Jack Carneal is a lecturer in English at Towson University. He is 39. A half dozen years ago, while living in Mali with his wife and child, he discovered that crappy one-string guitars can enthrall, grooves are universal, and sound quality doesn’t mean shit when the sounds are good.
He took the music home with him—some of which he recorded himself, some of it on crappy cassette tapes he had purchased in markets. He passed out his own boots of this music to friends and talked it up to the honchos at Drag City, a Chicago label for whom he recorded with the bands Anomoanon and Palace Music. He decided he had to release his personal stash by founding a label, Yaala Yaala Records, under the Drag City umbrella. The first three records were released on May 22; you can read Brent Burton’s review of them here.
Last week, I exchanged e-mails with Carneal about the new releases.
What brought you to Bougouni, Mali?
My wife got a small grant to do some research on rural community school systems. We were there for almost a year.
What were your first impressions of the street musicians? What was it like seeing them live?
I was blown away. Even the most basic musician rocked in a way I had never seen before and have not seen since. I watched a guy playing a completely cheesy mid-80s era Schecter copy through an old Peavey amp with no effects and he was wringing more beautiful music out of it than you could ever imagine. I saw a man playing a one-string jelingoni and I truly thought I was going to weep openly. It stripped me clean of any misconceptions I might’ve had about music and performance. He was playing a guitar with one string and it wasn’t some gimmick; all he’d ever known was that one string. It is the only perfect music I’ve ever heard in my life. To this day I cannot watch a djembe troupe without feeling an almost overpowering sense of joy.
Were you able to strike up a conversation with the one-string jelingoni player?
Unfortunately, no. I saw him at a live performance, actually, with a few other bands.
But the issue of what I “talked about” with anyone in Mali is important, or at least germane somehow. My French is passable but not very good; I didn’t find Bambara terribly difficult but it took me a few months to memorize the long and complex greetings—it’s not just, “What’s up?” in Mali—so my learning curve of learning verbs and nouns and all that was slowed down. And, finally, many Malians, particularly out in Bougouni, did not speak French any better than I did. So more often than not I’d find myself in these wordless exchanges that resulted in many comical situations. But it also reduced unnecessary verbiage which I quite liked. For example, when I was listening to music with a friend it was impossible to say much beyond, This is great! We weren’t really able to get into much detail, so I was able to listen to a lot of music without being too concerned about verbalizing what I thought, the Western curse.
How are the musicians viewed in Mali?
Being a musician in Mali is sort of like being a baker, a lawyer, a yardman, a brickmaker. Much is made among ethnomusicologists about this griot caste nonsense and how musicians are worshiped as repositories of lore and history and all that, and I’m sure there are plenty of that old style of griots left, and I’m sure some PhD candidate somewhere is reading this and feeling his bowels roil, but for the most part the musicians out in Bougouni were hustling to play at parties, festivals, etc., just like a musician might do in Baltimore or Boise or Oslo or Tijuana.
Are there clubs they play at?
Bougouni really had no night life whatsoever; [it’s] a sleepy rural town. One paved road going down the middle of it, dirt roads everywhere else. You could walk from one side of town to the other in about fifteen minutes. Bamako, on the other hand, has some great clubs where you can expect to watch bands all night long. We, being parents of a 2 year-old, did not make it to any of these clubs, most of which cater to Malians. There’s really a nice vibe throughout Bamako so if a Westerner found themselves among Malians they would, more often than not, be welcomed. Malians are great ambassadors of their own culture; they are proud, rightly so, of what they do. … Mali is a mostly Muslim country (the government is officially Muslim, most people claim allegiance to Allah) so the open consumption of alcohol is frowned upon. This is not to say that many folks do not get their party on, but there is a politesse about behavior that kept things from getting just completely off the hook, as it were.
Do musicians play house parties?
These parties were so much fun. You’d hear, in the distance, a bunch of moped and car horns and a minute or so later a bunch of cars and motos would come flying by on the only paved road in Bougouni (which we happened to live on), young men and women hanging off the back of the motos, out of the windows of cars. A wedding party. You’d then know that later, somewhere not too far away, you’d hear djembes and a griot singer praising the newly married couple. These were alcohol-free parties that would take place in someone’s courtyard, or just outside their house. Initially there’s some attention paid to who’s invited, who are guests, but after awhile just about anyone can join in the party.
Sometimes these parties could be oddly sedate. It would be inaccurate to pretend that all of them featured people dancing, and having a great time of it; at least a few of them featured the wealthier men of the community sitting around in a half-circle of folding chairs drinking Fantas while the women yawned in the shadows.
But when they rocked, as you can hear on a couple of the tracks of Bougouni Yaalali, they were just incredibly fun and ecstatic events.
How easy was it to immerse yourself in the music scene there?
I had arranged to hear some djembe music through a young kid I met. He was totally unreliable and I, being from the West, could not understand why it was so difficult for him to remember to pick me up to take me out to a part of Bougouni just to hear some guys playing the drums. I’d ask him to come by tomorrow morning at 9, say, and he’d never show up. Then I’d see him two weeks later and he’d act like nothing ever happened. Anyhow, he claimed to know these great drummers so I cut him some slack. One day as we were parting I shook his hand—he claimed he was 14—and it was like shaking the mitt of a 60 year old bricklayer. His hand felt like a giant muscular callous. I asked him why his hands were so crazy. “From playing the djembe,” he answered. Turns out he was a local djembe legend and was the best drummer I’ve ever seen. Why did he never tell me this?
I mentioned to this same guy that I loved donsongoni music. He nodded his head. Later that night after dark we heard some weird activity out along our fence and as I looked out our screenless, windowless window-hole I saw two donsos (hunters) in full hunter’s regalia parading into our yard with their donsongonis (deeper and bigger than kamelen). Within a minute the main hunter, a young but formidable guy, was leaning up into my face singing my praises. It is important not to break eye contact; we locked stares for the better part of a half hour. It was incredibly intense, moreso when you hear the music, which has a sort of rambling, rocking and not unthreatening vibe.
In listening to the three releases, none of it feels at all influenced by Western sounds—do you think that’s true?
I was interested to read that Tinariwen was influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon, having concluded that the music was too strange and unique to have been influenced by anyone outside of a sphere of north African musicians. And of course Ali Farka Toure claimed that he didn’t really hit on his style until he heard John Lee Hooker (the tailor re-tailored). A Malian friend of mine, who turned me on to some great local music, also had these hilarious bootleg cassettes of bands like Argent and Deep Purple and Dylan and the Who. We were driving around late one night through the dark dirt streets of Bougouni when he popped in a new tape. After a few seconds I wasn’t too surprised to hear Bonzo. We listened to “When the Levee Breaks” while the headlights on his car died and we tried not to run over little children. I could hear the pops of the record it was recorded off of (probably in some apartment somewhere in West Africa). He didn’t speak French; I didn’t yet speak any Bamanankan, but we could totally understand John Bonham, just like we could totally understand Malian donsongoni player Yoro Sidibe, and this proved to be our tightest bond.
Could the guy see genius in the ‘70s rock stuff?
That word “genius” is a word that would never appear in anyone’s conversation about music in Bougouni, and probably not in Bamako, either. That context of a musician being an artist and therefore worthy, perhaps, of being called a genius was unknown to my friends in Mali, an issue that’s far more complicated than it even sounds. Musicians were held in awe, in some cases, but there wasn’t this intellectual application of a good musician also being smart (which I think is what genius implies) but instead that they were musicians you respected, just as you might respect the carpenter who built your house or the mechanic who fixed your car. Some carpenters were better than others, etc.
In Malian culture one could be born with what they called “soma” or “baraka” (borrowed from Arabic) which just meant this kid had mojo, sort of like Pootie Tang. One was more inclined to hear that a particular musician like Yoro Sidibe was a little touched, but even so it was spoken in hushed tones. Still a lot of magic over there, seriously.
But, more simply, there was this great sense of flattening: turning up Led Zep really loud is a great idea no matter where you’re from.
How did all that ’70s rock make its way to Mali?
I don’t know how the ‘70s rock made it there. I suppose that there were millions of cassettes printed throughout the 70s and they just in a very Levi-Straussian way made it into the rural stalls in Mali.
How did you get the idea to release the music?
I burned so many of these CDs for friends that at a certain point I decided it would be a great project to make a slightly more presentable package.
I am not releasing it so much as sharing it. The line has been obliterated, in my opinion, and Siaka, the guy who was playing the Led Zeppelin and Argent tapes would agree. There’s a giant fountain of gushing music coming from all over the place and we’re just trying to help people wrap their lips around the geyser without their lips being torn off. Or burned by the boiling water from the earth’s core. I feel it is my duty to not be selfish and to make sure that as many people hear this music as possible.
What can you tell us about the musicians on the records?
I wrote an 800 page book on my almost-year in Mali. The book was 95 percent anecdotes about our friends and neighbors in Bougouni, a few of whom were these musicians. A lot of these stories are highly personal and domestic-oriented; we lived in a small tin-roof cinderblock house among Bougounians and not in a big air-conditioned ex-pat palace. When they got sick, we got sick. When their electricity went out, our electricity went out. When it was 120 degrees for them, it was 120 degrees for us. Some of the stuff I recorded on Bougouni Yaalali I didn’t even know I was going to record. I thought I was buying a djembe one day and instead, after following this guy through these labyrinthine dirt roads for an hour with my then 2-year-old son, I’m sitting there listening to two guys from Yanfolila, Amadou and Lassinabe Diakite, play me kamelengoni music. I had my MiniDisc player and my little Sony mic that I carried around, asked them if I could record it and they, like any great musician of a certain sensibility, said of course.
How was compensation worked out?
On a personal level.
There is some confusion and, frankly, bitterness among certain corners of the populace about this issue of compensation, as if labels like YYR are trying to rip off these artists by releasing their music without going through the exhaustive channels that we’ve been trained, like eager lapdogs, to assume is the only way to go about enriching both the artist and the public. Contracts, advances, studio time, points, management…At one time I saw where these haters were coming from: the Smithsonian people, as I understand it, keep tabs on every single Malaysian woman who sang on the 1974 recording of the ninety-seven member female chorus—I made that up—and make sure that every single one of these women get their .0005 cents per annum, as based on the royalty contract they signed back in the day. DO I even need to say that we could not afford to even begin to think about doing something like that?
(But before I make myself too guilty I recall that I’ve been in the same band since 1993; we’ve toured the world and released something like 7 CDs on a few different labels that you and your friends might’ve even heard of, and yet in that entire time of making CDs I’ve made between $500 and $1,000 TOTAL from CD sales. That’s over almost 15 years. The old way of doing things is broken, thank God, and people like us are trying to figure out better, cheaper, faster ways to release great music.)
We are OBSESSED by the idea of ensuring that these artists make money from their music, however, so we’ve started a fund called the Yaala Yaala Rural Musicians’ Collective that all profits of these CDs will be dumped into. We are making our costs back—mastering, printing, manufacturing—after which ALL MONEY will be placed into the YYRMC fund. It will be disbursed annually. The end aim is to connect the ends of a circle: to make sure these rural artists get what’s theirs.
I have a full-time job as a teacher. I do this for love of the music and love of Mali, the country, the people, the history, the culture. It is hard work and yet I refuse to profit personally from it. Why do it, then?
We are completely uninterested in making money off of these guys and obsessed solely with, as mentioned above, making sure that this music does not disappear, which it will if continuing “world music” marketing trends continue. Sony’s not going to release Pekos/Yoro Diallo, are they? Not Daouda Dembele, either, and yet Daouda Dembele’s style of griot singing is possibly one of the oldest forms of vocal/guitar based music extant; this style has been in Mali since approximately 1000 AD and probably earlier. But listen to it! MAGIC! The beauty and complexity of the human spirit right there for all to hear…don’t matter that it’s sung by a Malian and most of the Westerners who hear it aren’t going to know what he’s talking about, but who cares? This is just great music, and if it makes us think more about what it is to be a human being then I suppose it counts as great art as well.
You, him, her, music fans of all stripes, colors, races, genders, ages, would NEVER have heard this music if YYR hadn’t released it. And yes, we’re feeling some heat from various people who think there’s only one way to do things and are perhaps a little defensive.
Did you have to build their trust before you worked with each?
No, not at all. Wandering around Bougouni is like hanging out in a gigantic living room. You get invited in for tea by someone you barely know and start talking about soccer or music and if you don’t watch out you’ll be staying for dinner. Anyway as mentioned, we lived in Bougouni for almost a year. It’s not like we blazed in and blazed out. We walked to the market every day to buy tomatoes, onions, lettuce if it looked any good, bread, cassettes. My pal Abdoulaye in the market sold me the Pekos/Yoro Diallo bootleg for 75 cents—it was just a blank tape with the name scrawled on it by someone—but he claimed he wasn’t even sure it was Pekos and Yoro Diallo. He didn’t know where it was recorded. He could tell me nothing about it save that he’d gotten it from a buddy of his, and on and on.
Not all of the cassettes you bought in the markets could have been as good as the Pekos tape.
Well, none of them sucked out loud, as we used to say, but some were better than others. There’s a great style of music that we’re going to put out next round—hunter’s music—that at best features real guns going off in the background. I bought a cassette where the gunshots were the really awful gun sound effect from a bad synthesizer. Pretty stale. I am not a huge fan of Wasulu-influenced pop music, with a lot of melismatic singing gymnastics, nor am I a huge fan of the kora, so any time I bought a tape that featured either of these styles I was less inclined to enjoy them.
What do kids there listen to?
If you measure an artist’s success by the number of times you see their name during the course of a day, then the most popular artists in Mali in 1999 and 2000 were the Wu-Tang Clan! Michael Jackson showed up pretty often as well. Recall however that we were there in ‘99-‘00, so hopefully this has changed. The word “rap” was all over the place in Bamako, and you sensed that that was what the French producers were trolling for—the next big movement, which they assumed was going to be West African rap. Most kids were obsessed with the U.S., so my reckoning is that most of the youth were trying to familiarize themselves with hip hop.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to claim that a lot of young kids were NOT listening to the traditional music I love so much, but hopefully this trend has ended.
Do you think recordings like these and the recordings put out by Sublime Frequencies are having an influence on the way people make records in the states? How influential was Sublime Frequencies and what they’ve done on you?
Well, they are very influential not just for YYR but for a lot of people. I’m not so sure Aaron Dilloway would’ve seen the need of recording those fantastic snake charmers in Nepal were it not for Alan Bishop and Hisham Mayet of SF. I feel like YYR and SF partners of a sort, trying to blow apart the old and ossified structure of the “world music” industry. We’re both kicking against the pricks, I suppose you could say, and doing this with some sense of desperation.
I’ve never met those SF guys and wouldn’t speak for them even if I had, but I assume they love this music as much as I do and sense that there is something important about ensuring that some kid in 30 years might stumble across a trove of these CDs in some broken down store somewhere and be as freaked out by them as I was when I first heard ’em. Maybe that kid will become interested in this giant country in West Africa called Mali, maybe he’ll go to the library and read the epic of Sunjata and decide to learn more about Mali, concluding, as many have, that its musical culture is not just as important as any in the world, but very likely the basis of the vast majority of rock music we listen to today…
Seriously, we’re on a mission; we live in broken times and feel a great sense of the importance of what we’re doing, damn the torpedoes, not just for us or for these rural artists but for the whole world. Our current culture of corporatization and entertainment industry mega-mergers is decreasing the possibility by vast degrees that some guy with a one string guitar out in the middle of a landlocked African country will ever be heard, and this is a tremendous loss. We need these reminders of our essential shared humanity more than ever.
Do you think there’s a yearning for authenticity?
I think many of us in the West do hold up a lot of African culture as being more authentic than our own, more representative of some elements of humanity that we in the overdeveloped West have lost, and when you’re listening to a lot of this music it is easy to conclude that it is more purely Malian in some way and therefore more authentic. But it would be dangerous for me to pretend that I know what authentic means. Yes, Ibn Battutah is reported to have heard jelingoni music in the Malian court in the 14th century, but who’s to say jelingoni player Daouda Dembele has not been influenced by James Brown or Beethoven? I really don’t know.
I am really not too interested in authenticity as much as I am interested, like a DJ, in what is cool-sounding or interesting. I come at this as a total fan and not an ethnomusicologist. We’ve been criticized for not providing much context in the way of liner notes on these first three releases, but that’s mainly because we really don’t know what to say about the music other than that it’s great.
There is so much interesting music out there in the world and whether or not it is authentic is not for me to decide.
And can we get trapped in that game, too—trying to pinpoint which is more authentic then the next thing? Konono No. 1 has been critiqued in some quarters as being too westernized.
I personally love Konono and love the Ex. I am totally for bludgeoning any kind of walls between musical cultures and stripping the music of any context except for if it pleases me. My semi-snarky comment [on Yaala Yaala’s MySpace blog] about Pekos and Yoro Diallo “making Konono sound like Coldplay” was not to imply for a second that I don’t like that record.
More authenticity: Upon learning that Tinariwen—if you don’t know them, you should go get Radio Tisdas Sessions now—was influenced by these Western pop stars I was disappointed, as if their greatness was compromised by what I reckoned was a lack of authenticity. But only for a moment, of course. You soon realize that every great musician has appropriated something from someone somewhere, some are just better at hiding this than others.
Westerners used to listen to African recordings made by Lomax or whomever and assume these were authentic because the songs accompanied a fertility rite or harvest dance or puberty ritual; their attachment to ancient rituals made them automatically authentic, in our minds, as if these rituals and the songs were ageless. But of course this is an illusion as well.
Why do you think you are feeling some heat from some people over releasing the three records?
The false perception of a number of people is that I am going to be enriched beyond my wildest fantasies through exploiting these poor African musicians. This erroneous conclusion is based on the fact that no contracts were signed, that I didn’t go track down all the people who played on Bougouni Yaalali, plus Pekos /Yoro Diallo, plus Daouda Dembele, in order to tell them about the specific releases coming out when they did and that I did not pre-arrange royalty payments or licensing agreements. There are no e-mail addresses in Yanfolila. There are no phones. The assumption is that I did this because I am amoral and greedy and like Seymour Chess am going to be able to wipe my nose with the millions of dollars I am going to make off of running this label.
That said, there is an element of rebellion here on our parts…. We did kind of put the cart before the horse by doing away with contracts and all that and just putting the music out with the understanding that if any money came rolling in, it would go to the proper places. We do view ourselves as guerillas in a way: we are doing things differently and are highly aware that some even well-meaning people are going to be bothered by the fact that we are releasing digitized versions of tapes I bought while living in Mali (DD and P/YD) without having satisfied a highly arbitrary and frankly outmoded means of ensuring that these artists benefit somehow from their performances. We are honorable people and are doing this for good reasons. IF money is made, it will end up in the proper places.
I would be ecstatic if Ry Cooder decided to call up Pekos or Yoro Diallo and make a record with them and if they made a bunch of money, or if Bonnie Raitt decided that she had to duet with Daouda Dembele, and I would literally run nude up and down my street if someone with deep pockets offered to bankroll a U.S. tour of some of these guys. But YYR is unable to do this. Again, I’m a teacher. I’m doing this for the love of the music.
There is an ethos among the hunter/musicians I mentioned above that as many people as possible need to hear their music—this is an old part of their ethos—and they’d understand our philosophy perfectly.
Can you tell us a little bit about your label’s future projects?
We already have some exciting projects on the burner that we hope to get out by fall or winter. One will feature hunter’s music (donsongoni) and another is a legendary bootleg of a bootleg (et al, ad naus) of some completely far out jelingoni music (like Daouda Dembele).
Do you have plans to go back to Mali? Or other countries?
Without question. I will go back to Mali maybe next winter in order to firm up plans for our YY Rural Musician’s Collective. I’d love to revisit Morocco, maybe Egypt.