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Mali’s Music Is Its News: Q&A With Filmmaker John Bosch

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It was that Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré record, Talking Timbuktu, that came out in the ’90s that planted the seed for John Bosch. Over the last four years, it seems like he’s always just getting back from Mali, or planning his next trip to the West African country, chasing that same music that enthralled him 20 years ago.

After his latest trip, the New York-based filmmaker brought back footage that captured Malian musicians fighting to make music in spite of political instability, and the religious extremism that threatens the country, as well as all of the other obstacles that aspiring musicians always face—from things like acceptance by their parents and audiences, to just finding a functioning vehicle to tour with.

Bosch worked on the documentary Sahel Calling, and is just now finishing another film called Malian Pieces. Afropop’s Ben Richmond called him up to talk about what his new film is like, why he’s making it, and how music documentaries are uniquely suited to address political questions in Mali.

Ben Richmond: Why Mali?

John Bosch: My friend Chris Eckman, whom I met in Seattle a couple of decades ago, was in a band called the Walkabouts. He parlayed that into a producing career in Europe and he actually moved to Slovenia and married a Slovenian woman and was producing a lot of bands and also traveling to Mali. And in 2010, we both happened to be back in Seattle at the same time and he gave us a kind of slideshow presentation of his experiences when he went into the way north of Mali. And I was just really kind of transfixed by his presentation and talked to him afterwards and said, hey if you ever return and need any help and if you need anyone to film anything, just give me a call.

Six or eight months later I got an email saying “Hey, if you want to go to Mali, I’m recording this guy Ben Zabo’s debut album. We’re going to Bamako in October, so get your visa, get your shots for yellow fever.”

This was in October 2011, and I spent eight days in Studio Bogalon, which is a really well-known studio that’s been the site of a lot of great recordings like Ali Farke Touré and a lot of other really well-known artists. Everyone knows Studio Bogalon. So we shot some music videos and interview-style “the making of,” and I just really…the people were great, the music is great.

And then in 2012 I went back with Chris Eckman and Hugo Race, who have a band called DirtMusic and they did a whole other record. I was there to document and provide finished promotional materials afterwards.

I went back a third time for a short documentary that I was commissioned to do that was basically at the time of the crisis when the civil war happened and the coup d’etat, and musicians were being threatened with getting their hands cut off and things like this. For such a musical place, it seemed absurd, so we thought we’d make a documentary pushing the awareness of Mali into the conversation.

Was that the first time that politics had made its way into your work while you were there?

Yeah, I guess in a way. But I wasn’t making a political film at that point. I went back in 2013 for the Sahel Calling Project. The producer, named Kathryn Wertnz, she really wanted to make this documentary. She found some funds to go back over and we were there for a month and that’s when I interviewed maybe 40 musicians and a politician or two, drum makers, just really spent a lot of time there. We also went to refugee camps, because the refugees were starting to really leave the north of the country, the Timbuktu region. And so we went to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso.

We released that film online in June 2013, by then I realized that I had maybe another film, or a different sort of film in there that was more music-driven and less agenda-driven

I went back the following January and mostly hung out with Ben Zabo. They had some peace concerts then, so we filmed a lot of concerts, and I went back again for the Bassekou Kouyate record. Chris Eckman, by now, has a label called Glitterbeat, and they focus on not just African and West African music, but interesting music from all over the world. And that was the fifth trip.

When you come at these sometimes political questions from a musical angle, what does that reveal?

The fact is, it’s an extremely musical country and musicians are listened to. In especially the griot tradition, it’s one of storytelling and an oral tradition, singing along not just stories of the past but also current events. A griot singer may sing about what’s happening currently and it’s almost like a news channel—but it’s musical. So it seemed logical to ask musicians and get them to say something and also ask them or hear how it’s informing their music: Are they writing political songs or raps? Things like this.

If I just went over there and asked a lot of politicians or military people, you might get a certain take on things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get, but it wouldn’t have the same soul. But if you approach it through the culture—and Mali has such a strong rich culture that goes way, way back—to me that’s a little more interesting.

You also get a sense that, during the coup, there was a hostility directed at musicians specifically, even though a lot of them, themselves, are practicing Muslims. I imagine that gives them an interesting perspective as well.

The jihadists aren’t Malians for the most part. There was a rebellion in the north that has been going on for decades where a subset of Tuareg tribes want to split away from Mali and form their own country, but when the really bad stuff started going down in 2011, 2012—the kidnappings and when the jihadists took over these towns and kicked out musicians and instigated sharia law—those people aren’t Malians. They come from Algeria and Libya. When Qadaffi was killed, it really destabilized North Africa. And it let a lot of arms into that region, which as always been not just a region of trade routes, but also one of drug trafficking and things like that. So these people are making money on drugs and kidnapping and holding them for ransom, running arms, things like this.

Mali has been known as a beacon of democracy in Africa, and it was really considered a functioning democracy. Some corruption and bribes that you find elsewhere is also found in Mali but Malians, in general, are peace-loving citizens. They’re mostly Muslim—80 to 90 percent Muslim—but they’re for the most part moderate Muslims. They use music to celebrate everything—weddings, funerals, divorces, christenings, music is always there. It’s a strain of Islam that a lot Westerners would recognize and probably be familiar with.

Other people made movies about the musicians being told they can’t play music, but for me, I always felt like it was going to be a temporary thing, because you can’t just tell a people that make music as part of their lives that they can’t make music anymore.

What is that overall story?

One through-line is the story of my friend Ben Zabo, who is now working on his second album. His ups and downs and successes—being an independent artist in Mali is really competitive there too.

He’s a really charismatic guy, really intelligent and his story is interesting because he started out doing what his parents wanted him to do: go to med school and become a doctor. And he tossed that aside after a few years and said “No I’m a musician, I want to play music.” He’s not a griot or in a tradition of the people who are authorized to make music, but that’s changing in this society. He’s still battling for more acceptance that he’s playing music. He’s one of the main guys in the movie, but I follow a couple other people as well.

But then we also have this setting and backdrop of the dynamic culture in Mali, in what’s happening politically and culturally. Lately I’ve been calling the movie a sort of mixtape love letter to Mali.

Maybe it’s personal as well. I’m a musician and I grew up playing music that was heavy on improv, and that’s sort of how I approach my films. The editing process can be a little improvisational—putting it together, putting music under it and seeing what works and what it feels like. It makes it a little more personal. So we’ll see in the editing process if it goes in that direction.

In the promotional trailer you hear Ben Zabo saying “I’ve got my first European contract. I’m so happy, I’m going to go show it to my parents.” And at the end of the trailer you hear him saying “They didn’t want me to play music and now they’ll see this contract and they’ll see that I’m a success.” So there’s one journey, and the story overall should evoke that same sense that we’re on a journey.

Can you tell us about Ben Zabo’s music?

Well, I would say if you listen to his music it would sound a little bit more like Afropop than maybe some of the other Malian music that’s either more pastoral and mellow—like the kora music, someone like Toumani Diabate. It’s comes from his unique heritage as a member of an ethnic group called the Bwa. There are probably less than half a million in Mali and Burkina Faso. But they have their own dialects and traditionally, I believe, are farmers.

The songs from that culture tend to have really quick tempos and are really long. You can’t help but just dance. Even someone who doesn’t really dance will be bobbing their heads, because they have all these polyrhythms that play against the string instruments that are playing at different time signatures. It’s really complex but it comes together really well as a whole.

So Ben Zabo sounds like Fela Kuti sped up a few BPM and with more balaphone—a wooden relative to the xylophone. Ben Zabo band has one of the best balaphone players in Mali, his name is Kassim. Their drummers are great and sometimes they go off on a percussion jams, while Ben Zabo does this thing on guitar that sort of sounds like the Talking Heads, that just moves you. And then they’re singing in their native language which almost nobody but them understands. Their first album is just really amazing. I’m really excited to see what he comes up with for his next record.

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