A key figure in Ali Farka Touré’s band, Afel Bocoum is releasing a long-awaited and rare solo album that finds him stepping into the limelight. He talks to Bram Posthumus about living in exile in Bamako, the situation in Mali and his desire to reconnect with the world
Afel Bocoum (photo: Christien Jaspars)
Rarely will the making of a new record have been surrounded by so many challenges and it is nothing short of a miracle that Afel Bocoum’s fourth album, Lindé – his first since 2009 – has such a light touch and positive vibe to it. I visit him in the sprawling Bamako suburb of Baco Djicoroni, one of the many that together form this vast Malian capital of close to three million. Sitting on a carpet, backs propped up against two sofas, we talk for nearly an hour.
Bamako is not home to Afel. Like his role model and former bandleader, the late Ali Farka Touré, Afel is from Niafunké in the north, just over 160km from the mythical city of Timbuktu, the base of the Festival in the Desert, where both he and Ali were regular guests. The last Festival was held in 2012, the year chaos came to settle in Mali. “We were scattered,” Afel says. “Physically and morally scattered. Everything got mixed up.”
Just days after that last desert festival, which had already moved closer to the city for security reasons, a Touareg rebellion entered Mali. The rebels had been officers in the army of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted in a regime change operation organised by France, the UK and the US. Gaddafi had been buying huge quantities of top-of-the-range weaponry before his fall, which the rebels took with them on their epic track through 1,600km of desert and into northern Mali.
In no time they occupied the northern centres of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, only to be overtaken by another and equally well-equipped force: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose roots lie in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. They took Timbuktu and Gao and also came to Niafunké. Things have become murkier ever since.
“It is impossible to say who is who,” says Afel. “If you leave Bamako to go to your village, it’s like a lottery. You have no idea who or what you will encounter along the way. From here to Ségou [the first major centre after Bamako going north-east] is fine and Mopti [in central Mali] is OK too. But when you go into the rural areas, you will have no way of knowing what will happen to you.” Reports about buses, bush taxis and other vehicles being attacked by highwaymen are numerous.
Afel Bocoum (photo: Seydou Camara)
When I ask him about Niafunké today, Afel stares into an unknown distance and says: “It’s alright. It’s been a while since we heard about…” but then he trails off. And quickly returns to the here and now. “That virus has put the whole world on its knees, right? It’s put a stop to everything. But as you know, by the time corona arrived we had already more than enough going on here in Mali. Rebellion. Jihadists. Problems between communities… and we still don’t know or understand how we got to this stage.” After the arrival of the Touareg rebels and the al-Qaeda forces, Mali has seen a proliferation of local militias, self-defence outfits, new jihadist groups and most of all: banditry. Bamako may not be home but at least it is relatively safe.
But the restart in the capital was difficult, as Afel recalls: “When we left the north we had no musical instruments, because of the jihadists, who had vandalised them. We came here and at first we could not get together and go back to writing and performing our music.” As Afel explains, there is a particular reason for that: “Bamako is for the griots. I cannot do their music; I don’t do praise singing, it is a different category altogether. And you are born into it. I would be a complete novice if I started with that kind of music. It’s just not my style.”
“So we had to wait until there were places where we could play our music before a listening audience. Hotels, bars, clubs…” Over time the musicians from the north were finding places where they could play in the way they felt was good. That was until March this year, when Mali’s government shut the borders and imposed a night curfew, effectively shutting down all nightlife in response to the arrival of coronavirus. “This put a stop to all our activities for months,” says Afel. “We lost a lot of precious time.”
And money. Even without the presence of foreigners (most Western governments now strongly advise against travelling to Mali), nightlife is a lucrative business, especially in Bamako. A club or a live venue not only brings some money to the musicians performing there but it attracts an entire secondary industry. Women cooking food by the roadside. Vendors setting up their small mobile stalls. And taxis coming and going, when clients pay good money – if they are smart – to be brought home safely rather than getting involved in one of Bamako’s all-too-frequent traffic accidents. All this came to a screeching halt; a most unnatural silence reigned in Mali’s normally noisy capital.
Afel Bocoum (photo: Christien Jaspars)
But still, something good came out of it, says Afel. “As I said, it took a long time for us to re-group and start writing songs again. And then one day Paul [Chandler, music producer] asked me, ‘Afel, do you have material for an album?’ I said yes. And then he asked me if I needed some help. Well, of course! You need money to make an album. We recorded here in Bamako, in Paul’s studio. We brought the musicians in and then we rehearsed the new material. First at my place and then in the studio. Here in Bamako there are no rehearsal facilities. People play their music at home.” Afel is visibly proud of his band of young musicians. “I trained them. And I am very happy to see them play alongside with me. This is a group that will carry on when old age eventually calls me…”
Afel goes on to say what a joy it was to work with his old musical friend Damon Albarn who he first met back in 2002 when Albarn recorded Mali Music, and with Nick Gold, the two executive producers of Lindé. “I gave them my ideas – the melodies are all mine – and they contributed theirs. And that’s how we arrived at the finished product.” The result is a richly varied, fresh and crisp album that is indeed a joy to listen to.
Central to Afel’s music is the message. “I create themes from what I observe here and around the world on my travels. It’s my perception of the world that I work into my songs. Here in Mali, music is our newspaper. People here love listening to music. So as an artist you must put good and useful messages in your songs. If there is no message, the music is useless.”
For instance, the new single, ‘Avion’, is a plea for unity and understanding among different peoples, regardless of religious background, race or anything else. “No matter who you are,” says Afel, “you must create something that will improve the living conditions of human beings. That is important for any society. Creation is important. Skin colour is not.” The video, gorgeously shot around the Djoliba (which is what the Malians call the Niger River), features the shadow of an aeroplane, one of those inventions that have improved the lives of many by bringing them together, argues Afel, before breaking out in a distinctly Christian song. “You see, in ‘Avion’ we fly under the protection of the Lord. Christianity has been a part of my life and of course I know the Muslim religion. This is how I can tell you that you should never completely immerse yourself in one religion.” If you’d want to summarise the message of ‘Avion’ it would surely be: get over yourselves and work together.
Shooting the clip on the river, Mali’s lifeline, is no accident. Afel’s second album was Niger (released in 2006) and it’s an early testimony to his devotion to the river and his deep worry about the state it’s in. “We must preserve the river. It’s all that God has given us and it is silting up all the time. Even navigating between Gao and Mopti has become difficult. We buy boats and the water is gone. How is that possible? We must treat this river as a member of our family. De-silt it, get rid of the water hyacinths that are destroying it and tackle the pollution.”
In musical terms, ‘Avion’ is upbeat, with a rhythm that gets close to good old Congolese soukous. Diversity is there throughout the album and it is Afel’s way to appeal to all music lovers. “You know, the new generation likes rap and reggae. For people like me, it’s always been the blues. But you cannot do too much of the same thing on one album. These arrangements I talked about have made a big difference. But the roots are always there.” And of course the message, always the message.
“This new album is also my way to reconnect with the world. I want to see my audience again. You see, we are confined here in three different ways: that virus, poverty and insecurity. We want out. If you stay in one place all the time you go mad.”
Inevitably, the situation in Mali comes up frequently, made even more poignant by the fact that Alpha Ousmane ‘Hama’ Sankare, the legendary calabash player and sound definer on many of Ali Farka Touré’s and Afel’s recordings was killed in late March in a suspected jihadist attack (his obituary appeared in #158). “We’re a vast country with few people,” reflects Afel on the situation. “Instead of working together to create something good, we have people here who are trying to divide us and the country. We cannot accept that. It only leads to disorder. Our salvation will come from unity.”
And there can be no unity without peace. “I love Mali very much,” he says gently. “It has given me everything and for that I am grateful. I want peace to return, quickly.” So that he can go back to his beloved Niafunké and leave alien, noisy Bamako behind? “I dream about this all the time. This city here is not my space. I’m here because of the problems. So if peace returns, I’ll be going back. Immediately! I have nothing here. Over there I have my own place where I rehearse for my concerts in Europe. So, going back is what I hope for, with all my heart.”