x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Want to meet Mali's most famous musician? Just show up in Bamako

After a few minutes of banter I realised he actually did know Salif Keita. The way he made it sound, everyone in Mali - or at least everyone in the capital, Bamako (population 1.7 million) - not only knows Salif Keita but hangs with him on a regular basis.

Years ago, I was organising the music for a bar in Prague when an aspiring DJ from Mali approached with an idea for his own R&B night. "So you're from Mali?" I said. "Do you know Salif Keita?"

"Sure, Salif's a great guy," the man replied, as though he knew Mali's most famous living musician personally. I thought he was joking. I thought asking a Malian if they know Salif Keita must be like asking someone from Minneapolis if they know Prince.

After a few minutes of banter I realised he actually did know Salif Keita. The way he made it sound, everyone in Mali - or at least everyone in the capital, Bamako (population 1.7 million) - not only knows Salif Keita but hangs with him on a regular basis.

The guy got his R&B night and it bombed, but the image of Bamako as a big friendly village stuck with me, as did the idea of the albino crooner on a first-name basis with everyone in town. These notions were reinforced earlier this year when, travelling in South East Asia, I received a text message from my friend Kyle, a Sana'a-based expat visiting Bamako on business.

"What's the name of Salif Keita's place?" he wrote. "Moffou," I texted back. The club shares the name of Keita's superb 2002 album.

Kyle says he jumped in a taxi, rode Bamako's rutted dirt roads out to Moffou, the Keita-owned club, studio and radio station, and just asked for him. Soon enough, he was shooting the breeze with the man himself.

The reality of Bamako - surprise, surprise - is rather different than how I'd imagined it. On the banks of the muddy Niger River, its smog-choked downtown is a sprawling mess and difficult to navigate on foot, with few major sites or monuments to orient oneself and endless ramshackle market stalls selling everything from fan belts to monkey's heads. Malians excel in their ability to get a groove on, though. The nation's music, in my opinion, bests that of its neighbours, even Senegal.

As for the groove master himself, I visit Moffou, on the outskirts of town, looking for him repeatedly. The club is locked and the bar is only sometimes open and nearly always empty. Occasionally, a few people mill about the courtyard, outside the tiny broadcast studio, taking turns brewing tea over hot coals Mali-style, a process seemingly designed to consume as much time as possible.

Salif, they tell me, isn't here right now; but come back later and you'll be sure to catch him. I take the taxi out there three times, returning at each suggested hour only to be told the same thing, time and time again. On the fourth visit, an English-speaking staffer of Radio Moffou named Coulibaly agrees to help me arrange a meeting with Salif. A debilitating bout of food poisoning forces me to postpone that meeting - Mali's street food inflicting a humiliating defeat on a stomach I'd thought had developed an iron lining.

I recover in time for visit number five, but when I arrive, neither Salif nor Coulibaly are anywhere to be found. "Wait," one of the loiterers tells me. "Salif is not here, but he will come. Sooner or later, he will come."

The appointed hour, 3pm, turns into 4pm, 5pm, then 6pm. Darkness falls. I drink tea with the gang. Still Salif does not come - and nobody has his phone number.

In Radio Moffou, I park myself in the control room, determined to stay until the owner makes an appearance. I finally reach Coulibaly using the sound engineer's phone. He apologises profusely, promising to call somebody who will find Salif, but the effort is fruitless.

At 10pm, a valiant seven hours after I've arrived, I finally give up. While I'm waiting for a taxi, a man comes running from the bar with a telephone. "Salif," he says, handing it to me.

"My friend, I'm so sorry," says a familiar voice on the line. "We had a meeting and I forgot."

I'm nearly speechless. "This," I stammer into the phone, "is Salif Keita?"

"Yes, yes, it's Salif," he says. "I'm coming."

Back at Radio Moffou, I take my seat in the control room, and about 45 minutes later, I hear the sound engineer laugh. I look up to see the white face I know from album covers. Not surprisingly, he seems taken aback when I jump up and give him a hug. "I wonder if you really need to speak to me," Salif says with a laugh. "Because it seems you already know me very well." Indeed.

I think the moral of the story is that some expectations turn out to be true - it turns out you can just show up in Bamako and hang out with Salif Keita, and I did - only when you have the patience to make them come true.


Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com