THE SECRET MUSEUM
By Jim Webb
In the Wassalou region of Southern Mali is situated the small farming village of Korin. For many generations the people of this land locked region of West Africa have raised cattle and worked the soil. The constant cycles of drought have made their lives susceptible to famine, and food is never far from their thoughts. Issa Bagayogo was born in 1961 to a father that had four wives, and eventually was surrounded by fourteen brothers and sisters. All of the children at a young age were expected to work in the fields; it was the only way to stay alive. As a teenager Issa started to learn how to play the kamele n’goni, a traditional Malian six stringed instrument similar to a guitar. He was slowly getting a local reputation as a singer and performer when at the age of thirty Issa felt he had finally paid his family dues of working the land and headed for Mali’s capital city Bamako. He needed more out of life than the endless plowing of fields; it was time to try surviving as a musician.
In 1991 he wound up working briefly on a recording session at a new studio in Bamako that needed a n’goni player. In the evenings the studios engineer helped him make a cassette of his traditional sounding tunes, but still his music never reached a wider audience. He shuffled back and forth between his village and the big city for the next several years before finally becoming a mini bus driver in the capital. His lack of musical success led to excessive drinking and drug use that caused his life to spiral downward. His wife left him and some people thought he had gone crazy due to his many obsessions. He was uneducated by Western standards, but the one thing he had going for him was a determination and work ethic that can’t be taught in any book. He returned to the studio in 1998 with a clean lifestyle and a renewed purpose to achieve something with his music. The head engineer at Bogolan Studio was Frenchmen Yves Wernet, who talked to Issa about transforming his raw sound into something more modern. Yves wanted to use drum machines, keyboards, and female background singers to help give his songs a fresh contemporary edge. Issa was originally surprised at the results when he heard his voice for the first time wrapped around the layers of sound that had been added to his music. His vocals were still sung in traditional Bambara, his native language, but the additional instruments and electronic beats now helped make his traditional songs stand out in a marketplace full of aspiring musicians. Bamako was hungry for something new and his music started selling immediately; then the major label Six Degrees Records signed him to a contract and soon Issa’s music was available through out much of the world.
The hypnotic electro beat grooves of Yves Wernet and his crack studio musicians worked perfectly next to Bagayogo’s gritty vocals and the organic sound of his six string kamele n’goni. “Techno Issa” is now what everyone started to call him; 1999 was the year it all came together as he was voted Mali’s Brightest New Hope. In 2002, world music fans saw Issa on tour playing the influential WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) Festival circuit drawing rave reviews. Tassoumakan was the title of his third cd in 2004 and means “Voice of Fire”, these songs speak about the evils of drugs, and the need for people to work together. For a long time now Issa had been carrying on the African Griot tradition in his music. The griot is not only a singer or storyteller, but someone who takes pride in teaching the history of its tribe to others. A personal highlight for him was performing in 2005 at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Who could ever imagine back home in Korin that Issa’s ancient kamele n’goni would be heard in one of the most prestigious venues in America? He has continued to record and tour globally through the years and with his countrymen Salif Keita and Toumani Diabate is another link between traditional and modern music in West Africa.
The only thing dirt poor farmers in Wassalou can count on these days is that the setting sun still ends their day in the fields. When darkness comes, a few will later look into the night sky and ponder their future plans and dreams. Issa worked some of these same fields for over twenty five years, and has reminded them that with enough determination even difficult goals in Mali can be reached. I enjoy listening to Issa’s music, but his past as an illiterate farmer from Korin who refused to give up and ultimately triumphed makes me appreciate the man even more. Issa Bagayogo has reminded us all that through the inspirational power of music, anything is possible.
Issa Bagayogo Discography:
Mali Koura (2008)
Issa Remixed (2009)
Editor’s Note: Jim Webb and Michael Mooney, shared a childhood back in the old neighborhood in Philadelphia. Tides waxed and waned, stars swirled through Van Gogh’s night sky in such a way that Jim found himself living in Santa Fe and Michael living in Taos. Both, truly die hard music fans, write about music appreciation and music history in such a unique way that any university would be proud to have this pair in their curriculum. Stay tuned and enjoy.
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