One of Markus James' earliest childhood memories from growing up in
Washington, DC was of the blind street musician he would often stop to hear
sing on the sidewalks each day on his way to nursery school. This early
exposure undoubtedly had a profound effect on the young lad, inspiring not
only a life-long love of the blues, but also an interest in exploring the
roots of this and other world music.
Eventually, Markus migrated to San Francisco where he pursued the study
of African, Haitian, East Indian and Indonesian traditional instruments
while also playing rock & roll and rhythm & blues. In 1994, however, he
narrowed his focus considerably following his first visit to Mali.
After jamming with some local legends in the village of Niafounke, he
came to appreciate the considerable influence of that West African nation on
the evolution of American music. Furthermore, he came to understand,
firsthand, why Mali is widely regarded as a birthplace of the blues.
Since then, he has returned numerous times to the country to collaborate
with Malian master musicians on original songs, performing and recording
their cross-cultural creations. Plus he has released a couple of
well-received CDs recorded over there, entitled Nightbird and Where You
Now, a decade into his ongoing commitment to the region, Mr. James has
produced Timbuktoubab, an entertaining and informative concert film, served
up with just the right mix of sand dunes, desert-scapes and child-like
silliness on the side. The movie arrived at its alliterative title by
combining Timbuktu with "Toubab," the common expression for a white person.
The picture was shot amidst the shifting sands of the Southern Sahara in
Timbuktu, a city which most probably still think of as a merely mythological
place. Today, in many countries, the phrase "from here to Timbuktu" is used
to suggest an alien environment almost as remote, unreachable and unknowable
as, say, the moon.
But in truth, it was once well-known as a world capital of equal stature
and significance to Rome, Athens and Mecca. Founded around 1100 near the
banks of the Niger River, in its hey-day, the city had flourished as part
of, first, the Mali and, then, the Songhay Empires.
During its golden age, its name was associated with trade, religious
study, universities, libraries and culture, including music. However,
Moroccan marauders arrived in 1600, followed by Portuguese slave traders.
Fleeced of its wealth, plundered of its people, and stripped of its rich
heritage, Timbuktu subsequently developed its current image as a lost city.
Though it obviously remains today an economically-depressed, this film,
nonetheless, presents a spiritually-thriving locale that is oh so palpably
alive, in part, due to its music. With the sparse surroundings serving as an
ever-engaging visual backdrop, the movie primarily features veteran
singers/musicians Solo Sidibe on kamelengoni, a six-stringed harp, Hasi Sare
on njarka, a single-stringed violin, and Hamma Sankare on calabash.
Somehow, the trio deftly blends its Wassoulou-style warblings with
Markus' Mississippi Delta Blues to yield a very pleasant sound they refer to
as Wassonrai. Sort of subdued and mellow, and fairly devoid of ego, the
music is eerily evocative of the solitude of the Sahara. Yet, it has
elements which are distinctly American, too, which render it readily
digestible by Western ears.
Although anyone reared on Eric Clapton and B.B. King might be
understandably inclined to focus on Mr. Markus' guitar work initially, the
movie very patiently allots the space for the audience to discover the
talents of the rest of the band. It helps that the production intersperses
interviews with Messrs. Sare and Sankare, and in their authentic, native
Sonrai, as opposed to French, an exogenously-imposed, colonial tongue.
Beyond its fascinating cinematography and its pleasant introduction to a
new genre of music, what elevates Timbuktoubab to the stratosphere of a
special experience is something so simple as its involvement with the
children of Mali. Virtually every other scene seems to feature the
beautiful, beaming faces of the kids of Timbuktu, whether they're swaying to
the beat, singing along, or just sitting and soaking it all in.
And after witnessing the pure delight being awakened inside these very
poor kids without much to be happy about by Western standards, you can't
help but admire, all the more, the efforts of this quartet of uncomplicated
musicians, troubadours armed only with their voices and primitive acoustic
Timbuktoubab is being aired on PBS during February for Black History Month.
by Kam Williams