[Photo by Howard Bilerman]

West Africa has a long tradition of griots, or praise singers, who sing the praises of leaders—chieftains, warriors, businessmen, religious heads and presidents. But what if the country (or the military) doesn’t share the enthusiasm? What if there’s a coup d’etat? In March, I was in Mali, with one of the president’s many praise singers, when all of a sudden, the president was not president anymore.

The inside of the car smelt like fresh leather, and the seats, virgin white, were soft to the touch. I nestled my head against the plump leather headrest and listened to the continuous ‘bing bing bing’ of the alarm which signaled the driver wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. The dashboard glittered, bright shining lights, the indicators flicked left and then right. Everything was working inside this brand new, sleek, glistening Mercedes, with its two doors, its tiny back seat, its automatic alarm system and fancy central locking. At night, the light of the moon ran off the sleek curves of the car like molten silver. Being inside it was like traveling through another world.

But driving through the backstreets of Bamako in the days following the military coup, it was obvious we weren’t in another world, that we were firmly stuck in Mali. The borders were closed, the airports in lock-down, the air thick with tension and the red raw heat of the dry season. The sound of sporadic gunfire peppered the air, army shots warning soldiers loyal to the deposed President against carrying out a retaliation, creating a blanket of fear that kept people at home, behind locked doors, wondering quietly amongst themselves how and when this would all end.
We were afraid of the curfew the military had imposed, and the passed-on stories of looting and car-jackings rang in our ears. So we took the backstreets home from the studio, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves. After all, we were now in the company of Bassekou Kouyate, a man who found himself on the wrong side of power, a griot, or praise-singer, who made music for the President, recounted the stories of his past glories and of his present achievements, in return for favours, fame, advice, gold, money, maybe even cars.

I had come to Mali, ironically, for a break from the political tension in neighbouring Senegal, and at the same time to witness the recording of Bassekou’s new album, a roaring blend of traditional southern Malian sounds with a modern rock twist. One afternoon, while the griot, myself, producers and the musicians clutching ngonis—stringed Malian lutes—all sat outside the studio and waited for a power outage to end, the shooting began. We heard about it from our friend, who was trapped in a bank watching it all unfold from a window. By late evening, the country was under the control of the army and Amadou Toumani Toure, the griot’s beloved President, was nowhere to be found.

Bassekou is one of Mali’s most celebrated musicians, a man who tours internationally and sells thousands of records of his rocking ngoni sound. In his house are posters from his gigs at Carnegie Hall, and a framed photo of him standing with Jacques Chirac grinning madly, holding Bassekou’s ngoni in hand. Though he plays an instrument that is little more than a small wooden lute with a couple of strings, he has revived a type of music that even in Mali was becoming forgotten and in doing so has become something of a national hero, and great friend of the powers that be. He is a regular entertainer to the presidents and wives of presidents in west Africa. He has also been nominated for a Grammy.

My most powerful image of the Bassekou is of him sitting low in a metal-framed chair, his long legs stretched way out in front of him, wearing a mauve and purple striped boubou (a traditional pant/shirt combination in West Africa). His hair cropped short, head flung back, laughing loudly, a mobile phone always in his hand. He is gap-toothed, handsome, and full of life.

Griots like Bassekou are there to remind Malians of their history and to keep it alive, like a musical photograph, connecting people to their ancestors, to the land of great warriors and grandiose empires from which modern-day Mali is spawned. The griots are the story-tellers, the historians, the genealogists, and the praise-singers that today’s Malians both loved and dreaded, because staying on the right side of a griot could be an expensive exercise.
I had studied and read about griots, about the importance of their words in the lives of the rich and powerful. But I had also lived with a family of griots, been the subject of griot songs, and spent evenings with friends who, begrudgingly, pulled hard-earned notes from their handbags and pushed them into the expectant hands of a singing griot in an effort to appease them, to make them sing elsewhere, enough times to know that what I saw in the textbooks was a slightly different shade of reality. People seemed to find griots a sort of necessary evil, something both admired and feared, a caste of society that wore its own rules.

The griots sung about ATT (as President Amadou Toumani Toure was known by his people) because he was the richest and most powerful man in the land. Griots were lining up to be his chosen one, and Bassekou was a figure of extreme envy for having got the top slot, which had happened after he impressed the president with YouTube clips of him playing at the Royal Albert Hall, and with his album called ‘I Speak Fula’, relating to an old Malian folktale, which ATT liked because he really did speak Fula, the language of his ethnic group. Bassekou adored the president, and the job—as unofficial, unspoken, fluid as it was—came with unimaginable benefits. In Mali, it was this, not signing with a European record label or winning awards, that meant you had made it.

The night of the coup, we had gone to Bassekou’s home, where we had set up recording base-camp, in the Mercedes with extreme caution. The roads were deserted. Even the women who sold plantains, dried fish and yams by lamplight by the side of the road were nowhere to be seen. We wound our way along the narrow roads, deep into the suburbs and to the tatty, hilly neighbourhood where Bassekou and his family lived. Leaving the tarmac, the Mercedes climbed up a rocky side-road, driving dangerously close to the wall of a house as it edged along the roughly cut road. When we finally came to a stop outside Bassekou’s large concrete house and the door opened, the clean cool air of the car flooded with the night heat of Bamako. The neighbourhood was almost entirely dark.

Inside Bassekou’s living room, we took off our shoes and sat on the plush carpet or lay on the large leather-effect armchairs. The state television station was playing Bambara music videos, heavily made-up women dressed in fine cloth singing stories of love and homesickness, or tunes played by the traditional hunter musicians who strummed rasping melodies on the donso ngoni, instruments made from hollowed-out gourds and fishing wire. Printed across the screen in large letters were the words ‘In a moment, a declaration from the military’. We waited and we ate chicken stew and fried plantain, but no announcement came. Eventually, we all went to bed.

The next morning, we gathered once again in front of the television. The music videos were still playing, incessant cheerful songs that droned on as we waited for news, and then the film of the soldiers in green khaki, bug-eyed, gathered around a table. One of them read out a statement, that ATT was gone, and the soldiers were in charge. Bassekou watched with us, sitting on the carpet, a plate of last night’s chicken stew in front of him, which he ate with his hands, the oil from the plantain greasing his fingers. He shook his head, hard to believe what was happening. No one will support this, he said in his low, gravelly voice, and carried on eating his breakfast. The rest of us went back to discussing what to do next.

Later on that day, we ventured out to the studio. I was keen to see what was happening on the streets, and there was an album to record. Petrol stations were shut so nine of us piled into Bassekou’s white battered 4×4, one son on a plastic chair in the trunk and the other at the wheel. Bassekou and his wife Ami sat squashed together in the passenger seat. We passed the truck that Bassekou had bought from his last tour and now rented out. Its driver was now asleep in the shade of its undercarriage. We passed the mud-walled enclosure which housed the neighbourhood water pump, and saw the young girls bobbing their heads above the wall as they threw their weight onto the pump handle, a trickle of water spilling down the rocky hill on which the pump stood. Apart from the jumping girls at the pump, there was very little other movement. No one was going to work, everyone was waiting to see what would happen next.

We passed the mosque, enormous and glistening white, that had been built by a marabout—a west African term for a religious leader—named Hydara, who preached Shariah law, the low shacks of shops selling hijab head coverings opposite and the green-clad security soldiers sitting in their red berets on a bench outside. The marabout and Bassekou came from the same region of Mali, and as the political mess of Mali unfolded in the days following the coup, there was talk of Hydara’s involvement in a militant Islamic cell, Ançar Dine, that was in the process of taking control of the north of the county and destroying the ancient tombs and shrines of Timbuktu, though his involvement was later disputed by his lawyers. This just added to my confusion of who was friends with whom, and why. But the marabout had brought the tarmac road and a hospital to this poor neighbourhood neglected by the state and no matter whom I spoke to, I got the same response: Hydara was generous. The motives for his generosity seemed unimportant.

When we rolled into the studio, past a gas station where a swarm of motorcycles crowded frantically around pump attendants who doled out gas from plastic jerry cans, I was surprised to find the rest of the musicians waiting in the wicker shelter in front of the studio, their instruments in hand. Despite the curfew, they’d trekked across the city to record, and they all greeted each other with handshakes and smiles. It felt like any other day. At some point a huge vat of chicken stew arrived, along with a ladle and a stack of plastic bowls. We all sat, sweating, while Ami doled out vast helpings of rich, oiled peanut sauce and chunks of firm, muscled chicken. Resplendent in a pink and black embroidered boubou, Bassekou played the role of mother, giving us extra chilli here and another piece of meat there. Still, gunshots rang out sporadically in the street outside.

As night fell, Bassekou and his sons took to the central recording room and held their ngonis in their laps like weapons at the ready. We wondered whether the soldiers were imposing the curfew with force, and whether what we were doing was safe. The musicians had done take after take of ‘Ne me fatigue pas’ and the sound was becoming more and more taut, the rhythm like a stampede of horses after the corral gate has been thrown open, the sound becoming harsher, harder and more frantic the more the musicians played it.

Ami stood in a booth to one side, earphones on, her eyes closed as she sang and moved her hands seductively, gently through the air. Bassekou, his foot resting on a speaker, rammed his fingers into the ngoni strings, tiny movements full of energy and tension that brought electric solos flooding into the room. He kept his eyes closed, squeezed his lips together tight, and screwed up his face as he produced line after line of furious and melodic tune. The others, Bassekou and Ami’s two sons, layered the sound with a deep reverberating bass that pinned the whole song together. We did not know how this episode was going to end, or what would become of the griot’s beloved President, but the music, at this moment, sounded good.