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FM to Web - DIRTMUSIC by Hugo Race

The chemistry between Hugo Race and Chris Eckman (ex Bad Seeds - ex Walkabouts..) is really rare. The adventures of Dirtmusic are rarer(!).... Hugo Race shares with us some of these stories...
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The chemistry between Hugo Race and Chris Eckman (ex Bad Seeds - ex Walkabouts..) is really rare. The adventures of Dirtmusic are rarer(!).... Hugo Race shares with us some of these stories...


Hugo Race plays the Festival au Desert.
Photographer: Chris Brokaw

We’re in the backroom of the Djembe Bar, Bamako, Mali, over on the northern edge of town where the streetlights thin out and the shadows gather. A hip young audience hangs out here, tuned into the hard-edged urban sounds of extended jam sessions with rock instrumentation, rhythmically based on complex Malian syncopa¬tions. Relentless drum and bass dance beats laced with African electric guitar: soulful, electrified. The vocalists come and go, singing the praises of the big shots and beauties in the room, angling for a cadeau or reward in return.

These songs are delivered with murderous at¬titude through a PA system cranked deep into the distortion zone, and I’m digging it big-time. Tomorrow we’re flying out of Mali, but for now the night’s running hot. The club promoter, figur¬ing we were passing through from the Festival au Desert, has asked me in the French lingua franca if we’re a band.

Well, as a matter of fact …

The African musicians hand us their instruments with curious smiles – Chris Brokaw, the drum kit with its loose hardware and cymbals; Chris Eckman, the subsonic bass; me, a local Fender Strat copy, with the MC, wearing a jungle suit and a quizzical expression, holding the single battered microphone so I can sing into it, for there are no mic stands in this place. We segue from our ‘Still Running’ into a slow African blues and Brokaw switches to double time to keep the vibe up. The MC and I exchange looks and he takes the mic, singing in Bambara, the beginning of each syllable delivered like an icepick to the heart. Tall, thin men in sharp suits and women with beehives are chilling out on couches in the smoky air.

Our band is Dirtmusic, and this is where we belong.

Chris Eckman raised the dream of going to Mali while we were touring in central Europe. Later, he made it happen.
We arrive separately from Warsaw, New York and Melbourne and meet up in the transit lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport with our guitars and yellow fever certificates.

A mixed bag of African businessmen and Euro¬pean tourists and adventurers board the packed Air France flight to Bamako. I sit with a posse of mid¬dle-aged Spaniards heading off for an African safari, their stained denims, brandy breath and drooping moustaches vibing postcolonial decadence. A Raj-era Englishman has swapped seats with me so he can sit with his wife. She glances at my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and turns to her partner.

‘Well, look,’ she says, ‘he’s reading On the Road – you read that once too, didn’t you, dear? Years ago?’

This is the only incoming flight tonight at Bamako airport and beyond the perimeter a gentle chaos mills around under huge palm trees. Masses of luggage are thrown higgledy-piggledy onto a rubber belt and X-rayed by a security guard, whose inter-mittent gaze is unlikely to unscramble the images seething across his screen. Two elderly porters pull my luggage and guitar away in the general melee of the arrivals hall, and I hang on akimbo lest the bags disappear into scenery.

In the end, it’s two teenagers – ‘Boss, donne-moi une travaille!’ – who stake their claim as we exit into the roiling humidity of a parking lot where four-wheel drives and taxis mill around in the dim chaos of bodies, vehicles and bags.

We climb into a LandCruiser and drive through the Bamako sprawl. Few Western style big city lights here. The tallest building is a Sofitel installed in a Stalinist cement high-rise, harking back to Africa’s ties with the Eastern bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The pensione is on a flat red dirt road. Huge trees tower overhead, waxy leaved and succulent: palms, eucalypts. You sense the equator is near. The clustered minarets of a mosque watch over a vacant lot the size of a stadium; shanties proliferate across the packed-dirt terrain between hairdress¬ing kiosks; fruit stalls and wrecked automobiles stacked in sculptures of rusted iron. A galaxy of smells – spiced meat cooking on roadside grills, mixed-fuel exhausts, open drains and the pervasive smell of burning African grass, part perfume, part mosquito repellent and part narcotic.

On the nearby strip of bars and clubs, bootied-up girls and sharp-dressed guys throw back cocktails before bundling into taxis for clubs and parties un¬known. The night is hot and young, and I haven’t yet got a clear idea of what this vast alien city is about, although one thing rapidly becomes clearer as the night goes on: if Bamako ever sleeps, it’s only for a brief catnap between four and five in the morning. Families sit outside dim cement-box homes around a television, a Peugeot crawls by raising clouds of dust, a stray dog takes a dump in a puddle and the mosquitoes are zeroing in on my body heat. The dark is deep here after sundown; it’s too easy to get lost. I head back to the pensione and crawl under the mosquito net, but sound floods the room from several directions: the distant thud of street djembes, the saccharine soul of Lionel Richie from the karaoke club across the way and the orgiastic guitar solos of Santana from the bar below.

A delirium later, I’m packing my bags for the trip to Essakane. The call to prayer rises like an air-raid siren from the neighbourhood mosque and the last taxis roll down Rue 254 in the temporary calm before Bamako reanimates at first light.

Dawn is breaking over the serpentine oscillations of the Niger River, flashing off the surface in daz¬zling shards of raw light. We’re cruising overhead in a Mali Air DC10 and the terrain recalls the moon’s magnetic fields or the saltpan country of the Australian dead heart. The massive river cuts a winding circuit of oxbows and alluvial islands around the southern edge of the Sahara desert, bringing the water of life to the many peoples scat¬tered throughout the interior. It also signifies the last frontier before the high-alert terrorist zone into which Western governments strongly recommend their citizens refrain from travelling.

That is why the Festival au Desert is located out here. The dunes and scrub beyond the Niger were, through the 1990s, the frontline of a guer¬rilla civil war in one of the poorest countries in the world, fought between nomadic Tuareg desert tribes and the Mali government. The Festival au Desert was created as a meeting point for Tuareg people dispersed by war and by the confiscation of nomad lands into the camps along the Malian border, particularly in Mauritania and Algeria. It symbolises peace, unity and regeneration after crisis – a meeting of the tribes.

The desert beyond the oasis of this festival is, however, still volatile. East, across the border with Niger, French and multinational corporations are mining uranium. Even further east lies the Sudan and the ongoing tragedy in Darfur. In neighbouring Mauritania, the Lisbon–Dakar stockcar rally has this week been cancelled because of four French tourists executed by Islamofascists, and the shooting of three soldiers investigating three days later, while two French journalists are currently remanded in Niger after reporting abuses of the population and the environment in the mining zones operated by the Areva corporation.

On the ground at Timboctou, we negotiate the chaos of the arrivals hall as local guides search for their tour parties, and taxi drivers, their unmarked four-wheel drives parked outside with engines running, hustle for clients. I’d heard rumours of unlucky Europeans bailed up by their drivers in the wild dune country beyond Timboctou but we’re fortunate enough to meet Many Ansar, the charismatic festival director. He soon has us in the back of a four-wheel drive, with a member of the Malian musical collective Tartit riding shotgun in coloured robes and designer sunglasses.

In the arid, medieval desert city of Timboctou, bizarre columns and facades are silhouetted against the whitening sky, and women and children sell dried banana skins and fish scales on the shoulder of the packed-dirt road. A skinned pig drains from a meat-hook nearby the facade of an evangelist church mission, reminder of a not so distant past in which missionaries, slavers and mining companies ‘explored’ Africa and sent back home the wealth of millennia.

At the single red light we encounter traversing the city, an ancient woman extends one withered hand for foreign alms, her face cast in shadow by a veil.

Past graffitied mud brick walls and prehistoric mining derricks, onto a kind of gravel highway, red dirt spraying out from under the wheels. The vegetation is thinning out as our driver turns off at a hand-drawn sign reading ‘Essakane’. Tyre tracks lead away into the rough terrain and several other LandCruisers are nearby – it appears we’re forming a convoy for some cross-country scrambling.
Brokaw is talking to a mature-age American couple and the woman says, ‘Oh, you guys are a band? Maybe you heard of my son’s band – they’re called the Dandy Warhols?’

The temperature’s high by the time we enter the Saharan dune country for real. We’re fishtail¬ing all over the place on the loose white sand, and nearly sideswipe several trees as our driver whips the steering to stop the Toyota from rolling – a prospect I don’t want to consider, with our gear loosely strapped onto the utility tray. The trail has deteriorated to nothing, we’re idling in deep nowhere and the driver appears lost in thought. But our guide from Tartit has an intuitive sense of direction and she steers us around through the fields of sand right up to the stone gates that command the entrance to the site.

The Festival au Desert spreads out across the dunes in a labyrinth of white tents, distant stage scaffolding silhouetted against a cobalt-blue Saha¬ran sky. Continuing on foot, we meet the friendly French-speaking organisational crew and, after signing in and collecting our security passes, we relocate our vehicle and driver – bogged in loose sand a half kilometre away. The dry heat has risen to around 30 degrees by now and, as we carry our personal load of 40 kilos each across the waves of soft, fine sand, it begins to cook our brains. A young African in robes standing on an elevation a few metres away asks: ‘Puis vous aider?’

My response is automatic. ‘Mais oui!’

Our helper summons a few friends out of no¬where and we’re a team lugging under the noonday sun. The guy turns back and looks at Brokaw who’s hampered by guitars, then yells out in perfect Eng¬lish: ‘Hey you, hurry up!’

We find ourselves billeted facing the tent of a young Tuareg band called Tamikrest. There’s a US Vogue photoshoot taking place, using the extended Tamikrest tribe as a picturesque backdrop (and musical soundtrack) for a lithe American model clad in poverty chic. The Vogue team sets up and breaks down with lightning speed but the ten or twelve guys and girls of the Tamikrest group seem indifferent, with nomad desert cool.

I’m talking with some of the Tamikrest crew from their hometown of Kidal about a djembe player to guest with Dirtmusic tomorrow night. These mana¬gerial cats are organised and come prepared with business cards and, even despite my rusted French, we’re figuring stuff out at speed.

Brokaw grabs the dobro and wanders over to play cross-legged in the sand. All around there’s a sense of movement, expansion, as several thousand people converge on the campsite and the sun rapidly sinks behind a sine-wave horizon. Something’s going to happen here now.

Vieux Farka Touré, the son of Ali, is one of to¬night’s big-name acts. I walk with Baba, the band’s djembe player, who introduces me to the spread of the Festival au Desert after dark. We drift past the inner core of kiosks and administrative and artists’ tents and across the sands: people talking around campfires, conversations floating in the dark in Afri¬can, French and English, as well as Spanish, Italian, German and more. All around the tourist camps, the Tuaregs are riding in out of the desert on their rangy camels in groups of two or three, draped in robes and turbans with only their eyes showing and long, curved swords hanging by their sides.

The Tuareg camps spill further out across the wilderness of Essakane – women swathed in black robes, roaming children, woodfires, goats, teth¬ered camels, a profusion of cooking smells. Above the scattered trees, the stars begin to appear in a quantity I haven’t seen since the electrosmog-free Australian interior – but with the equatorial Afri¬can sky displaying the constellations in a different orientation. Orion is high over the dunes and, on its heels Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in the sky, described thousands of years ago by the Malian Dogon people as a twin-sun solar system – a fact only recently confirmed by Western science’s high-powered astronomical observatories.

Accurate Do¬gon knowledge of the galaxy actually extends much further than this and in tribal performance Dogon drummers beat on spherical calabashes with metal¬lic fingers, gyrate and somersault masked in orbital dances to the rhythm of abstract mathematics. It gets me thinking about the origins of homo sapiens in east Africa, not so far from here. We’re near the source, and these are the stars they saw back in the beginning of human time – year zero …

I’m sitting near a fire when a Tuareg guy in his robes and sword sits down and strikes up a con¬versation. He says he’s far from a far-away town; I ask where, and he points over the dunes.

‘How do you navigate in the desert?’

‘Les étoiles’. He gestures at the stars then says, in English this time, ‘The seven sisters’, pointing at the Pleiades.
I try to explain how in Australia the constella¬tions are inverted, and he shakes his head and laughs and offers me a cigarette.

Several thousand people have gathered at the main stage. The temperature rapidly drops, and they pull on coats, scarves and headwear against the cold. A thin wedge of waxing crescent moon hangs low over the dunes, the full lunar orb silhouetted by an astral halo.

The sound in front of the speaker stacks is a little confused but, as you wander the sandbowl amphi¬theatre, it morphs and mutates. Eventually I find a sonic sweet-spot high on the rear sand dune about 700 metres from the stage. The view is great, too, even if the cold gets into your bones after midnight. Vendors stroll through the crowd carrying trays of thick, sweet Tuareg tea and selling Dunhill Reds, bottles of warm beer and soft drinks. The commu¬nal feeling is warm and high even during the early evening’s European acts. By the time the Africans take the stage the mood is electric.

Tamikrest, transformed under lights by their traditional Tuareg robes and turbans, lay down a set of amplified desert chants and drones that resonates off the cooling sands. You wouldn’t know their av¬erage age is around twenty. The regal Noura Mint Seymali fronts a traditional Mauritanian band in her robes and tiara; the long hypnotic tracks shifting tapestries for her extraordinary voice, as if Bessie Smith fronted a North African funk orchestra. Vieux Farka Touré et les amis d’Ali are road-honed sharp, executing a funk’n’roll of such power and precision it makes you reconsider what it means to be musically tight. The fact that Vieux is the son of Ali, and carrying on the tradition of Mali desert blues, assures him a spectacular reception from the crowd here at a festival closely identified with his legendary father.

The early start and long journey from Bamako, the desert’s crushing heat and the night’s clean chill, the excitement of these astonishing sights and sounds has worn me out: I hit the sack back in the Dirtmusic tent and drift away listening to the pounding of distant djembes and the oceanic hiss of campfire voices.

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