Bamako – Hot Nights at Djembe

Mali is perhaps mostly famous for its music. People from all over the world congregate to the butterfly-shaped country to see superstars like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Amadou et Mariam, as well as other, less-known talent.

In Bamako, where music seems to be a necessity of life, there are live music bars for any size wallets and tastes. Tourists and upper-class locals pack the expensive Le Diplomat every night, while others get their fill at places like Oumou Sangare’s Wassulu Hotel, Buffet de la Gare, Blonbar or Le Hongon. But during Ramadan, when everyone else closes shop, there is a place where the night really swings. In the Lafiabougou district, Djembe calls on the infidels with raw, powerful rhythms, and some of the best musicians we’ve ever heard.

Djembe is like an aging queen with a youthful spirit. Once upon a time, the locale must have been splendid with its art deco interior and lush garden bar. But it’s seems the place hasn’t been maintained in the last thirty years, and everything is pretty much broken or falling apart. Someone has punched a hole in the wave-shaped wall decoration, the couch-covers are ripped to shreds, the mirror-ball has lost most of its tiles, and the paint is peeling off the walls. The bathroom is the worst we’ve seen anywhere, with an unfastened toilet bowl hanging on its side, leaving a big hole at its base, wall paper rolling up due to humidity, and an unimaginable stench to go with it. Forget about being able to flush the toilet, wash your hands or lock the door. Not in this place.

But despite its gritty exterior, this place has a soul that’s hard to beat. When the djembe player starts beating the drum with alternatively soft, then hard slaps, having total control of the softness and loudness of the sound, it’s heaven. Accompanied by guitarists, kora players and a drummer, its easy to fall in love with the sound. It’s easy to think you’ve never heard anything sound that good before. But when the singer enters the stage, and starts wailing with a voice that sounds like the worst pain you’ve ever known, crying to the world with sadness of lost love, a broken heart, anger and the longing for retribution, you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. The music enters your body, your soul, and makes you part of it. You smile, you dance, you love.

The place starts filling up before midnight, and by one o’clock it’s jamming. Lots of men, mostly in the African-style long dresses and pants with bold, colorful patterns, and some with laced pajama-style wear. The few women, some girlfriends, some prostitutes, all wear the traditional style clothes with long sleeves and long skirts. Only one girl, as singer, wears a t-shirt and jeans. She looks really good.

A drunk man who is having a fight with his lady, dances alone on the floor, unsteadily marching along. Tall and cool, looking exactly like Malcolm X, he fascinates us with his moves, until he gets so drunk he crashes into tables, dances into the singer.

Most people don’t drink that much. They come to enjoy the music, hang out and be free. Some dance, but mostly this place is about listening to the band. And man, is it a good place!

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