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Music might be universal, but sometimes a song can instantly transport you to a very specific place within just a couple of beats. A case in point: "Ni See Ay Ga Done," a song from Malian singer/songwriter and guitarist Sidi Touré for his new album, Koïma. The song opens with the heartbeat rhythm of takamba, the dance of Touré's native town, Gao: drummer Douma Maiga thumps and clicks out the takamba, simultaneously insistent and sinuous, on a hollowed-out calabash gourd.
That one rhythm immediately places you in Gao: 200 miles east of Timbuktu, along the banks of the Niger River, trailing along the southern edge of the Sahara. On one side is the wide, life-giving green of the Niger River; on the other side, the Sahara stretches endlessly, with undulating dune waves marking geological time. This is the Sahel, the zone that bridges the desert to the north and, across the Niger, the tropical African savannah to the south. Touré comes from the Songhai community, whose empire once stretched from central Nigeria all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, with Gao as its capital. But Gao is historically a crossroads: in the 9th and 10th centuries, Arab writers were referencing Gao on the trade routes between Egypt and Ghana, and Gao today is a patchwork of many different communities, from fellow Songhais to the Bozo, Fulani, and Bambara peoples as well as Imuhaghs, the nomadic Berbers more commonly known as the Turaegs, whose music has become world-famous through bands like Tinariwen.
You can hear all of those Africas — northern and southern, eastern and western — commingling in this song. While the takamba rhythm ambles along like a loping camel, Touré scatters sparkling guitar filigree on the melody while he quite literally sings the praises on one of his supporters: Aminata Maïga, the wife of Mali's former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, whom Touré cites as a champion of Songhai culture. The song's title translates as "It's For You That I Sing," and Touré continues in the first verse, "When God gives to you, God gives to everyone/You, the courteous, the one who listens to everybody,/the one who is never discouraged/the one who shares with your brothers and sisters."
Of this song, Touré observes: "This song is music from the folklore of Gao, a music I really identify with. This is a song for a woman I admire, a simple person, ready to understand and listen to everybody."
The video for "Ni See Ay Ga Done" is a collaboration between photographer Frédéric Wasiak and the single-named director Covalesky. It's a dreamy montage of images shot mostly in northern Malian towns with names that could have come out of storybooks — Gao, Bourem, Hombori and Kidal — as well as in the Dar Salam neighborhood in Bamako, Mali's capital city, where Touré now lives. And of course there's also that endless, stark and magnificent desert, a terrain at once gorgeous and terrifying. Shot on Super 8mm film, the images that make up this collage exist out of time and cast in sepia hue. Actually, those tones will evoke a very strong visceral memory in anyone who has traveled to this region: of the fine, orange-red Sahel dust that coats every conceivable surface within minutes: gilding your skin, your mouth, nose and clothing with a bronze hue.
Says Covalesky: "These images were taken by a friend of mine, Frédéric Wasiak, thanks to whom I met Sidi. Frédéric took these images during his first trip in the north of Mali. Thanks to these beautiful images, I wanted the viewer to live a trip in the north of Mali and through this trip feel all the things that are hidden in Sidi's music: the desert, the majestic scenery, large spaces, the Malian cities and the people who live there (mostly Songhaï and Tuareg). It's also a way to see a small part of Sidi's life: leaving Gao to go to Bamako, going from the desert to the capital and coming back to Gao, probably rather in a dream than in real life."
Koïma will be released on April 17 on Thrill Jockey.