DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER’S JOURNEY TO MALI:
THE LANDFILL CHRONICLES — CONVERSATIONS ON MUSIC ELEVATED TO A STATE OF ART
Chapter 4, part 3 in the Medium book The Landfill Chronicles, the conversation memoirs by Dan Ouellette
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‘I’VE COME A VERY LONG WAY’
It’s Sunday night, and again the air is so humid it could be carved with a butter knife. But no one seems to care. It’s a special party at Malian superstar vocalist Oumou Sangaré’s Space Cultural Wassulu. It’s an under-the-stars performance space adjacent to Residence Wassulu, a hotel she owns. Cheick Tidiane Seck has organized a jam session that serves as an audition of sorts for Dee Dee’s project. The sound check ends, and Cheick introduces various Malian musicians to Dee Dee whose small entourage is ordering dinner and drinks. More bottles of Castel help cool the evening. Keep hydrated is the operative mantra.
With the ever-smiling Cheick taking on the role of a cultural mayor, gradually more musicians arrive, each getting their pictures taken with Dee Dee. Eventually the music begins, and Dee Dee’s project starts to take shape.
At first, cooling herself with a beige fan, she approaches the stage that’s separated from the audience by a pool of water. She observes the musicians casually yet confidently delivering the enthralling beat and shimmering kora notes. Then Dee Dee commands the vocalist microphone, and the magic begins. As she dances, she sings wordless vocals buoyed by a bluesy sensibility as Cheick makes his electric keyboard sound like marimbas.
After each song, new musicians fill the stage, and Dee Dee elevates the energy of the tunes with her gusty vocal scats. The rhythm accelerates with a talking drum solo, then settles as Dee Dee extemporizes about her journey: “I’ve come a very long way…We’re going to let the music take us tonight…Everybody’s got the spirit.”
After several tunes, Oumou arrives with a bouquet of flowers and hugs Dee Dee. With the band playing a funky, hip-hop beat, Oumou enters the action, joining in with Dee Dee and four other female Malian vocalists. Soon the music turns into a traditional Malian tune, and all the singers hug each other again.
As for Oumou, who has been an out-spoken women’s rights advocate in Mali, Dee Dee says, “She has become like a sister to me. Even though I’m older, she’s taken on the responsibility of being an older sister.”
The day before Dee Dee and Oumou, who is also an FAO ambassador, visit two rural villages outside the city where women run self-sufficiency grassroots projects seeded by the U.N.
They stop at a beekeeping collective in Kati and a homespun animal husbandry operation in Fana Fiercoro. The roads are rutted and dusty red and populated by donkey-drawn carts hauling corn and firewood. At each stop, the townspeople welcome the visitors with festive music and dancing. In Fana Fiercoro, the community leader organizes an impromptu meeting, introducing the two ambassadors and asking them to speak.
Dee Dee, speaking in English that is translated into Bambara, says, “I’m so impressed by all the work of the women. I’m here to tell the people of the United States that the people of Mali are not waiting for help, but are helping themselves.” She then adds, “I’m proud to be the first and only black American who is an FAO ambassador, and I strongly believe my roots are in Mali.”
Later Dee Dee, reflecting on her own business prowess, says, “What’s so impressive about the FAO is that it financially supports women. In Mali, a man can sleep well even if his family his starving. A woman cannot. She will always seek to nourish her family. In that way Mali is a very feminine country. Women are taking the lead.”
That theme is accentuated on Red Earth by the plaintive tune “No More (Bambo),” written by Tata Bambo Kouyaté. She joins Dee Dee on the song critiquing forced marriage. The song proved to be so culturally powerful in the early ’60s that the newly born Republic of Mali abolished its practice.
It’s Monday morning and Dee Dee arrives at Bogolan, a modest building that in the control room features a wall-of-fame montage of album cover art for recordings made here, by such musicians as Ali Farka Touré, Rokia Traoré, Neba Solo, Boubacar Traoré and Toumani Diabaté.
In the studio several guitars are hung on a brick wall as well as several canvases of hand-painted mud cloth (called bogolon).
The room feels simple and rootsy, perfect for the first session of Dee Dee’s album, a Malian griot tune given a catchy jazzy update: “Demissènw (Children Go ‘Round),” featuring Bassekou Kouyaté on ngoni and his wife Ami Sacko on vocals, along with Bassekou’s group, Ngoni Ba, and Dee Dee’s 14-year-old son, Gabriel Durand, on guitar. Everyone plays in the same studio room, in lieu of separating into isolation booths.
Dee Dee, casually attired in a short-sleeved white cotton blouse and jeans, writes down the pronunciation of the song’s Bambara words in her journal, which also includes the lyrics in English she wrote to make the cultural connection on importance of children taking charge in the world.
The tune starts out with a traditional Malian feel as Bassekou takes the fluttering, mandolin-like lead, then bursts with a bluesy and jazzy ecstasy as Dee Dee and Ami sing. At the end of one take, Dee Dee says, “C’est bien,” and then asks Ami to be more assertive in her vocals. They all charge back into the piece with an exhilarating rush, with the two vocalists dancing as they sing.
This time, Dee Dees exclaims, “We nailed it!” The performers retreat to the engineering room to hear the playback. Cheick who played percussion-like keyboards on the tune says, “The emotion was so great. My job has been to find the right kind of musicians for Dee Dee to play with. This session had magic in many moments.”
Cheick, who has a long history of working with American jazz musicians from Don Cherry to Hank Jones, is pleased with how Dee Dee is following her muse. “She has been so respectful of the Malian music and musicians,” he says. “She feels the vibe of the music’s roots.”
Bassekou agrees. “We love what Dee Dee is doing,” he says. “We practiced this song at our house, structuring it so that it would come out just the right way.” Ami adds, “Dee Dee working with my husband was able to adapt the Malian tradition into any musical situation.”
“This is our little gem,” Dee Dee says. “We thought about polishing it up in the mixing, but decided to leave it.”
Writing in Red Earth’s liner notes, Dee Dee describes the one-room recording session as organically raw and honest: “That’s why it has such a different sound. Mixing it was almost impossible because everyone bled together — voices and instruments melded, which was the original album concept.” But she noted, “It would have been quite an undertaking to do the whole album that way.”
END OF PART 3 OF CHAPTER 4
Next week in Part 4, we continue to shadow Dee Dee from Bogolan to Rotterdam with Red Earth and get the 2017 NEA Jazz Master’s present reflections on Mali project.
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