Afel Bocoum: “Music is the social security of our country”

A former agricultural development official, the Malian singer and guitarist took the time – more than 10 years – to sow the seeds of his 4th album Lindé, a superb gem that vibrates with the musical traditions of his country and styles from elsewhere. The harvest is beautiful: new tributaries irrigate the traditional sounds of his native region of Niafunké, on the banks of the Niger River, such as reggae, soukous, afrobeat. Produced by Damon Albarn and Nick Gold on the prestigious World Circuit label, Afel Bocoum combines the richness of the Malian terroir with daring innovations, surrounded by a new generation of musicians as well as renowned, local and international stars. The crystalline arpeggios of Korist Madou Sidiki Diabaté, brother of Toumani, nestle in the roundness of the trombone of Jamaican Vin Gordon, ex-Skatalites and former teammate of Bob Marley. Electric guitars and n’goni weave their heady melodies, Afel’s deep voice – “one of the treasures of Mali” considers Damon Albarn – dialogue with the fervor of the choir, pulsed by the percussions of the late Hama Sankaré (calabash) or Tony Allen (drums). The worthy heir of the great Ali Farka Touré, whom he accompanied for 30 years, sings pacifist and united messages, his hopes for his country, his nostalgia, without losing his humor, as in the very dancing single Avion .

Le Point Afrique: Your album called Lindé pays tribute to this wild space near your hometown Niafunké, in northern Mali. What does it mean to you?

Afel Bocoum: I lived there happy memories of childhood. We would go there every weekend, accompanied by an adult who made sure there were no quarrels between the children, and pointed us in the right direction in case we got lost. In this territory located near the delta of the Niger River, we used to pick fruit, hare hunting, rabbit hunting … It’s a way for me to return by thought, because unfortunately today, it There is too much insecurity in this region, I cannot go there.

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Is that why you left Niafunké for Bamako?

Yes. The North has become unlivable. At the time, there was the rebellion, then jihadism and banditry arrived in my country. It was unheard of! There was no more music. We had to preach, go to mosques … Our music materials were ransacked, broken. We cannot identify the perpetrators of this destruction. We don’t know who we’re dealing with, we don’t know who our enemies are: jihadists, rebels or bandits. Everything is confused. We the musicians therefore left for Bamako the capital, and in other regions of the country. We spread out. I brought my family so that my children could go to school. I found myself in unknown land. I am in exile in my own country. I am lost, disoriented. I don’t even know how many years I’ve been gone. My hope of returning home is very slim, so counting the years would be of no use to me … A climate of calm in the North, that’s all I’m waiting for.

Singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum grew up literally and figuratively in the shadows of legend Ali Farka Touré.
© Christien Jaspars

What do you miss the most ?

My parents, who refused to follow me. My river, where I fish for fish. My village, where I can feed my family with 500 CFA per day. Life is cheaper there. In Bamako, I cannot afford to live. I hold on. Being an artist in the capital is difficult when you’re not a griot. I am disturbed here, this is not my space. I never knew how to live there. In Niafunké, my music will necessarily be different. Because I will have information that I do not currently have. I will then understand the problems of the North. Because I haven’t understood everything, so far it’s really complex.

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The Niger River is the primary source of your music, of your inspiration?

Yes. By the river, I feel in paradise. Without him, Niafunké would not exist. It allows rice growing, fishing … It is very important, that’s why I sing it. I am one of his defenders because he is about to be silted up. It is a source that comes to us from God. And the river has its own music. Whether you are an African, European or Asian musician, you can hear it: its waves, but also its complaints, when it is silted up.

It was in Niafunké that you met the great Ali Farka Touré, whom you then accompanied for 30 years …

As a child, I listened to his music, and I tried to approach him by all means. I managed to get into his life. I prepared her tea, took care of her provisions. Later, I found out that we were from the same family. He was my maternal uncle. Everyone loved him, followed him all day. He played that instrument from Europe that ordinary people did not have: the guitar. Ali is my spiritual and musical father.

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Afel Bocoum’s “Lindé” album is a mix of original music drawn from Ali Farka Touré’s source and rhythms from other horizons.
© Afel Bocoum

What did he teach you?

All ! Music, living with others, knowing my country and loving it, wherever I am. Many groups today carry on his legacy. We do everything to preserve it. We follow his advice: never make unnecessary music, just to dance. Because our country needs it to disseminate messages of topicality, of society. When we were in Europe, I remember Ali telling me: “It’s pretty Europe: there is work, money, greenery, everything is perfect, clean. That’s why that Africans want to come. But we must not envy others. You can be inspired by it, bring home what seems good to you, install it, work and develop your country in this way. It will do your communities good. But never settle in Europe because your country needs you. You have to love it, develop it “. I will never forget him ! The country of others, he said, is like dried droppings that you trample on: it doesn’t stick to your shoes, the smell doesn’t follow you. In short, no matter how hard you deploy, you will only remain a Malian in these countries.

Your father Abakina Ousmane Bocoum was a great player of n’jarka, this monochord violin typical of Mali that we find in your music. Why did he forbid you to play music?

One day I saw this violin hanging on the wall of our house. It was my father’s instrument, but I never saw it in action. I later learned that he was Mali’s greatest violinist at the time. But he stopped because he was maraboutized, enemies left to bewitch him so that he could no longer play. It cut him off from music. That’s why he forbade me to play. He didn’t want the same for me. But unbeknownst to him, I was still going to secretly make music with Ali Farka. When my father found out, he was really not happy.

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On this album, you cross your blues with many musical influences, from reggae to soukous. What drove this urge?

I drew on the rich terroir of the rhythms of my country. I mixed them with sounds from elsewhere, with international collaborations as well. It enriched me a lot. I surrounded myself with young musicians that I myself had trained. By supervising me in the conception of this album, they took me out of my habits to create something else. They led me not to confine myself to doing Ali Farka. They challenged me and led me to other music, other structures to build a piece. It was not easy because they are from another generation. They consume salsa, rap, ragga… I’m happy for the youth; she wants to make other music, rap, for example, fills stadiums in Mali.

What is your connection with your guitar?

She’s my foster mother. Every morning, I greet her. It allowed me to travel around the world. With her I am happy.

What did the superb song Fari Njungu inspire you?

It is a critique of those who do not want to work the land and a way to stimulate them to start agricultural production, to develop our country thanks to our efforts. I am quoting all the lakes from Timbuktu to Niafunké via Goundam, Léré… We have enough space to work. And those who do not want to get started, we leave them aside and we move forward! I am a trained farmer. I was a civil servant, in charge of supervising the peasants, to teach them modern techniques, so that they become autonomous and independent. Currently, we need certain means to cultivate the land and to arm ourselves with courage and conscience. You don’t want a farmer.

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Afel Bocoum is a worthy heir to Ali Farka Touré.
© Seydou Camara

What languages ​​do you sing in?

In Songhai, Fulani, Hausa … Because important messages must be conveyed across the country, where the media are not present. To be heard, to communicate with all these people, not to leave them aside, we sing in different languages. Music is the social security of our country. With the joking cousin, the sanankouya, it ensures the role of social cohesion.

You evoke this desire for unity in Yer Gando …

Our country is indivisible. It’s strange to see Kidal separate from Mali. Let us be told the truth, there are things left unsaid!

What are your hopes for a new government in Mali? (the interview was carried out before the inauguration of the transitional president Bah N’Daw editor’s note)

Whenever power is taken by force, I strongly condemn. But it looks like the population has consumed it, or it’s me who doesn’t quite understand. The Malian is not fooled, he no longer believes in speeches. Our aim is to organize elections as soon as possible and to hand over power to civilians.

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* Lindé, Afel Bocoum, (World Circuit / BMG) 2020.

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