Baba Salah: Dangay

26 Jun

The New Yorker likes to call itself the greatest magazine there ever was. It may well be right, and if so, it’s because of pieces like John Lee Anderson’s on what’s happening in Mali: Letter from Timbuktu: State of Terror.

The only thing I’d like to see more than Anderson’s copy would be his expense account — exactly how do you verify receipts from Bamako? (easier perhaps than war zones; Anderson filed last year from Syria.) There’s been a lot written about Mali, but Anderson’s account is to others what In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is to a three-verse, two-chorus top 40 hit. One of the above has more substance than the other.

Anderson’s essay is complete with the politics, history and nuances that make up Mali’s story. If you need the abridged version, know that the northern half of the African country was taken over by Islamist radicals and then liberated, somewhat, by France earlier this year.

While in power, by all accounts the radicals banned music and threatened the musicians, many of whom fled south. Mali is the home of the late Ali Farka Toure and hundreds of other musicians most of us don’t know (including Baba Salah, who plays a prominent part at the end of Anderson’s report). I’ve never been to Mali — maybe someday to the Festival in the Desert — but Mali without music sounds as if it would be like a Jack Russell Terrier without its voice — quiet and sad.

The situation is still tenuous in Mali. Music is back, but in the north many of the musicians aren’t. They still don’t feel safe returning. Which brings us to the point of this essay. Salah is a Malian musician with at least one fan in the States, according to Anderson’s essay: Jackson Browne (I’m old enough to remember that once upon a time the easiest way to alienate the women I worked with was to disparage Jackson Browne).

Anderson interviewed Salah for his story — you can’t write well about Mali without writing about the music. And Salah told Anderson how he acquired his guitar.

In Anderson’s words (from Browne’s words to Salah’s words): “In 2000, he was on his first trip outside Mali, and in New York . . . the singer/songwriter Jackson Browne came to watch. ‘Afterward he called me over said, ‘You play like an angel. What can I do for you,’ ” Baba Salah told me. ‘I didn’t know what to say. He said, ‘It’s OK. I know what to do.’ So later he flew from California to here (Mali). I was living like a bachelor in a really small room. We played together. He said to me, ‘This is the guitar I play, and I want you to have it.’ Baba Salah had played Browne’s guitar ever since.”

Anderson said the guitar Browne gave Salah is black and white, which means it’s apparently the one Salah used in the video above (follow along if your French is better than mine; apologies, Monsieur Minault. I should have paid more attention).

The song, Dangay (Dangaye on the link; apparently a vowel is lost in translation), is the title track of Salah’s latest album. Dangay, according to Anderson, means north, and in the song Salah asks listeners to pray for that region of his country.

Amen to that.

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