Sunday, April 12, 2015

'I Was His Slave', exerpt from the book, Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure

 I Was His Slave

"No one willingly chooses the yolk of slavery."
- Aeschylus

    One day an older man in a beige colored boubou rides up on a blue moped.  His head is clean shaven and he looks younger than his years.  He is short and black as a thousand midnights.  He moves about fluidly and sits on the sandy ground with ease, his legs folded underneath him.  His eyes are bright and clear.  By way of introduction, Amadou says that this man was Ali Farka Toure’s griot, as others nod in agreement.  His name is Hamdoun Kele.  He and I agree to meet the next day at four o’clock in the afternoon.  I ask Hamdoun about being Ali Farka Toure’s griot.  He quickly corrects me, letting me know that he was a slave to Ali’s family.  “J’etais son esclave“[I was his slave].  I am surprised at how the words roll easily from his mouth.  He says it proudly, with a smile.  I wonder why Amadou - his master - told me that he was Ali’s griot.  The lines between the two occupations seem blurred, indicative of the low status often ascribed to griots.  Both are virtually attached to their noble families for life.  I think about my good fortune in running into Hamdoun here in Segu, hudnreds of miles from Ali’s hometown of Niafunke.  I look around the sandy streets and take in the scene.  Donkeys, pedestrians and scooters slowly navigate the road nearby.  Dust blows in from across the river, mixing in the warm, dry air with the faint smell of the timeless, muddy water.  Small black flies flit about in the golden rays of the afternoon sun.  The voices of nearby children at play mix with traditional music blasting from a radio in the distance.  A donkey brays stubbornly as its owner beats his rump with a switch.
    I recall my second visit to Niafunke in 2002 when I heard Ali Farka joking with his friend Bekaye Coulibaly, a Bambara man: “You are my slave!”  There is a long history of Songhai versus Bambara, north versus south, Islam versus indigenous African religion.  “We brought you Islam!“ he exclaims, and everyone in the room laughs out loud.  I can't believe my ears.  This is like a Malian version of The Dozens, the game where the winner serves up the most artful, cutting insult imaginable.  Who can imagine the same scenario in the US, where the children of slave masters can freely joke with and ridicule the children of slaves?  It obviously means something very different to be a slave in Mali, then and now.  Hamdoun explains how slavery works in Malian society.  Blacks in the American slave system “could not eat with the master.“  He also says that the Africans brought to America were sold into slavery to be “thrown away.”  Captive Africans in the US were not valued as human beings in any way, shape or form.  As it was once said in the Mississippi Delta, “Kill a nigger, hire another one.  Kill a mule, buy another one.”  The plantation system viewed Black folk as expendable commodities, chattel to be used and discarded.  Hamdoun clearly knows the difference between the brutal, murderous chattel slavery developed in the Americas and the slavery in Malian society bound by measures of tradition, honor and duty.   As he explains this difference, he looks back at Amadou who nods and smiles in agreement.  “Over there [in the USA you cannot eat with the nobles [master].”  Here, in Mali it is commonplace.  Of course in the US, even favored slaves who served whites in the ‘Big House’ had to eat their meals separately with separate dishes and utensils.  Racism and white supremacy enforced the idea that Africans were somehow contaminated or unclean.  Separation was enforced by law in every aspect of life.  This white man's law relentlessly brutalized everything Black in order to keep the captive Africans in their proscribed places.  Terrorist tactics such as cross-burnings, lynchings and beatings were the order of the day.  There was no obligation on the part of the master and no protection was afforded the slave.  They had no rights whatsoever.
    Hamdoun explains that there is a code of conduct for the institution of bondage in Mali.  If a slave needs money, his master gives it to him.  Just this morning, Amadou had come to Hamdoun’s house and gave his wife food and money.  “Slavery here is not the same thing as you all experienced.  With us here, every noble has their slave…your father took care of me, your child will take care of my child.”  This  type of bondage is passed down through the generations so that every noble family is bound to a slave family.  There are complex rules, verbal contracts and traditions which govern what is appropriate and what is not.  “You, they took from here to take over there to throw you away, to mistreat you.  Here, you cannot mistreat a slave.  A person with a slave is obliged to feed them, to provide them with clothing.  You must do everything for them.”  He explains that slaves are in charge of certain aspect of their masters' lives.  For example, if a noble wants to marry a particular woman and the slave objects, then he cannot take the woman as his wife.  The noble is obligated to leave the woman.  Hamdoun says, “It is me [with his wife] who cooks, who does everything.”  As such, it is the slave who dictates who can become the noble’s wife since it is he who will have to do all the work for the woman.  Though he has a low status, the slave has some measure of power in the household.  “We are proud to do it!” says Hamdoun.  He opens his arms wide for emphasis as his eyes flash with a serious intensity.  There are obligations on both sides, for noble and slave.  “Even if I do something stupid in town, I cannot be touched.  They [the police] will come and tell you [the noble] something.”  Traditional slavery operates through contract, protocol and obligation.  It is not freedom.  But it has rules and customs which are uniform and cannot be violated.   Captive Africans in the West were sold off just like livestock and they could be mistreated or killed for no reason.  This is unthinkable in Mali.  If he mistreats his slaves, a cruel master risks his good reputation in the community.  “Because your father kept my father, you will keep me, and your child will keep my child." 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

When I First Met the Blues

I first met the blues when I was seven years old at a family house party one warm summer night in Denver.   We children were running in and out of the rooms and playing while the adults were listening to music, drinking, talking and  laughing.  There was plenty southern food: fried chicken and catfish, ribs, corn bread, potato salad and cole slaw.  Someone's mother or father put a 33" record on the stereo.  At some point I remember hearing the husky voice of the singer and funky twang of the guitar.  It attracted me and drew me in to the point of asking who we were listening to.  i remember the album cover, Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues."  He was wearing a dark red shirt open at the collar standing next to what looked like the door of a barn somewhere in he countryside.  His arms were crossed in a way that let you know he was comfortable being himself.  He looked straight into the camera with no posing, no mugging.  This was real music from a real man.  He looked and sounded so confident.  I wanted to be like him!  Since I was a little boy watching the Johnny Cash show on television, I loved the sound of the guitar.  I just couldn't understand how he could make it sound like he did.  It was a mystery. 

In the spring of 1981 B.B. King came to town and the family got all dressed up.  I had never worn church clothes to a music event, so I knew that this was going to be something different.  As we rode to the concert I felt a little strange in my tight polyester pants, a strangling necktie and my scratchy wool jacket.  The venue was an old theater converted into a supper club/music hall near a shopping mall.  We walked into the dark club and I was surprised to see it look just like a restaurant, with plush booths, huge indoor plants and dim lighting.  Our table was close to the stage.  We ordered our food and waited for the band to take the stage.  We didn't wait long and they soon appeared.  It was a young, all-Black band with a guitarist, a horn section, bass, piano and drums.  Big afros were still in style and the young men looked regal in their matching suits.  They warmed up the crowd with a few instrumentals before the star of the show came out.  When he finally ascended the stage it was like watching a mighty bullfighter step into the ring.  The mostly Black crowd applauded and cheered the blues legend and the high energy of the moment saturated the surrounding air until it almost felt humid inside the small theater.  It was like a church revival, a pep rally and a sporting event all rolled into one.  The man was a God and he held the crowd in the palm of his hand.

I had just got my first real guitar as a gift from my mother.  I didn't even know how to play it yet, but I would strum it and hold it to my ear to hear the sound.  I imagined myself playing on a stage in front of thousands of people, the spotlight shining on me.  I loved to smell and feel the wood, the cool smoothness of the instrument.  I would brush the strings, trying to conjure the sounds that I had heard coming out of the record player at home.  I loved the guitar, and tonight I would learn what it could really do in the hands of a master.  Mr. Riley King did not disappoint.  As soon as he touched the guitar it became a living,  breathing animal that responded to his every command.  His guitar had six strings like mine, and he had ten fingers like me.  But his guitar was saying things that only the human voice can express: shouting, crying, wailing, whispering…it was all there.  All the while he was singing, rapping, leading the band, feeling the audience.  A middle aged Black sister way in the back yelled out to him like it was her own personal show, dancing in the aisle and having the time of her life.  "Yes B.B.!  Yes baby!  Sing it!"  I was amazed that he had this affect on a woman who only knew him for his music.  This was the first time that I realized the power of music.  Every time he struck a chord or a note it seemed as if orbs of light shined from his fingers.  The band followed his every cue like telepathy was a normal thing for them.  They were polished, and tight, but soulful and gritty at the same time.  For a twelve year old boy from a smoggy cowtown called Denver it was a magical experience.

At the end of the concert the band turned it up, playing a fast shuffle while B.B. walked the stage and tossed guitar picks into the audience.  I ran over to the side of the stage and he pressed one of his signature guitar picks into my palm.  He began to turn away as I held out my hand, hoping for a handshake.  He turned towards me again, shook my hand and smiled before continuing on to the other side of the stage to toss out more guitar picks.  I had imagined shaking his hand would be something like gripping a rock, but to my surprise his hands were big and soft.  I walked back to the table where my parents were seated, feeling as if I had won the lottery.  I had never seen a guitar pick like this.  It was plastic, the color of tortoise shell with the B.B. King logo emblazoned in glittering gold lettering on one side.  I rubbed it with my thumb and it was like the energy of the entire performance was concentrated into this little brown piece of plastic that I now held in my hand like it was a precious stone.  Before i saw B.B. King in concert, I imagined that blues was some sort of high science that was taught in music school.  It took me years to learn that real blues can't be taught in school.  Now that I had seen a real bluesman play and even shook his hand, I began to feel like the guitar was something real that could be learned with practice, not the mysterious instrument that only the chosen few could play.  The blues was now real to me for the first time.  This was the day that the mystery began to unravel.  There was no way I could know that in fifteen years I would be the opening act for B.B. King, touring with him across North America, Europe and Japan.  My journey in the blues had just begun.