in surprise, and it was the only English she uttered all day. Apart from saying “I ‘av a cold’ before she sang, to which I replied “singers always say that Oumou” and she made as if to slap me.

Behind us on the opposite wall was a gorgeous triptych mural of African masks which, though busy, looked like a perfect set for her to sing in front of. While we (me, Ben and the natty dude) moved the chairs out of the way and began to set it up, Duncan started running through the potential tracks we’d chosen to see if any of them grabbed her. The first had her humming, the second provoked a line or two, but the third sent her immediately into full song and boy, it was cooking! This is how it’s meant to happen. When we play our stuff to an artist, hopefully there’s a really obvious track that they respond to and we all rush to get the mikes plugged in.

Soon enough, her two backing vocalists arrived (her call and answer style is what first got us excited about her as an artist) and she ran the track a few times to practice with them. It was just getting better and better, apart from the plinky noise that the natty guy was making on Duncan’s Martin back-packer guitar. It was time to ask her, in the politest way, if she’d mind if her musician friend would wait outside for a bit, and so we gently broached the subject. She looked a bit confused, and then it was clear. She’d never seen him before in her life had thought he was with us! We asked him to leave for a while.

Half an hour later the song was done, a lyric all about women taking their power and working and getting up and out. Her grin as she sang was so infectious, but it soon vanished if she felt one of her singers was missing the mark. We made sure she checked the camera to see that she looked gorgeous on film, and then she disappeared as mysteriously as she’d come to get ready for tonight’s concert.

We were ecstatic on the way home. Our first proper lead-vocal in the can and what a corker! Our driver was singing it all the way back and it occurred to me that either he had a great ear or he’d heard it before. I thought she’d put it together quickly. And then it was clear – she’d reworked one of her favourite songs, as artists often do with 1 Giant Leap, and adapted it to work with the new chords and rhythm. I wonder how it’ll mutate by the end.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Mussa of the Griots

Today was a very exciting ‘out of town’ day. It’s always those moments when we’re leaving the city behind us, especially in Africa, when I feel the proper buzz of what we’re doing and how lucky we are to get this unique lens on the world. As the road stopped and the red dust began, carts, seemingly abandoned vehicles and concrete cubes, silhouettes walking along in the haze of the horizon, it was obviously going to be a long drive. Not necessarily a long distance but I don’t think we averaged as fast as 20mph. Occasionally we’d stop to let Ben jump out and shoot something beautiful, or just give us the thumbs up and film us driving by for the ‘Making of…’ film (now being dubbed ‘The Faking of…’ since Duncan and I didn’t want to show what a nice hotel we were staying in on camera).

We were on our way to a village called Sapho to see a full-on mask dance. And when they say ‘mask’ here, they don’t just mean the kind you put on your face. Before we got out of Bamako we stopped to get supplies. First, as a gift for the Chief of the village, a bag of Cola nuts which give you a massive hit when you chew them and along with Cocaine were the main ingredient in Coca Cola in the days before companies were accountable for their products. We were also advised to bring a crate of wine for the mask dance tonight. For ourselves, a box of water, a few baguettes and a huge bunch of bananas. There wasn’t likely to be any food for us there and we weren’t planning on getting home until dawn.

The place where we stopped to get the stuff was under a ramshackle local radio station and Sekou knew the people running it so we asked if we could interview someone there on the 2s2e themes. A well dressed lady who ran the place obliged us and as well as sharing her insights about women’s issues, marriage issues, race issues and parenting issues, not to mention the pros and cons of technology, TV, and Europe, she also renamed me Mussa of the Griots, much to the hilarity of her workmates. Not bad going.

The guys were waiting for me in a makeshift café down on the street where a young guy sat brewing the killer Mali tea in yet another dodgy looking David Beckham knock off shirt. We piled back into the 4x4 and were soon oohing and aahing at the amazing sites around us as Bamako vanished into the dust behind.

We drove and drove and I found myself getting disappointed that the light was so beautiful between 4pm and 5pm and we were stuck in this van, not shooting the stunning village scenes that lay in wait for us ahead. This ‘not trusting the flow’ thing is part of the teething of a new 6 month shoot. I’m not going to give myself too hard a time about it as there seems to be a lot at stake here, a lot to keep our heads around from budgets, schedules, tracks, equipment, crew, music, film, it goes on…and I know the ‘going with the flow’ and ‘surrendering’ thing will kick in soon enough, but trust me, it’s much easier to do that when you’ve got a few lead vocals under your belt.

Eventually, with 45 minutes of light left, we got to the village and I can honestly say that I’ve never received a welcome quite like it. There were hundreds of kids and young men and women, some old ones too, all clapping and waving as we rolled past the mad looking mud walls and mazes. This was not a mud-hut village, but mud was certainly a big part of the architecture, all tumbling and uneven it looked beautiful in the evening light. As we unloaded, or rather, the others unloaded and got the clip mikes ready etc, I met a few of the kids and was almost drowning under them showing pictures of Indy and Lola to them before I was called to come and meet the head of the village’s Women’s association, the deputy Mayor and the Chief.

We walked quite far to where the elders were waiting for us under a tree and the kids spread out behind us as we walked like a religion. Sekou and a guy I hadn’t met before did the translating as we were introduced. When you communicate with these guys, you never speak directly to the Chief, you speak to the next oldest, he speaks to his next oldest and so on until it gets to the Chief, and then the chain is reversed all the way back to you. It can be really time consuming but thankfully this time they abbreviated the chain and we had an almost direct conversation.

The Chief welcomed us in style. He thanked retrospectively the first guy who had introduced the first white person to his village, and told us how, as friends introduce friends, the circle of friendship grows. He told us we were now children of his village and that we could now build here and marry if we so wished. Then, as a symbol of our new friendship he presented me with a male and female chicken, bound together by the feet which I held as they flapped and I did my best to reply. I thanked him for his warmth in welcoming us and his generosity in sharing his people’s culture with us so freely. I told him how much his hospitality meant to us being so far from home and he continued by blessing us and our film and music. He also asked for help with the needs of his village, they need a schoolhouse, a bunch of sports equipment, pens and notebooks and a mill for the women. I told him about our charity ‘1 Small Step’ and there was much hubbub at the idea.

Having shaken hands with all the elders once more and received their blessings again, I picked up the chickens and allowed the crowd of children to lead us back towards the main part of the village to the mask dance. As we walked we expressed to each other how grateful we were feeling in that moment and that we had to be the luckiest people in the world. On the way the evening had grown dark and we passed so many tiny homes dimly lit by oil lamps and tiny fire’s heating things in the doorways. I would glance inside as we passed and drink in the sight of another mundane normality.

Three strip lights on posts powered the faintly illuminated scene unfolding in the main square. Drums were being warmed and I was asked for petrol money for the generator so the light could last all night. Having handed it over I found a quiet spot to interview the head of the Women’s association and the deputy Mayor. It’s at times like these that the duality of West Africa is so obvious. On the one hand, the respect for elders here is humbling. They say wonderful things like “Old people are treasures’ but at the same time, the same guy will volunteer that if your wife irritates you, it’s fine to beat her. And it’s also fine, nay necessary, to beat your kids. They believe that the lenience with which we treat our children is mainly responsible for our breakdown in family structure. We are so the opposite in the Young and Old sense. We don’t think of our old people as treasures, far from it! We see them as uncomfortable inconveniences, redundant obstacles, and in our cult of youth, we glorify everything Young.

The dancing was supposed to get going at about nine or ten, but when I got back to the 3 strip bulbs, they were out. I found the others in the van and wrapped some bread around a banana while we waited. It turned out that they now had the petrol in the Genny but the starter chord had snapped and no one had any pliers. I started getting that ‘I can’t control this’ sinking feeling again and after an hour of conflicting reports about what was wrong, I was getting ready to suggest leaving. “We’ll give it ‘til ten” we agreed. The kids running around screaming was beginning to drive me a bit nuts. I started worrying about finding our way home from here at all as we’d got lost several times in the light on the way home, and Malians make a point of not travelling at night when they can help it. More and more dust was covering me, the van and particularly the cameras as we went past ten o’clock and I started telling Erich we might split. Sekou, meanwhile, had vanished. It was suggested that he might have fallen asleep somewhere. He’s in his fifties and naps regularly. Then it was explained that we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to. It would be rude and the village would feel too much shame.

I was getting tired and frustrated.

Half an hour later, no dancing and no light, and I was telling everyone we were leaving, but then an elder came up and tried to persuade us to wait. As he was speaking, the drums started up and the dancing, first in dribs and drabs, got cooking. The oldest dancers, strong men of 30 something in grass skirts and wide grins led the circle and the procession behind them was a crown of boys all in order of age, it looked wonderful. The dust was rising as they spun and dipped all in synch with each other and the women in a circle in the centre. They moved to the pounding of drums, but also the absurdly distorted singing of a woman, again sounding very oriental, through one huge tannoy speaker. The jeep’s engine turned over as we used the headlights to help light the circle and the kids flew in and out of the dust-cloud like spirits.

Finally, after the third or fourth round, the masks appeared. When I say masks, what I really mean is full body-costumes, gliding, swaying and darting around the circle to alarm, thrill or tease the ecstatic crowd.

The first was a 200 year old conical shape with a bird’s head and an enormous sharp beak. It flew around the circle spinning and dipping and gliding like a hovercraft. This was a mask that they brought out only twice a year for the harvest and it was led by a guy blowing a tiny whistly horn all around it to guide it here and there. We danced around it with lights and cameras to get every angle and shot it flying back and forth, in and out of the shadows, it was stunning.

Next up was a tall, old-man mask on stilts. A long sad white face and a long coat waving his arms in the air. Then two extraordinary creatures, spinning and swaying their huge straw skirts and ruffling their rustling plumage, kicking up dust and lurching sideways. Ben began dancing as he filmed, doing his mad wobbly leg mime with the creatures as the crowd began to cheer. The animal sped towards me suddenly and stuck it’s alarming wooded chin right into my face. I didn’t move. The crown hushed as it sniffed me and then was gone. And lastly, the one we’d seen photos of, the ‘big white man’ which was arms and legs of bulbous sacking like a primitive Michelin man, moving awkwardly as Duncan and I mimicked it shining our torches all the while and the crowd loved the irony.

It stopped as curiously as it had begun. We were sweating buckets and high as kites with the electricity of the experience. And not least, the incredible footage we had in the can. It was well after midnight and our first session was 10am, and with the uncertain length of the drive home, it was time to say our thank you’s and goodbye’s. The elders were all smiles and we shook hands with each and every one of them while Ben and Josh loaded up the back of the jeep. As I approached, I noticed that though the headlights were on but the engine wasn’t, and our dozy driver was fast asleep. Even after having argued with him for time about leaving the engine turning over so that we could keep the headlights on, he’s somehow taken it upon himself to turn it off at some point during the shoot and guess what, the battery was flat as a pancake.

I wanted to kill him in that moment. It was already a long drive home through the night and now here we were with no other vehicle to jump start us. Josh had had experience with this kind of crisis living in Gabon and as the chickens on the back seat clucked and flapped in alarm, we all heaved the vehicle forward to try and jump it manually. The village were oblivious to us grunting and dripping in the darkness while our driver slipped it into first, but somehow the angels were with us and it turned over first time.

Back at the ranch some hours later I showered before I crashed out into a dreamless sleep, and as I watched the orange water disappear down the drain, I think I asked aloud what I was doing with my life.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Oumou and Rokia in Bamoko

Seems like I missed all the action today. It was all about getting the Yes’s for the last few days’ sessions and so as soon as I woke up I called World Circuit in London to ask if they were OK with our terms for collaborating with Oumou Sangare. It was quite a long call but I spelled out the way we work pretty clearly and as they’d heard of us and knew we were artists, it went some way to a quick response. It needed to be quick too because we leave Mali on Monday and booking in a session with someone as sought after as Oumou at one day’s notice is actually a joke. She said yes.

It’s an unbelievable coincidence that both Oumou Sangare and Rokia Traore are here in Bamoko in the exact week we’re here too. I phoned Rokia’s suite on the top floor when I’d put the phone down from London and she answered it herself. Her French husband and manager Thomas arrived late last night and so she suggested we meet in the lobby in an hour to talk about a possible day to do a song. I was on a roll! Our crew were already down there when I stepped out of the lift, and after I’d given Erich 70 000 cf as a down-payment for the chief of the village who are letting us film their mask dance on Friday night, there was Rokia in a stunning dark red robe approaching me all smiles. She introduced me to Thomas and swept away to talk to some musicians while Thomas and I sat down for a coffee. Once again, it was time to spell out the runnings and hear if he thought there was a chance we could find a time to collaborate. The more we revealed our mutual friends and loves in African music, the warmer the interchange became, and by the time Duncan arrived, and then Rokia shortly after, we were chatting like old colleagues.

Then, as our wonderful luck would have it, when I asked if Rokia had a favourite tree or special place that we could record in instead of Yves’ studio, she was inspired to suggest that she take us to her family’s village an hour and a half away! How amazing would that be? To shoot in places like that, out of the city, is always a joy. To arrive with Rokia in her home town would be awesome, an incredible place to do her session and meet her family, and at her suggestion, interview some people there on the themes of the film. When she headed off with Thomas, promising us an answer after she’d called her Mum, we were totally over-excited. Fingers crossed!

The good news is that I finally managed to clear the letters and contracts backlog this afternoon while we sent Ben and Josh off to see if they could film a local Wedding. Thursday is Wedding day in Bamako and we really thought we might get lucky. There was also a percussion session early evening which went crazy with kids dancing and hilarious fun for all.

The evening was pretty low key. We were supposed to go to the final of the music competition Rokia is here to judge for a French Radio station, but after we’d taken our seats in the French Cultural Centre, we realised we hadn’t eaten all day and everyone was starving so we shuffled surreptitiously (and a bit sheepishly) out of the back door.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Erich Ludwig (good name) arrived today. He’s the Bostonian who’s our official ‘fixer’ here and who hired Sekou etc. He’s a great vibe and obviously well used to handling all kinds of productions. I always say you have to have an American on a team like this and he proved the theory once more, phoning, meeting, dashing about and filling up the schedule with aplomb.

Mussa, our singer, arrived shortl after breakfast and we followed through on the ‘session on the roof’ idea. He looked really cool with Bamoko spread out behind him. The hotel’s roof was covered with enormous satellite dishes, air-conditioning vents and those cool, huge letters like in Batman, all in reverse as they were read from the city. It gave lots of opportunity for groovy compositions while we shot him. The only worry was how close Ben glided towards the edges of the roof as he filmed with his camera on the steady-cam. There were more than one moment when one’s testicles twinged as his ankle pressed into the edge at a weird angle and you imagined him losing his footing and….aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!! splat.

I headed off to the bank again afterwards to try and draw some cash and in typical African style, even though my Compnay credit card has an infinitely bigger limit on it than my own personal ones, just because mine are Gold colourd and my Company one is Blue, they only let me draw £300 on it, but £500 on my gold ones. Ah well, more invoicing.

I got back to the hotel just in time to pay Mussa before he left and once again, tried to catch up on my email before we had to leave for our session with ‘the second best guitarist in Mali after Ali Farka Toure’ according to Yves. His name is Baba Salah. We got there earlier than we expected. Duncan had wanted to leave some time to shoot around a bit and maybe do a bit to camera but I wasn’t in the mood and had nothing much to report so we drove around looking for his house. From about a mile away our driver was asking people by the side of the road for directions. But he wasn’t asking for a road name or district, he just said “where’s Baba Salah’s house?” and blow me down if they didn’t start giving us lefts and rights. Every few hundred metres he’s ask again and everyone pointed the way. How cool. He wasn’t there though when we pulled up so we mucked around with the little kids who’d come to check us out, pretending to chase them and get beaten up by them.

Eventually he arrived, a much younger man than we were expecting and immaculately turned out in a shirt and slacks. He could have been a young accountant, but it turned out he’s also a student and had been at school. He had to eat before we could discuss the collaboration and so we set about lighting his courtyard, complete with a little light right at the back for depth of scene, and then once he’d eaten, negotiated his fee and set up his amp, he plugged in and played his liquid electric guitar. It was one of those typical, gorgeous African scenes with tons of people laying around the courtyard sipping their uber-caffeine tea and chatting quietly. He sang two songs he’d written himself, one in French and another in a Northern Malian language and we all agreed afterwards that both times the melody sounded distinctly oriental, something you’d imagine a Japanese folk singer to sing. I wasn’t that crazy about it to tell the truth but his guitar playing was ace.

Before we could collapse back at the hotel though, we had a meeting with Oumo Sangare at her hotel. It was a really homely place with a stage by the pool where she’d played last night. The instruments were still scattered around it reflected in the murky water. Half an hour went by, then an hour. I didn’t mind as I was talking to Jessica in Oz and Indy in London who was feeling a bit sorry for herself with me, Claire and Jessica all away. She sang me her songs she’d been doing in choir for the school Christmas concert and I said I’d try and get her Mum to pick her up tomorrow instead of Friday. I hung up, and still no sign of Mme Sangare. But then her husband, a big chunky guy showed up and received our schpeel very good naturedly. He sounded really interested and said that as long as I could work out the business with World Circuit in London, they’d put in a session with us in the next few days. Yes! She’s a fantastic singer and well worth the oodles I’m sure the London office will demand.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

a big tic

This morning promised our first proper session with a musician in Mali. A violinist who also sang with his instrument. We decided to do the session at the gardens behind the story-teller’s courtyard and all hopped into the 4x4 at about 9.30am.

It’s great to see Duncan setting up all his new gadgets, his radio headphone receivers and bendy mike-stand arms. Before we knew it we’d set up a simple shot by a tree and the musician was playing and singing to check his recording level. As usual, the fee we’d agreed went up just before the session began, I’m learning not to make what you hope to pay your first offer! But when he began singing we all melted and I would have happily paid double for this guy’s voice. It was exactly the warm inviting sound of Mali that we’d been hoping to get, and the relief to have something which we call ‘a big tic’ in the can was tangible.

It was so good we just had to do another track and we asked if maybe he could play a really fast, joyful one. He looked confused and said to Sekou in Bamoro that the fee was only for one song. Oh…er…ok. So back to the negotiating table again and another fee was agreed. We felt not one ounce of resistance at this by the way, he was such a fantastic player.

As w were loading up the van to leave we could see and hear some wonderful singing over the other side of the yard. It was a really beautiful call and answer song with the men on one side and the women on the other. I corralled Ben and Josh to film them as soon as possible and they seemed not to mind at all. It was obvious there was going to be a chat about it at the end but I just wanted to get it in the can, we’d been hoping to find this kind of thing all week, and it’s often the most spontaneous sessions that kick-off best. When they’d finished singing their spokesperson, a supremely joyful guy who walked around on his knees as his feet from the knee down were obviously useless (maybe he’d had polio as a child) asked us for payment. I asked if they’d consider, for more than the money he suggested, doing the song again but properly miked-up and he loved the idea. Suddenly the boot of the van was opened again and became Duncan’s studio table and we set about positioning the two mikes in the midst of the group and working out who the main singers were. We set it up, shifted the benched slightly to let the camera get a wide shot of everyone without backs of heads, tested the sound briefly and then rolled. But suddenly, as if by magic, their vibe evaporated. They sang, but all facial expressions, body movements, everything were totally absent. It was like totally different group of people. We all looked at each other a bit confused. It was one of those ‘how do you say this politely?’ moments, but that’s just one of those things you have to risk when you’re making a film so in the nicest, humblest, easiest going fashion I could muster, I got Josh to do it. He said it really well in French that they’d clammed up and they fell about laughing as they realised it was true. The next two takes were totally over the top, clapping, swaying and loads of dancing that they had not been doing before.

Just before we were going to wrap it up, as if we hadn’t filled our boots enough, the joyful guy asked if we would film him doing one more song alone on his calabash for free – well…yes. He squatted on his instrument, a thumping yellow gourd the size of a tyre and sang his heart out. We paid him anyway.

After lunch at Le Relax again I had to catch up on emails. I got stuck in in the business centre at about 2pm and didn’t end up leaving until 6pm. 63 unread emails, nice. There were session budgets from Brasil, promises of awesome musicians in Hawaii, over-long lists of suggestions from China, which I didn’t have time to read without my internet time running out, and a house-rental reminder from San Francisco. At first I had to clarify our exact ‘delivery materials’ to the Company and our lawyer, spell out exactly what we’ll be handing over when we’re done cutting and mixing. I wrote them all down in one glorious, pristine email and was just about to press send when the – ‘enter your password’ window popped up from the hotel’s pay as you go system. Maybe as I’d been writing, but not sending and receiving for 15 minutes it needed to check or something, but either way, when I’d done it I returned to my email to find it gone. All wasted because of their stupid system. I told the groomed lady (not more than late-twenties) at the desk and said I needed another 30 minutes and I wouldn’t pay for this one as it had wasted the time spent online by its stupidity. She immediately got very defensive and rude (I don’t think my Peter Catto, pissed off tone helped) and told me it wasn’t her fault so it was my problem. This fired me up more as it would be simple to just give me back my 30 minutes, but she got more and more rude, and I got more and more outraged, and then ended up calling the Hotel Manager and making a right old fuss about how much we were paying in this hotel…blah blah blah. Now I’ve been trying to cut down the amount of times this kind of thing happens to me, or rather times I get like this, but this time I think she was wrong. And she was so, so ‘fuck you’ about it I just couldn’t let her win. I also think, even as a guest in their country, if you’re charging me European prices you have to play the game and when a guest has a problem like this you have to sort them out. Even when your business centre is farmed out to an external company. We’ll see how they deal with it tomorrow, but I must admit that I threatened the duty manager that if I didn’t get my £2.50 back we’d leave. What a plonker! (albeit a righteous one).

The plan this evening was to go and hear Oumo Sangare play at her hotel, but when Josh rang up to see what time it was getting going, it turned out it was invitation only, and guess what, we weren’t invited. The good news was that I got Rokia Traore’s room number from the hotel operator and had a nice chat about collaborating on a new 1GL track. She’s a fantastic singer, one of the main reasons we came here in the first place, so when she invited me to drop a backing-track cd up to her in her room I was well happy. We chatted idly leaning against her lobby wall (she was in a suite with her sisters) about travelling with family and the themes for the film and I left all excited and victorious. It looks like we might do a song with her on Monday.

Monday, November 29, 2004

pagan ceremony

Before we left the UK, after much perseverance I managed to get Damon Albarn to take my call. We really enjoyed his Mali Music album and there were some of the same artists he hung out with here that we wanted to find (even though his Hotel suggestion turned out to be well dodgy!). It was Yves Wernert from France who has his legendary Bogolan Studio here in Bamoko where he records, mixes, or least has a hand in nearly every Malian music album that anyone outside of Africa would ever hear. On the wall in his control room are covers of Rokia Traore’s, Festival in the Desert, Mali Music (which he wasn’t credited properly on allegedly!), and all the greats. It really was a beautiful control room with masks and sculptures lining the walls and a pukkah French coffee machine gurgling in the corner. His whole vibe was just wicked. He was funny, intelligent, welcoming, playful, and totally into what we were doing (even though he mentioned the synch problems on the bit of our DVD we showed him which he can’t have known is Duncan’s particular bug-bear).

Out came a pen and paper and we danced between phone-numbers, our tracks, things on our laptop we’d heard which we needed named and his own play list coming from his desk of awesome singers and instruments we’d never heard of. I had to miss a bit of the meeting as Bob, our lawyer, called from the UK to discuss our still-unsigned contract and I thought how weird it was to be discussing ‘project definitions’ and ‘delivery materials’ long distance to Tottenham Ct Rd as I paced around the Bogolan live room between djembes and Balons.

I really hope we get to see him again before we split – not for any musical reason, he just seemed like a Mensch and I even found myself fantasizing about coming here to do a solo album one day…

Sekou had got us permission to shoot at a Pagan ceremony outside Bamoko today. He said he would be at the hotel at about 11am with the guy and we said maybe we could do it later as shooting outside in the middle of the day could be suicidal heat wise – he said he’d ask. So we went to get some lunch after our Yves meeting and tried to call him and Ben at the hotel to see how the land lay. I don’t know whether there was a breakdown in communication or what, but to cut a long story short we ended leaving the hotel at about 3pm. This proved later to be our downfall – I just don’t think we can have been listening properly when Sekou was laying it down, I’m still a bit puzzled.

We drove off the edge of the Bamoko A to Z as Duncan put it and found ourselves on the red dusty African rollercoaster of dips and holes. Everywhere you looked was a stunning picture, the kids on their small donkey carts, dozing sideways as they trundled along, the women with absurdly high piled mounds of produce balancing on their heads as they walked along seemingly obliviously, and the shacks and hovels of the Bamoko suburbs disappearing into the mist on the horizon. It’s views like these that make me question my whole reality, my whole criteria for happiness and standard for existence. What would I do, me who didn’t like the first Hotel we stayed at, if I had to walk a week, or a day in these people’s shoes? No bottled water, no laptop, TV, mobile phone, no hopes of earning all this money, my present salary would be literally unintelligible to these guys, what would I be, who would I be if you took away my trappings?

As we pulled up, set up the cameras, clipped the clip-mikes and briefed each other o our shooting plan, we could hear the ceremony going on on the brow of the rocky hill. More and more curious kids were gathering to check us out and trailed behind us up the hill as we entered the village centre. I was a bit similar to last time we were at such a ceremony in Ghana in 1999, only much less blood, make-up and people trancing-out. Would I sound stupid if I said the whole thing was on a much smaller and less hardcore scale than the one we shot for our last film. None of us said anything as we didn’t want to look ungrateful or ‘coming from the wrong place’ in each other’s eyes, but we were all thinking it. ‘Don’t worry’ I said to myself ‘it’s all going to kick off in a minute’ but the light was fading and nothing really seemed to be happening.

While we waited about 30 kids, including a tragically sickly looking little albino boy, gathered closer and closer around us and we thought we’d have some fun mucking about and shooting them doing the mime game with us while we waited. They were fantastic and made all the silly noises, actions and whispers for us and we all had a great time. They particularly loved Duncan who was in his element. He had them going long after we’d stopped rolling. If I’m honest, I wasn’t getting into it quite as much as he was. I’d like to pretend it was because I was disappointed about the shoot, but it was nothing so conscientious. I was worried I was going to catch something from one of these snotty kids! There I said it.

Suddenly, at the point at which we were thinking ‘this has been a very expensive expedition and maybe we should push it a bit at the risk of being rude’, Sekou came over and told us the ceremony was over. “over?” I said “but we bought 50 000cf of goats and chickens!”
“Let me explain Jamie” he said, and he told me it was us who had come late and that there are very specific times of day they do things. I tried to persuade him to let us take our goat away with us, but it was no use. Once a goat has entered a ceremony it had to be sacrificed on Thursday.

We conducted a brief interview with the guy who had let us shoot and talked our dosh, but it was monosyllabic and honestly uninteresting. When I asked him what was unique about his culture he said that young people had to honour and respect their elders. Wow, no kidding, just here? Really? How un-African!

We left feeling down about the whole thing and a bit pissed off with Sekou who I felt should have been clearer about the whole ‘specific times’ part of the day. I think sometimes there may a cultural barrier with him, that he want to say ‘yes’ to everything and just make sure we’re pleased in the moment rather than grasping the big picture of what we’re doing. In the van on the way back we talked about making the next day his last in the production as we really had no firm sessions or anything in the schedule so far with 6 days to go, forgetting he was sitting behind us we were quite blunt about it and Duncan the next morning told me we’d behaved rudely with our big white shoes on and had apologised to him at breakfast. I’m sure he’s right but…well anyway.