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." 


  1. Thank you for this. I have purposely sought to learn as much as I can about Mali and Mandé culture ever since I fell in love with the music from there and although I understand certain aspects such as the role that Griots play I have only learnt this from history books and the internet. You can only learn so much from 'official' history and similar kind of documents but they can never really cover all the specific real cultural details that can only be told be the actual people themselves and that's why this makes so much more sense.
    I recently read a piece about the possible influence from Arabic culture on the Blues and in the article one of the points they touched upon was about the Arabic "special view of slavery", (although I think they have called it "special" when looked at in comparison to what happened in the Atlantic slave trade), and how slaves were treated with more respect which seems to have connections with what you've said here.
    Mali has an amazing sense of tradition in its culture in the way that things are continued by certain groups or families. It seems logical that someone like Toumani Diabate would be the best kora player in the world because his father was that before him and the same was true of previous generations. Although when I say it seems logical, I still find it amazing, especially when I consider the fact that Toumani's father never actually taught him how to play the kora, he learnt mostly on his own and yet still went on to revolutionise what the instrument is capable of. Also the fact that one of Toumani's cousins is the first female kora player to come from a griot family plus his son is now becoming a prominent kora player illustrates how important the whole sense of tradition is in Mali especially within families.
    I also read recently an interview with Toumani and one with Ali Farka Toure in which they both said that there was a period in the 19th century when "the Diabaté became the Touré’s griots". I did not understand this well when I read it, but I think I have a better understanding of it now after reading this piece here. It also makes sense now why Ali Farka Touré played so solidly and without ego on the "In The Heart Of The Moon" album with Toumani, he played that way to enable Toumani to have the platform and room in which he could shine brilliantly.

    Thanks again for this article, it has helped a lot.