Bamako: Le Hogon

Mali 2008

Friday night, Bamako. When I walk into Le Hogon, I'm surprised to see it's not even half full. This is a mega-star we're talking about, playing in an 800 square foot bar. I'm expecting a crush. It's 10:15 - I overslept - and Kristin is sitting at a table by herself. I say hi and sit down. I'm not crazy about the table she has chosen. The view to the stage is clear, for now. If the crowd increases as I think it might, our view may become completely blocked. Next to Kristin, a couple of feet away from our table, there is a lone empty chair facing the stage. A waitress comes and sits down. It's Mrs. Grumpy.

On the stage there are at least ten musicians tuning up: Toumani Diabaté and a second kora, a ngoni, a guitar (a second one will come later), a bass (probably the best groove player I've ever heard. Ever), a drum kit, and 2 - 3 percussionists, including a super show-off talking-drum player. A host of singers will take turns at the microphone as the night progresses. Kristin loves the Griot singing style, and knows all the nuances. I am learning to love it. They always swallow the mic and the distortion is harsh. But apparently, that's the way they like it.

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Click here to play.
In the above sound clip, you hear Toumani's kora, then a bit of electric guitar. Then you hear Toumani turn on his wah wah pedal. Yes, you heard right. Wah-wah pedal. Jimi and Eric, eat your hearts out. Turn it up!

At the end, notice that the song just peters out. That's because some fool tourist comes out on the dance floor with a video camera with a blinding spotlight flash. Toumani stops the band mid-song and quietly calls the man up to the stage and has a little policy chat with him.

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Midnight. The band is really cooking now. The dance floor is almost full and the crowd has doubled. There are a couple of guys standing right between us and the band, guzzling down their cold Castels. I go over and politely ask them if they can move. No problem. I swagger back to the table, Defender of the Downtrodden. Kristin smiles and raises her eyebrows as if to say, "pretty good for an old fart." I pretend she is inwardly sighing, "My heee-ro." About 10 minutes later another man is standing in the very same place. His shoulders are the width of an eagle's wingspan and he stands about 6'4". "We don't really need to see the band," I say, laughing. Kristin smiles an understanding smile. Just then the guy turns around and looks at Kristin, obviously admiring her. He walks the four feet that separates him from our table, reaches down and shakes her hand, and greets her in a big friendly voice. "Bon soir. Ça va?" Next he reaches over and boisterously takes my right hand in both of his - a big smile on his face. He's saying something, but I can't hear it over the throbbing music. I stand up. He leans in and says, "Tu ne dance pas?" Oh god. I don't want to stand in her way, but on the other hand, if this were a club in a nastier city, I might want to pretend I'm her boyfriend in order to protect her. But this is not a nasty city. So I hedge. "Pas souvent" (not often) is what I come up with. He immediately reaches for Kristin's hand and whisks her off to the dance floor. This man personifies Mali, I think. At the core of this country is a large and powerfully friendly heart that is truly irresistible. It comes on strong, yet is never intimidating or threatening.

This is a movie clip of the band. It's pretty dark, and I had to be discreet, but it helps convey the flavour of the place.

Speaking of good-naturedness, by the time Kristin returns, Mrs. Grumpy has vacated her chair and is actually serving people. When she has been gone for a while, Kristin makes the mistake of taking the chair and putting her feet up on it. It takes Mrs. Grumpy about three seconds to notice this. She walks over and pulls the chair out from under Kristin's feet! Wordless. She then proceeds to brush it off as though it had been in a sandstorm, and sits down with a violent harrumph, her back to us. Kristin and I just look at each other. I half expect Kristin to start crying, but she is too smart to take this personally. I, on the other hand, would like to go and yank the seat out from under her big behind, but I conclude I couldn't lift her anyway, and would just look foolish standing there tugging at the back of her chair.

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The King of Dancers. Kristin loves dancing, and she talks me into getting up for the next three or four songs. About 30% of the time I am having what could be called "fun", in a stretch. "Fun" here could be described as a lack of feeling uncoordinated, stiff, mechanical and lifeless. The freedom of movement and of spirit that surrounds me on this dance floor makes me close up like a tulip in September and I just want to stand still and gawk - an antelope in the jeeplights. I actually do stop moving for a brief moment, and this interrupts what little rhythm I have managed to conjure up in my body, and then I lose the beat altogether. I know it's in 4/4, dammit. Where the hell is the "1"? All these 16th-notes flying by. I can't tell which is the downbeat. One of them has to be.

A man pretending to feel rhythm is a sad sight indeed. Limbs move in parallel motion when they should be contrary, and contrary when they should be parallel. His hips have frozen solid and the torso is a block of concrete. And the face. What must my face look like to everybody else? I research the crowd for ideas. Look at that guy's face. He looks cool. Try to imitate that expression. The combination of a slight pout with a wry smile. Yeah. I can do that. Wait. Oh no. I'm Bill Murray doing his lounge lizard act on SNL. Ooo, I like how that one's moving his feet. Can I do that? Nope. My knees won't bend, and if I concentrate on bending them, that's all I get. Bending knees. The rest of my body forgets to stay in motion. It's waiting for orders. C'mon man. Be original. Do your thing, not somebody else's. I can't meet Kristin's eyes. She appears to have the 'free spirit' thing down pretty good, and I don't want to squash it by making eye contact. Then she'd know that I know she sees me. So I watch the band. Jesus, they're good! They are so fluid. Notes flying everywhere, like everybody's soloing at once, but somehow nobody's soloing and the notes all intertwine and it doesn't feel busy or cluttered. I all but stop moving and just stare. Why can't my body respond to this infectious groove? I have found the downbeat again, and for a moment I lose the inner dialogue and have a bit of "fun" again. I stare down at the floor and let 'er rip. At the end of the song, for which I am truly grateful, this cool young local dude comes up to me. Maybe he's a little high, but mainly he's full of the music and the awesome energy of the place. He grabs me by the shoulders, looks me square in the face, and proclaims with absolute certainty that I am the best damned dancer in the room. The KING of dancers, in fact. He has such a huge, wonderful, open grin on his mug that it invites me to come out of my self-imposed jail cell of intimidation to have a loving laugh at myself. It is not hard for me to play along and say thank you, thank you, thank you, even though I know I dance like a ...well... like a toubab with a big gray beard.

When we return to the table, Mrs. Grumpster has taken away our ¾-full beers. Never mind that our jackets are still on the backs of the chairs. We must have gone home. A table closer to the band has been vacated, so we grab it. We don't bother to order more, because the buzz in the room is all that's really needed. We sit out the next few songs and just take in the music. It's so loose. At one point a guitar or bass player might stand up, mid song, and take off his instrument and hand it to another man who has just walked on stage. Tag team guitars. But it doesn't feel like a jam session. These guys are pros.

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a short, uptempo clip in which Mr. Diabaté struts his kora stuff:

Click here to play.

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in almost every song, the man playing the talking drum gets a solo toward the end. His job is to take the tune up to the next level for the big finish. He walks back and forth in front of the stage, on the dance floor.

Click here to play.

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Being a worry-wart, I am all too aware that Kristin may want to dance some more, and I'm not about to volunteer. I ask her if she'd like to sit by herself so that I won't get in the way of her getting invited to the floor. She graciously says no, and that she's had enough, too. But somehow, a couple of songs later, I'm up there again with her, having 'fun'. When we leave at 3:00, the band is still going strong, and they haven't taken a break all evening.

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The last song we hear features a guest artist. I don't catch his name, but I think he's from Australia. He plays the violin. Here is a clip in which he trades riffs with the kora. I don't believe it is possible to fit more notes than this in a bar. (the musical measure, not the establishment, though maybe that's true, too.)

Click here to play.

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Outside, I half expect to see Lassi, but his cab must have turned pumpkin, or is it the other way around? At any rate, we find a taxi and he drives Kristin home first, then me. He doesn't seem quite sure where the Hotel Rabelais is. I tell him it's in the Hippodrome area. He seems confused, and I try to direct him as best I can. We finally make it to the neighbourhood of my hotel, and he turns up a long back alley, and I really don't know why. As my hand grips the door handle a little tighter, I realize my curiosity is turning to fear. I repeat "Hotel Rabelais" and he nods. "Are you sure you understand? I am going to the Hotel Rabelais." I say it very slowly, so there's no mistake. He nods silently again. We drive slowly by a couple of young guys, and I'm starting to feel a feverish chill in my face. I pat the money belt under my shirt. Finally he stops. I don't recognize a thing. "L'hôtel?" I ask. He points. I finally recognize it. We have come in the back way. It was a shortcut. He informs me that this is not Hippodrome. It is, in fact, Quinzambougou. Oops. Big tip for this guy.

Saturday, January 19 is really the last day of my trip. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are all travel days; a bus and two planes. Today, it's breakfast in the hotel again. Why mess with a good thing? The fact that it's included in the price doesn't hurt either. Today, I think I'll head to Point G. I learned from Gilles that this is a bit of a risqué expression en français. But what it means in Bamako is a spot where you can see the whole city. It's a lookout. I check out my map, and it's quite far - west then north - so I figure I'll walk until I get too tired or too lost, then grab a cab up the hill along Avenue de la Liberté. (If you stay on this street for 400km, it'll also take you to Mauritania.) Sensible plan, right? Mmm, yeah. Sensible but not wise. I still had a whole bunch to learn. For instance, cabbies don't know street names any more than the regular inhabitants do. And they may be even unfamiliar with major tourist spots (like Point G) as well.

I manage to find my way from Le Rabelais to Place Republic, which is landmarked by the Grand Mosque and the Maison des Artistes Market. It's basically a straight 2½ km walk west along Rue de Sotuba, but in the heat and the cacophony, it feels like quite an accomplishment. I head north along Rue du Peuple, but when I can't find the landmark railroad tracks, I decide it's cab time.

Walking through Bamako, one finds a series of little canals and aqueducts. The smell is challenging...

... garbage is everywhere. There is just no infrastructure to handle disposal of waste, especially plastics. I don't recall seeing a single garbage can anywhere, say nothing of a garbage truck.

A street in the south end of Bamako, down by the river.

Continuing on my way to the lookout at Point G, I flag a yellow cab. Allow me to pause here and quote from the Lonely Planet, just to convey my mindset, because this is really my main source of info. "On the escarpment North of the city, Point G is great for a panoramic view of the city (and it's pollution). To get there take a taxi from Place Point G (200 CFA). Travelers report that there's a path up to it from the pleasant botanical garden..." Sounds like the Borghese Gardens in Rome, or maybe a view of Washington D.C. and the Potomac, doesn't it?

My cab driver wants 1,500CFA. I'm not sure where "Place Point G" is, but I'm sure he's asking way too much. I talk him down to 1,000 ($2). After about 10 minutes climbing up the winding (paved) street, he stops in front of a hospital. The sign says "hôpital Point G." I tell him I don't need a hospital. He stares blankly at me. I try to explain. "I'm looking for a place where you can see the whole city." Blank stare. "Where tourists take pictures." I try to convey the panorama with wide, waving arms. He gets out and talks to a couple of people in Bambara. I now realize that his French is probably limited to cab talk. Gauche, droit, combien, loin, près, etc. We drive a little way and he stops again. Between the two of us, my French and his Bambara, we manage to explain it to a couple of men who point us to the lookout. We drive behind the hospital and across a field. No road, not even a path. We come to a precipice, and I get out. I can see the whole city. I can see the Niger. It is indeed hazy and polluted.

It's hard to believe this is the same Niger River I saw last week from the pinasse.

I spend about 20 minutes looking out over Bamako while the driver waits. As we descend back down into the city, I decide I feel like coffee and a sweet something-or-other, and I remember a place I have read about, so I ask him if he knows the Patisserie le Royaume des Gourmands. Blank. Does he know Avenue Modibo Keita? This is a MAJOR street, according to the map. Blank. OK. No sense beating a dead horse. "I'll get out here." He asks me for 4,000CFA. What he lacks in skill, he makes up for in chutzpah and perseverance, so I give it to him with thanks. It's been close to an hour after all. Can you imagine what that would have cost in a cab in Toronto or New York? Just a tad more than $8, you can bet.

Out on the street I ask a few more people for the patisserie at the intersection of Avenue Modibo Keita and Rue Caron. Much discussion, but no results. At one point, I have four men in deep debate, but they can't agree. Finally I ask a cabbie who speaks good French and has a nice friendly attitude. He's not sure, but he thinks it's not too far, so I say 'let's go.' We drive exactly 2 blocks and there it is. I laugh out loud and ask him how much, expecting to have to talk him down from some egregious amount. He's laughing too, though, and just tells me "Pas de problème. Gratuit." I give him 200 CFA anyway.

Patisserie le Royaume des Gourmands, at the intersection of Avenue Modibo Keita and Rue Caron.

I sit and journal over a very nice coffee and a pretty decent pastry, then I head down to the Pont des Martyrs that crosses the Niger south of the city. I decide to walk. What a glutton for punishment! But I can't resist the challenge of finding my way around. Besides, from the map, it appears to be a straight walk south down Modibo Keita. This time what appears to be, proves to be what is. I find the bridge; the same one I had seen from Point G a couple of hours earlier. I'm looking for a nice place by the river to walk, and maybe sit on a bench and write. No such luck. This ain't the Seine. All I can see from here is gated hotels or garbaged riverbanks.

This movie clip of the traffic on the Pont des Martyrs is shot surreptitiously and from the hip. Literally.:

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So I start walking east. I know because the sun is heading down. Kristin had told me about a place she frequents in the daytime called the Hotel Mandé. It's five star, and for a nominal fee, you can sit by their pool and just veg. I'm not in much of a pool mood, and certainly in no mood to hang with the elite, but I could go for a drink and a lounge chair. When I arrive, the guard tells me to go right in. No charge. I grab a seat under the thatched roof cabana poolside and order a Castel. To my surprise, Kristin turns up about five minutes later. She sits down and we chat for a bit. Maybe dinner tonight? I want to get writing, and she wants to go over to the lawn by the riverbank and do her Quigong (or chi kung, or chi gong) workout. A little journaling, and a little thinking, and I decide I'd prefer to spend my last night in Bamako just hanging out by myself. Kristin and I say a warm good-bye, exchange details, and the hope that our paths will cross again. I believe they will.

The beautifully manicured grounds of the Hotel Mandé.

From the Hotel lawn, I see that fishermen use the same boats here in Bamako as they do along the more rural Niger I saw in my first days in Mali. That seems like months ago.

The lawn and the riverbank by the Hotel Mandé.

These four lads pop their heads up to ask for a little spare change. One of them tells me that his parents are both sick. I ask his buddy if this is the case and he just laughs. I decide a lecture about telling the truth is more valuable than a financial reward in this case.

The sun is going down as I take my final leave of my friend Kristin, and of the posh Hotel Mandé, and head for a hopefully peaceful last night in Bamako.

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I cab it back to Le Rabelais, chill for a bit, and call the bus station just to confirm the 7 A.M. departure time, and to make sure I don't need to buy my ticket a night in advance, like we did in Hombori. The man says no, just be there by 6:15, in case it sells out. I ask two or three times - "So, you're sure I don't have to come there tonight..." - until he gets tired of repeating it. I get his name (Mohammed) just to be sure. He says he'll be there in the morning, and he even takes my name. O.K. Maybe I'm a little neurotic, but I really do not want to miss that bus.

Next, I phone the San Toro to see if there is a kora player tonight. After my horrendous tuning experience back in Toronto, I really want to watch a player up close. Tonight, I'm in luck. He starts at 8. I arrive at 8:15, order chicken gingembre, veggies and a ginger beer (again). By 8:30 there's still no kora. I begin to fret (pun intended), but he soon shows up, all in regal purple.

Below is a movie of this kora master. I regret not having caught his name.

The music is over at 11, and I have made arrangements for Lassi to pick me up. On the way to the hotel, I tell him I have a very early bus to catch. I'd like to be at the SONEF station by 6:15. He suggests he should pick me up at 5:30. Absolutely. It's a deal. At Le Rabelais I ask at the desk what time the restaurant opens for breakfast. 5:15. O.K. Perfect.

Sunday, January 20. I rise at 4:45 and finish packing. I head down to the restaurant with my big sac à dos and shoulder bag at 5:15 sharp. It's dark. I mean it's dark out AND it's dark in the restaurant...the locked restaurant. I schlep my bags to the front desk. Amazingly, the woman who was there last night at 11:00 is still there now, hunched over some bookwork. She has not been Mrs. Grump by any means, yet neither has she been overly friendly. She's French. But, like most French folks, she comes through when you need her. She digs out a couple of croissants, a jar of jam, and brews me up a quick cup of coffee. Not Nescafé (is that a double negative?) By 5:25, I'm sitting in the lovely morning air by the courtyard gate to the street, ready for Lassi. 5:30, no Lassi. 5:35 I call him. He's coming. 5:45, no Lassi. Call again. "Trois minutes," he says.

Kindly allow me to interrupt with a word from our sponsor: Worry. This particular worry has it's justification. The last time I got on a bus in Mali, it took 17½ hours when it was supposed to take 13. If I should miss this bus - a supposed 8 hour ride - there is every chance that I could miss my one and only early morning flight, and if I miss that, I could miss my Air Canada flight the following morning from Paris. And if I miss that, well, ... the thought of re-booking, spending hundreds of dollars, and several hours haggling in airports and bus stations in foreign countries with their pesky foreign languages (the nerve of them! It Gauls me. Pun intended again) is about as appealing as a case of yellow fever.

At 5:55, I get in the cab. Lassi smiles and greets me. No worry, no apology. I look at my watch. Look at him. Look at my watch ... (This is a technique of communication I learned from my mother. She's French.) I ask him how long it's going to take; can we still make it by 6:15? Lassi doesn't appear to know where the SONEF bus station is. I'm angry and getting angrier. I say, "Let's go back to the Rabelais. I'll find a driver who knows where he's going." He assures me he knows exactly where he is going, and not to worry, we've got plenty of time. We cross the river (I know at least this much is right), he makes an immediate left into a parking lot and starts asking a guy something in Bambara. It's 6:10 and I'm starting to really worry. They talk for a bit and the guy hops in the back seat, and we turn around and head the other way. After only about a hundred yards we pull into a driveway which leads to an empty lot where there is a little lone shack that has a little lone sign that says SONEF. Sorry, Lassi. No cigar. This is definitely NOT the large bustling gare where I came in four days ago. Now somebody else hops in the back seat. He explains to me that there are two SONEF stations. This much I have already figured out, thank you very much. I just hope he knows how to get to the other one, and that it's not an hour away. We take off.

I ask the back seat replacement how far it is to the big SONEF station. He either speaks really fast French and I don't get it, or else he doesn’t answer at all.
"C'est loin?" I ask.
No answer.
"Combien de minutes?”
“Pas de problem.”
“Combien de minutes?” I repeat.
“Ce n’est pas loin,” he answers.
I know a stone wall when I see one. I give up and decide to worry quietly.
After another kilometer or so, there it is! I hear the cherubim sing (accompanied by kora instead of harp). Lassie asks me what time it is.
“6:15,” I say.
“There,” he says. “You see? No problem.” He grins. We get out of the cab and, as he lifts my bag out of the trunk, I ask him 'how much'? He asks for 3,500. I laugh. That’s ridiculous. According to the guide book, the longest cab ride in Bamako should never be more than 1,500. 2,000 at most.
"3,000," I say.
He says o.k. I count out the rumpled bills and hand them to him. Pause. You can almost hear the word "tip" whispering in the cool morning breeze. I'm sure an onlooker would have seen a question mark dancing gently above me. Pause. I pull out another 500. I am hopeless. I apologize in my head to future tourists for the precedent I am setting. Lassi grins, perhaps at the future tourists in his head, too, but I'm pretty sure there's a bit there for the relationship we developed over the past 4 days. His 'merci' is genuine. I go to the wicket to buy my ticket for Mopti. Lassi hangs out to make sure I get it o.k.

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The Toque: At the station, I wait with several Muslim men. We sit on the concrete curb, watching the baggage boys climb the ladder to put cargo on top of the bus. There's everything from steamer trunks to sacks of onions to double mattresses. There is even a set of antique exterior doors. One of the baggage kids is wearing a black toque with Arabic writing on it where a North American would expect to see a New York Yankees logo. Jamie! I haven't seen a single possibility for a gift for my 20-year-old son. Sure, there have been Dogon masks and the like, but nothing that he would really like all that much, and that would be easy to get into a suitcase. But Jamie collects baseball caps. This could be a unique addition for his wall. I only have enough money for tonight's room at the Hotel Flandre in Mopti plus the cab fare I'll be needing. So maybe a trade? I go to my big knapsack which is lying on the ground waiting to be loaded into the belly of the bus, and pull out my navy blue Toronto Maple Leafs toque. I approach the kid and wait - screwing up my courage, while he kibitzes with his buddies - for the right moment.

Next, "The Toque" continues ...

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