Yesterday's documentary, The Road to Baleya, was about four Canadian musicians who went to Mali to meet, record and collaborate with Malian musicians. The project, organized by musician Lewis Melville, was very low-key. Melville's brother is an aide worker living in Bamako, the capital of Mali. The city is a locus for young people looking for economic opportunity that is lacking in their native villages, and although the entire country is poor, Bamako is its center for education and culture. The Canadians visited the city's music school, where they were warmly welcomed, and for which they had brought some donated instruments. Melville's personal focus was to set up a basic recording studio in his brother's home, where local musicians who didn't have the money to record in Malian studios could come and record their music; word of his project spread quickly and there was a steady stream of Malian musicians who came to play, sing, record, and jam with the Canadians.
In Bamako, the group met an accomplished, locally known kora player, Mansa Sissoko, who had been born into a family of griots in the faraway village of Baleya. Sissoko hadn't been back since he was a little boy; his father died when he was little and his mother, also now deceased, left the village shortly after that. After getting to know the Canadians and talking about the origins of his music, Sissoko invited them to accompany him to Baleya to "see the roots of his music", and so they all went back to the village in a small bus they hired - a long and difficult journey. For the second leg of it, they took on a translator and two armed security guards in case of trouble.
The scenes in the village were step back into an earlier Africa. The visitors were met by all the villagers: the hunters dancing in a line with rifles that they kept firing, women and children clapping, and a singer who sang formal, ritual songs welcoming and praising the kora player who had come back to re-establish his ties to the village, and whose father and grandfather were still revered there. Many of the villagers wore traditional dress, some carried pet monkeys, and the children ran in packs, first shy and then enthusiastic. The village food came from hunting the depleted wildlife of the region, and very basic hillside agriculture carried out mostly by the women using primitive tools. Homes were a cluster of round thatched huts; there a mosque that functioned as a gathering place; and a rudimentary school, for which the Canadians brought eagerly-accepted books.
But music was sung or played constantly. The poverty was extreme, but the people seemed happy and they were also eloquent. The young kora player was in tears, so moved was he by the welcome and the villagers' memories of his family. The musicians stayed up late every night playing music with the dancing villagers; during the extreme heat of the midday they rested under mosquito nets. The kora player seemed changed by the journey and expressed his desire to help the village as much as he could, as well as to become a griot "in his own way" and "for the people," saying he couldn't be a griot exactly the way his father and mother had. His humility was sincere, and particularly poignant in the face of his obvious talent and skill.
A side story was that of a 16-yr-old drummer who played a small drum held under one arm that he hit with a curved mallet as well as his hands. Obviously bursting with talent, and with a face filled with his brilliant smile, he also went on the trip; the kora player knew him well. He was suffering from malaria, though none of them knew it at the time, and a month or two later tragically died after consulting a local healer.
"Road to Baleya" was made on a low budget and wasn't a polished, high-tech documentary, but it was a big window into the roots of Malian music for me, and a part of Africa I had never seen on film before. I also appreciated the generosity of the Canadian musicians and the universality of musical communication, transcending a very large cultural gap. It was one of the most uplifting films we've seen this week, and I wish the audience for it had been larger. The movie is being shown occasionally on "Bravo!", and perhaps will be released on DVD.