Every night a table is set up with a television under a small tree on the concrete stage in the middle of court yard. People come to share a drink and watch satellite TV. Some nights it may be the news from the studios of RTM (Radio Television Mali) in the capital city of Bamako, a talk show on Malian politics, or a big football match. Men drink beer and sodas, some smoke cigarettes. Most women do not openly smoke, as it is associated with manliness, though some will smoke at home. Often, one can tell the prostitutes in a bar by observing which women are smoking while they drink. There are none here, only couples or gorups of men. Through the wonders of the satellite dish people watch Brazillian soap operas dubbed into French and reruns of Dallas. Time stops and regular life is suspended when there is an important football (soccer) match.
I recall such a night sitting with Ali Farka. He was all royalty in a long green boubou, cap, clean black shoes and a white cap. His bearing was regal, yet completely approachable. He took out his wallet to pay for the beers we consumed, brought from his bar in his hotel by his employee. I noticed a few credit cards, commonplace in the West but quite rare in countries such as Mali. This man supported and employed hundreds of people, yet lived in a small modest house on the banks of the river. He was comfortable with all people, regardless of their status or origin. He was full of stories, history, parables, the wisdom of thousands of years of thought condensed into a simple conversation. But it was always more than that. Ali Farka Toure did not merely talk to you. He held court. He attracted people effortlessly, by the sheer weight of his personality. He respected all, but deferred to no one. He was his own man, at ease in the world. He drank his beer as if he were a patron in his own establishment, while he smoked a few Dunhill cigarettes. One got the feeling that there is no where in the world that he would rather be than in Niafunke.
Soon we are boarding a pinasse (large canoe) for the short trip across the ancient waterway where we will sit and talk and play music. On the way over Ali begins to play his njarka, a one-stringed fiddle with a snake rattle inside it that gives a touch of sweet distortion to its plaintive cries. He abruptly stops playing and gives me the small gourd instrument. I am barely able to scratch out an njarka version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” an old blues song by the Mississippi Sheiks. Fish, water, music and the souls of Black folk come to mind. I see the Niger and think of the Mississippi. Rivers have been our lifeblood from time immemorial. They are the perennial super highways, the convergence of art, food, commerce, music, religion and culture. Africans have played music along rivers and upon rivers from the time of the ancient civilizations of the Nile, through the Congo, the Volta, the Gambia and the Joliba, known today as the great river Niger. The red, gold and green of the Malian flag flies on a pole at the end of the pinasse. Someone has added the number seven in the center in bold script. It is the seventh month.