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.