Beneath his outside appearance of venerable doyen of Malian music, Sorry Bamba is still the same spirited, inventive and incredibly exacting musician who performed as a brilliant soloist and in the Kanaga de Mopti band he once led. His album Dogon blues, the first in a long while, underlines his role of ambassador and moderniser of Dogon music.
At the grand old age of 72, he does nothing to hide his pleasure at still being able to show youngsters what he is capable of. At last, with his new album Dogon blues, he can share and make the most of all those years of research done to modernise the very specific music of the Dogon people, even if he hasn’t produced many records in the meantime.
“I’ve done nothing for more than twenty years,” he reminds us. At least, nothing he considers worth mentioning. What about Hamdallaye, which came out in 1995? “It was a demo, but I had to release something.” A question of avoiding dropping into utter obscurity since his move to Paris. “I can’t sell myself,” he freely admits. “I don’t like to ask anything from anyone, that’s my weakness.” For him, ambition is not a personal issue, it resides only in the quality of the work done.
When the regional orchestra Kanaga de Mopti, which he directed, won the cultural and artistic biennale in Mali in 1978, he was happy to let someone else pick up the trophy. “It’s not good for a man to talk about himself,” goes the Bambara proverb. Sorry has made it his unbending principle. Amadou Hampâté Ba, the well-known Malian author and Sorry’s friend, or “father” told him that, “The day you start feeling that you’re the best, you stop making progress. You have to keep working, always.” He followed his advice, even when times were hard and the circle around him had shrunk. He names some of those who didn’t abandon him, like the singer Mamani Keita and especially the guitarist Jack Djeyim.
Back on centre stage
It was Cheick Tidiane Seck who helped him emerge from the tunnel. He had already helped Sorry thirty years earlier in Côte d’Ivoire, when they both tried their luck in Abidjan. This time, he invited him to the Malian Project concert he was giving in Paris with Dee Dee Bridgewater. On stage at the New Morning, he presented him, lauded his merits and made sure that his elder got a chance to give a glimpse of what he could do, even though most musicians there were already familiar with his number Sekou Amadou.
The director of the label Universal Jazz, who was in the audience, swiftly proposed Sorry a contract. The delighted musician arrived at the studio only to be made keenly aware that it had been a long time since he’d recorded an album: there was no machine capable of playing the cassette on which he had patiently assembled his ideas.
Once that obstacle was overcome, he set off to Dogon country to record local percussionists as a way of preserving the authenticity he cares so much about. “Legendary tunes updated with a personal touch”, wrote Afrique Asie magazine in 1977 when his second LP was released.
Deep in Dogon country
He worked exactly the same way to produce Dogon blues, which is mainly made up from numbers borrowed from the Dogon repertoire. Sorry has devoted his whole career to it. When he was a child in Mopti, in his curiosity to see the dancers who used to sit on roofs when they were tired (of being on their stilts), as his mother used to tell him, he followed his marabout into the Bandiagara Cliffs. As luck would have it, he came across a mask dance ceremony, which was to spark off his passion for this ancient culture.
After independence, the Malian authorities organized a national music competition, and Sorry decided to take part, motivated by his desire to constantly surprise. The rules included penalties for copying Cuban music and other fashionable styles of the time, and there was an obvious preference for national traditions. “That made us have a real think about what we could do,” he now remembers.
Encouraged by the success of Sekou Amadou, an ancestral Fula title that he rearranged, he went and asked the Dogons if they would let him use their music. Seated inside the low-roofed communal building called a toguna, he agreed to respect their rules: to take nothing away and add nothing, with the notable exception of any instruments from outside Mali! So, no kora, balafon or ngoni, but as much bass guitar and keyboards as he liked.
The trumpeter that he was at the time (he stopped playing the day he heard Miles Davis) had a field day with brass instruments, which play a key role in his irresistibly energetic versions. Like a nod to the Ghanaian brass bands the young Sorry used to watch rehearsing when they came to Mopti to play highlife for their compatriots as they fished in the Niger’s abundant waters.
Translation : Anne-Marie Harper