While Northern Malian guitar legend Baba Salah (“The Jimi Hendrix of Africa“) has been recognized as a continental star for more than a decade, he’s only recently gaining worldwide exposure with his first major international release, Dangay. The album has been praised by NPR, the Washington Post, TIME, and many others — both for the incredible musicianship being showcased and for its political significance.
Imagine if your hometown was once a bustling cosmopolitan hub, a place where diverse cultures met and melded. Now imagine that same city in the hands of Al Queda-affiliated extremists who’ve banned most forms of entertainment (including music and sports), who’ve outlawed direct communication with the opposite sex, and the punishment for breaking such laws is severe.
That’s exactly what has been happening in Baba Salah’s hometown, the city of Gao in Northern Mali at the edge of the Sahara. And in this difficult context, his music is not only a passion and a skill, but an act of defiance against a militant form of religious extremism and intolerance.
Baba Salah was up for an interview recently, but unfortunately my French is limited to phrases like à la carte and bon appétit. So instead, I interviewed Paul Chandler, Baba’s producer, de facto publicist, label head, and friend. Paul is a musical jack-of-all-trades and he (along with some help from our friends at StoryAmp) has been integral to spreading the word about Baba Salah’s music.
An interview with Paul Chandler about the release of Baba Salah’s Dangay
Can you tell us about how you first came to work with Baba Salah, and in what capacity?
I first met Baba in 2003. I was studying guitar and a mutual acquaintance who writes for the blog Afropop International recommended that I work with Baba because he had mastered so many of the guitar styles of West Africa. Baba was born in Gao, in the North, and grew up playing Songhai guitar (an ethnic style made famous by Grammy winning artist Ali Farka Toure). Later, Baba moved to Bamako, Mali’s capital and melting pot, and learned all the different local styles and more: Malinké, Wassalou, Bambara, Congolese, even Rock and Blues. So that’s how I first learned about him.
In 2005, I started producing concerts in Bamako for visiting artists from the United States. One of the first concerts was with a very talented Zydeco artist from Louisiana called Terence Simien, I added Baba to the bill and it was a huge success. Seeing Baba play with Terence really opened the local people up to this American style of music. After that we worked together quite regularly.
What drew you to Baba Salah’s music and what have you helped him achieve?
Shortly after moving to Bamako, I saw Baba play a concert with World Circuit recording artist Oumou Sangaré. He was her lead guitarist at the time and they were getting ready to begin a world tour. It was their last performance in Bamako before traveling. Oumou has such a powerful voice, and a huge stage presence too, it’s hard to take your eyes off her when she’s performing. Baba on the other hand was hanging in the background, low key, just doing his job, but when it was time for the guitar solo, the stage was all his. It was his band and his concert. For the thirty seconds, minute, or however long his solos lasted, the audience was his. He really has something to say with his guitar, and people listened.
After a few world tours, Baba started his solo career. I liked his first albums Gao and Borey, but I felt like it didn’t showcase his guitar playing. The albums were produced for a West African market and I felt that with a few changes to the arrangements and compositions, the music could be accessible to a much wider audience. When I was asked to record his latest album, Dangay, I didn’t hesitate. I knew we could do something good.
Baba lives in Mali where there’s been a recent history of unrest. Can you talk little about those recent political and societal upheavals?
Baba’s hometown of Gao, along the banks of the River Niger on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, was the first city in the north of Mali to be liberated by French-backed Malian forces in January. Gao was one of three regional centers in the north captured by rebels and jihadis a year ago, after a political coup completely destabilized a poorly equipped government military. The Jihadi’s, which included the North African branch of Al Qaeda, banned music, dance, television and even soccer. People accused of stealing had their arms and legs amputated in public. Individuals were beaten for simply speaking with someone of the opposite sex, musicians were warned that their tongues would be sliced out if they continued to sing and play music, and instruments and PA systems were burned.
How has Baba Salah been affected by the situation — both personally and artistically?
Most of Baba’s family is still living in Gao and that has been a lot for him to think about. Since the French intervened, there have been two suicide bomb attacks and continued infiltration by militant Jihadis, so while the city is no longer occupied, it’s still a stressful situation. Many people from the northern regions have been displaced and have moved south to places like Bamako. These people come with nothing. Their need is great. This is a big responsibility, especially for Baba who has a large extended family and difficulties of his own.
Since the coup last March, tourism has come to a screeching halt and all the music festivals have been canceled. Even the smaller regional ones have been postponed. Baba has had to cancel his national tours, and even smaller gigs like marriages have been restricted because of a national state of emergency. It’s very difficult for artists in Mali these days, but he is still optimistic. He has his health, his music, and his fans. Baba plays gigs every Friday and Saturday in Bamako. This is where his fellow northerners gather to reminisce, relax, dance, and enjoy the music. “People laugh, they dance,” Salah says. “For the three or four hours that we’re playing, you forget everything and everyone becomes your brother. You see images other than war.”
Baba is one of the few northern artists in Mali to enjoy a solid national following. He sings in his native Songhai, but also in Bambara and French, which are the national languages of Mali.
Can you tell us a bit about how Baba is using music to fight back in a positive way?
Baba says, “Even leaders and people who are at the center of conflicts can be touched by the message brought by music. I’m aware of what music can contribute to humanity. My greatest goal is to bring to the attention of Africans that we have a lot to do. I want to bring a consciousness to my brothers and sisters in Africa about the things that concern us. But not just Africa, what’s happening in Syria for example, and what happened in Iraq, it’s hard to fathom. I just can’t believe that every day we have all these tragic deaths just because of power and greed.”
Music is entertainment in Mali, but it’s also an important way for the population to get valuable information. In a culture that has a high literacy rate, like the United States, people have many ways to get information. But in Mali, which has a rich oral tradition but low literacy rates, the society depends on artists to inform and educate. Life can be hard here, so music allows people to dance, unwind, and leave their problems behind. But artists in Mali have a big social responsibility to inform, educate, and encourage. In Baba’s new album Dangay, he is asking people to pay attention to what’s been happening in the north of Mali regarding human-rights abuses and punishments. Baba is using the stage to encourage national reconciliation in Mali. He wants to bring all the different regional and ethnic communities together for a lasting solution.
You’ve gotten a lot of great coverage for the album from outlets like TIME and NPR. What is the strategy for getting the word out about this music and the situation in Mali? Do you have publicists, labels, bookers, etc.? What parts of the music career puzzle have you handled yourself?
After the coup and the occupation of the North, the situation in Mali, which had been deteriorating for months, even years, began to get some international press. But it wasn’t until the French intervention that Mali really hit the front pages. At one point there were close to two thousand international journalists in Mali. The hotels, which had been empty since the military coup, were full again. It was during this time that the album was released. We wanted to have it available for the festival season in Mali. Because of the war, none of the festivals happened, but the silver lining was that there were a lot of journalists in Mali looking for stories. Baba has a great live show and his Friday and Saturday gigs became a hit with journalists looking to unwind and experience Bamako’s infamous music scene. Being able to hold his band together and maintain a strong local following is key. That’s hard for a lot of artists to do here because of the poor economy, but it’s so important, and now everyone knows where to see good live music on Friday and Saturday night in Bamako.
I have a recording studio and record label (Studio Mali) in Bamako and have been recording and producing artists here since 2004, so my name is out there. I also go out of my way to help journalists get the story, even if it’s not directly about music or for my artists. I’ve been living here for a long time so I have a lot of connections here. Mali is known for its hospitality. A recent study ranked Malians as some of the most hospitable people in the world to foreign visitors. This is cultural, and I’ve learned a lot from the people here. It’s all about building relationships. Everyone is valuable. A lot of journalists found me through the Studio Mali blog, Baba’s Facebook page, and even our artist pages on CD Baby. We also have very good publicists. They know world music. It’s a small, specialized niche, so it’s important to work with someone who knows the terrain. I work with Flipswitch and Rock Paper Scissors.
Since Baba’s music is driven by both personal passion and political conscience, how do you measure the success of a project like this? What effect has the music had at home?
The first thing is the music. I’m an artist too, so if I’m satisfied with the way the recordings turn out, it’s already a success. I’m really proud of this album. It represents Baba well. The music is for everyone. Most of the album is sung in the languages of Songhai and Bambara. Baba sings in French and some English too, but the text is written for Malians, his local fans. The themes though are international.
In Dangay, the title track to the album, Baba comforts the people of the North who at the time of the album’s release were isolated and living under a very severe form of Sharia law. He tells them not to lose hope. “Even at the cost of our lives, we need to join hands to fight the invaders and liberate our occupied territories,” Salah sings in his native Songhai. “People of the north of Mali, do not think that we’ve forgotten you. We will soon release you from your captors.”
In Amidininé, he sings about reconciliation between ethnic groups. That’s really important because lasting peace in Mali depends on dialogue, forgiveness, and compromise. In Aye Derey he speaks to the unemployed in Mali, encouraging them to have heart and never give up. In Ize Foutou, Baba gives advice to the young people, telling them that their dignity is more valuable than money earned in a destructive ways such as prostitution, selling drugs, or collaborating with militants.
The song Zankay expresses Baba’s hope that children are protected from the conflicts, the wars, and all the problems that adults have created. Baba is worried about the children of Mali and asks the population to put them first and think about their future. A happy childhood is important.
In the song Karaw (Heartfelt Cry) Baba sings about climate change. This song is a call for people to pay attention to this problem and live in a sustainable way, in a natural way. People in Mali have been battling climate change for a long time. Living at the edge of the Sahara desert, the fringe, Malian’s feel the negative affects of climate change. The sun has become hotter and the rain has become less predictable. The rain is sporadic. Sometimes there is drought, and at other times it rains so hard it destroys people’s houses. Baba calls on all people to make an effort to live more naturally.
Baba is an intellectual. He’s even working towards a communications degree at a university here. He has put a lot of thought into his lyrics, and people here will listen to him. In that sense, the release of this album is a huge success. The messages are important, positive, and the album is getting lots of local airplay. Most people here are poor and very few can afford to buy music. The music is mostly shared for free on cell phones and memory cards. There is even a street in Bamako where venders have set up computers and you can download pirated music for almost nothing, even new releases. Even in Mali, the CD is quickly becoming a thing of the past. With tours suspended, we can’t gage our success in terms of music sales. Our success is the positive impact the album’s message has on the spirit of the Malian population, and the number of people internationally who becomes aware of Mali’s wonderful culture. We want people to know about the problems we are currently facing here too.
If someone were interested in helping folks in Mali — to raise awareness, or donate to the cause — what steps can they take?
First of all they can start by buying the album. The music gives people some context. They can begin to understand the people and the place in the news by experiencing their forms of artistic expression. There are currently a lot internally and externally displaced people from Mali. These people need support. Organizations like Relief International are providing food, lodging, health care, and security for refugees during these difficult times. I also have a 501c3 charity, instruments4africa (i4africa.org) that is providing support to displaced Malian musicians. Instruments4Africa is committed to cultural preservation, helping artists keep their practice alive so they can continue to empower their communities. Continuity is really important. We are currently assisting families of displaced musicians and artists from the North of Mali by giving them money for food, medicine, and school fees, until they can get back on their feet and provide for themselves. We are also partnering with other agencies and businesses to sponsor artists to play at events and get regular gigs in Mali and abroad. Funds raised will enable 14A to significantly expand the number of families we serve. I4A is a volunteer-managed organization. We have been operating in Mali since 2003.
We have also started an Adopt An Artist program where artists from the US or other developed countries can adopt an artist or a band from West Africa, and help them record a single, EP, album, or video. Through sponsorship, artists can begin to develop a meaningful relationship with artists from one of the most culturally rich places in the world, and in exchange for helping the artists record, they will have permission to use the music stems and can create their own remixes and fusion pieces. The relationship doesn’t have to end there though. If bands, producers, or managers want to use the DIY skills they’ve acquired to help their adopted artists promote their music, they can do that too. Who knows what positive things can emerge from the partnership.
When you listen to Malian music, particularly the pentatonic Bambara and northern styles, you’ll see that Mali is the birthplace of the Blues. I think American musicians have a lot to learn from Malian music and artists, and vice versa. I know I have. I’m really excited about this new initiative and bringing people together. If anyone is interested they can contact me and I’ll send them different artists bios. They can listen to various recordings I have up on CD Baby and Soundcloud. Then they can choose the artist that most inspires them.
There is so much good music in Africa, and lots of artists that would like to be able to live making their art. Not many people living outside of Africa know a lot about what is going on here. Africa is an enormous, diverse and fascinating continent, and it is emerging economically as well, but it is still rather isolated. Through music, people can begin to connect with and understand what is really happening here. What you see and read about in the news is a very small part of the story. There are some bad things going on in Mali right now, but it is still an amazing country full of the happiest, friendliest, most resilient people in the world. And a large part of the country is still very safe. That’s the real story. Just listen to the music.
Because of CD Baby, I can record, promote, and distribute local artists globally without leaving Mali. I can even collect the royalty payments from here and pay the artists each month. In a country where most people live off of a few dollars a day, that’s a very big deal. When National Pubic Radio (NPR) contacted me about the album review they wanted to do on Baba, I didn’t have a physical distribution deal inked for the US. It was really important that I have CDs available when the piece aired. I didn’t have much time. I downloaded the jacket templates from the CD Baby site, had the artwork done here, and within a week CDs were replicated and available through CD Baby. The sales have been steady. So the tools are all there, it’s really up to us now, and how well we use them. While Africa on a whole is growing economically, and it is resource rich, the people are still very poor, so national tours here are not yet sustainable. Even popular artists struggle to make a living in Mali. Record labels that count on revenue from live shows are hesitant to take a chance on distribution deals with African acts because of the cost of flying them out of the country. But there are still many opportunities available to Malian artists, if the right people know about them. International festivals, small boutique labels, cultural organizations and Universities to name a few. With CD Baby promo tools and distribution, African artists here have a chance to be heard outside of their local communities, and that’s the first and most crucial step, to be given a chance.
FlipSwitch PR and Rock Paper Scissors, the PR firms Paul mentions above, are powered by StoryAmp, an excellent and affordable publicity solution for musicians. To start using StoryAmp to power your own PR efforts, click HERE and get 20% off!
Also, check out this free guide written by StoryAmp’s Dmitri Vietze:
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