DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER’S JOURNEY TO MALI:

THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES — CONVERSATIONS ON MUSIC ELEVATED TO A STATE OF ART

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Chapter 4, part 1

in the book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette

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Dee Dee Bridgewater Tracing Her Ancestral Roots in Mali

Photo: Philippe Pierangeli

In August 2006 when I arrive on assignment in Bamako, the heat is brutal, the air is saturated with equatorial humidity and the streets are crusted with dust. The flat, brightly colored metropolis split in two by the serpentine Niger River is the capital of Mali, the seventh largest country in Africa and one of the poorest in the world. Yet it also boasts a wealth of music that largely flies under the radar, with the rare exceptions of the late Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré from Timbuktu, star singer Oumou Sangaré and kora maestro Toumani Diabaté.

West Africa time is fluid compared to the constrictive urban western world where speed it seems often obscures the essence of artistry. Into this open setting arrives Dee Dee Bridgewater, one of jazz’s most esteemed vocalists. She’s in the midst of her odyssey to discover and connect to her ancestral roots.

First stop: Le Hogon Restaurant Espace Cultural, one of the best clubs for music in Bamako. Dressed in a black cotton dress, Dee Dee weaves her way through a couple of dozen motorcycles parked in front.

The one-story building from the outside looks like a Mississippi Delta juke joint even though the music emanating from inside is distinctively Malian with its scintillating polyrhythms accentuating the bluesy beat. After paying the entrance fee (the equivalent of $3, which includes a free bottle of Castel, the dark lager national beer), the crowd flows through the low-ceilinged entrance toward the large open-air patio where above the stars pierce the night sky and the heat lightning flashes.

On stage is a makeshift band of locals playing an array of instruments closely associated with Malian music: the harp-like 22-string kora, the lute-like ngoni, the percussive calabash gourd and the hourglass-shaped, communicative talking drums. The players are cooking up a storm of rippling dance music that Dee Dee soon plunges into, catching the sparkling Malian groove and dancing on the tiled floor packed with other likeminded people enraptured by the mesmerizing beats and the undulating, blues-like storytelling sung in Bambara, the indigenous language spoken in the country.

Photo: Dan Ouellette

In a blue shirt adorned with Malian art motifs, Cheick Tidiane Seck, a Malian keyboardist/producer who splits his time at his homes in Bamako and Paris, escorts Dee Dee to the stage, hands her a microphone and encourages her to sing while the band plays. She closes her eyes and immediately scats into the soul of the rhythm.

During a break in the dance floor action, Dee Dee beams. “This is home,” she says, as the excitement of the evening makes her skin glow. “I believe my roots are in Mali.”

This faith undergirds what will become her latest project, Red Earth: A Malian Journey, a striking mélange of music where Dee Dee’s traditional American jazz background converges with her newfound passion for the music of Mali. “It’s a whole new musical departure for me,” she says. “I’ve just finally found myself, I’ve finally found my identity, I’ve found the African part of who I am.”

As an art form, jazz has always promoted the invaluable notion of exploring one’s true identity. The study of the elders leads to the incubation of emulation and eventually — and hopefully — the discovery phase of finding one’s own voice. But for Dee Dee, who years ago found her voice within the context of the straight-ahead jazz world, Mali has represented a deeper search for identity that she needed to embark upon.

Red Earth goes far beyond a concept album. Indeed, it’s a profound homecoming that sonically pleases the ear and spiritually offers deliverance to the singer.

Photo: Philippe Pierangeli; artwork: Jean-Luc Barilla; title design: Tulani Bridgewater-Kowlaski

In her liner notes to Red Earth, Dee Dee concludes, “This project is my ode to Mali and to Africa; it is the story of a lost child finding her way home. It is my reawakening…[The album] is, simply put, my journey home.”

Dee Dee’s Malian odyssey begins in 1999 when she was elected as an ambassador of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. She visited several FAO projects in such African countries as Senegal. Meanwhile she began collecting albums of African music. Her then-husband and producer Jean-Marie Durand recalls that whenever they played the music at their home in Paris, Dee Dee kept gravitating to Malian traditional tunes.

“Dee Dee was blindfolded,” he tells me at Le Hogon. “The music of Mali resonated with her, without her knowing where it came from.”

After the show, Dee Dee notes, “Whenever I heard the music from Mali, I would get jolted. It was as if I knew it was coming from a deep place within me.”

Mali — 2004

In 2004, Dee Dee went to Mali to test her assumption that the country was the source of her African ancestry. She contacted Cheick to help her explore the music scene and seek his wisdom on her plan to embark upon a jazz-Mali musical voyage. “I loved the musical connection he made with Hank Jones producing the [1995] album, Sarala,” she says. “I was looking to Cheick to be the musical coordinator, to propose songs, musicians and singers; to come up with new arrangements of traditional Malian songs. He knows this music.”

One of their first Bamako stops was a restaurant to see ngoni player Bassékou Kouyaté. “I was so touched by what I was hearing that on Cheick’s prodding I went onstage and sang,” Dee Dee says. “The music made my spirit soar. I can’t explain what happened. It was an unspoken thing; we spoke the same language musically. I was making up lyrics as we jammed. It was like I was in a trance.”

Photo: Dan Ouellette

But even before that, Dee Dee had already experienced two significant nonmusical incidents in Bamako, one upon arrival and the other the next morning. “At the airport an old man kept calling out to me,” she recalls. “He was calling me a name, but I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand French. He started getting upset because he felt that I was ignoring him. So, I asked Cheick to talk with him. As it turned out, the old man was convinced that I was his long-lost niece who was finally returning home.”

(Later, she says, when she was given an outfit made of Malian cotton fabric and would walk down the street, people talked to her in Bambara and told her she looked like a Peul, the nomadic ethnic group from the north not far from Timbuktu. “I even met the president of Mali and he told me I was Peul,” she says.)

Dee Dee’s growing suspicions that her ancestral roots emulated from Mali were further confirmed the next day when she opened the curtains of her room at the Sofitel Hotel. “I looked out and there was red earth everywhere,” she says. “All my life I have been fascinated by red earth.”

Dee Dee says that when she was a young child in Memphis, where she was born, she used to revel in the red earth in her family’s driveway: “My mother tells me that I would take off all my clothes and roll in it. My sandy blond hair would be covered with red earth. I just loved it.”

Mali — 2006

After her 2004 visit, Dee Dee returned to Paris and jumpstarted a jazz-meets-Malian music album that she initially planned to record in France with Malian musicians who had emigrated there. “But I had doubts I could pull that off,” she says. “I told Jean-Marie that we had to go back to Bamako. I wanted to be there, to smell the land, to touch the people, to feel the country, to be inspired by Mali. I wanted to embrace the culture.”

So, in August 2006, Dee Dee arrives in Bamako with a mission: to meet Malian musicians, to jam with them, to find common personal and musical ground, and begin recording at Bogolan, the modest Bamako studio of the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

On the second day of this visit, she says, “I want to make this be a heartfelt meeting of two cultures where Malian musicians come into my world and where they come into mine. We’re going to throw ourselves into the water and swim. We’re all great musicians open to the music. We’ll understand when we speak, even if it is in different languages. I want to make this an honest album.”

Given that Mali’s traditional music sounds like it has a direct link to the

Delta-fueled blues of John Lee Hooker, many American acts have comfortably recorded with the country’s musicians. Notable collaborations include roots guitarist Ry Cooder linking up with Ali Farka Touré on the 1994 Grammy Award-winning Talkin’ Timbuktu CD (Rykodisc), blues artist Taj Mahal connecting with Toumani Diabaté on 1999’s Kulanjan (Rykodisc) and jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd meeting up with Toumani on 2004’s MALIcool (Sunnyside).

But, arguably, Dee Dee’s desire to marry the two musical worlds, with their common African ancestry, is the most ambitious recorded undertaking to date. “We’ll be doing some jazz standards like Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints,’ Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Afro Blue’ and Les McCann’s ‘Compared to What,’” she says. “But I’m also setting off to discover Malian traditional music.”

END OF PART 1 OF CHAPTER 4

Next week in Part 2, we continue to follow Dee Dee as she records in Mali.

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Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette

Dan Ouellette has been writing about jazz and Americana music for 30 years for such publications as Billboard, DownBeat, Quincy Jones’s Paris-based QWEST_TV mag