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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Evening in Erfoud

Oasis, on the Road to Ouarzazate

Dust storms have eaten away the faces on the reliefs carved in the courtyard’s walls. The desert is blue with ghosts. Mica shines for an instant like glass, then the desert buries it again. This must be what the seabottom looks like a thousand fathoms deep, yellow sand shimmering and swirling in the currents for an instant before it settles deeper into blue-gray.

The distant hills are thin, purplish, blue. The sky is no longer violet. The sky is not yet black. Mist slides across the stone terrace, rising in wisps when it reaches the sand. The bonelike sound of a woman’s heels walking toward my room, continuing down the hallway, not for me.

The drums start, a little tentative with lots of room between the beats, quickening into different rhythms, commenting on itself commenting on itself—a shoreline moving back and forth, a living thing, the fourth dimension always moving forward, waves cresting on a beach, erasing what it was, the whole process, the young women beginning to dance … the elder women, no longer fertile, keening.

Surreptitious Display of Affection, Casablanca

Heading into the Desert

To cultivate his land, the king has subsidized mining and agriculture in Morocco. If Moroccans can’t develop the lands themselves, foreigners are allowed to make use of the land for free as long as every step in the production process until the export leaves the country is performed by Moroccans. So the Germans and the French are here, mining phosphates out of the energy rich soil, and the Spanish are here turning scrub land into olive groves and argan plantations and apple orchards.

And rural Moroccans are flocking to cities that are being built by the government near the mines and cultivated orchards. The small apartments are filling up as fast as they are built, sometimes three families in a single bedroom. Ouarzazate—a town in a fertile plain, with many nearby mines as well, and whose name translates as “without noise”—has grown from 7,000 year-round residents to 36,000  in the last three years. So many people have come to Ouarzazate from the rural areas that policemen are employed around the clock at the city’s one red light because this is often the first stop light that some Moroccans have ever seen and they have no idea what it means.

For those who will not go to the cities, the king has put the villagers to work by building a series of four-lane super highways that are empty today but will one day—he believes—be filled with upwardly mobile Moroccans and tourists. Foreigners criticized the king for such an extravagant project when large swaths of his country were starving, just as ten years ago they criticized him for building a huge dam and canal project that was intended to store ten years’ worth of water for the country. The first six years after the dam was built was the great drought and the dam was nearly empty. But two years ago the rains began, and when they stopped the dam was not only filled to its limit, but engineers had to let out a significant amount of water in a kind of managed flood. The engineers had foreseen this possibility and designed a series of floodgates so the run-off rushed harmlessly into the desert. There is no way to measure how many lives and livelihoods were spared by this dam, or how many will thrive because of it when the droughts return, and they will.

Four years ago there was no rain for six months. The nomads had to sell many of their lambs and goats because they couldn’t find enough food and water to keep them alive. And then a disease came that killed off many of their flocks, and through two years of struggle some families ran out of reserves and had to sell everything. They had no choice but to move to the city in hopes of finding a job, but mostly ended up on the streets, begging. Ibrahim says that within a generation there will be no more nomads in Morocco.

Ninety-seven percent of Morocco’s energy is imported, and the king has made a five-year pledge to become energy independent, and that 40% of this new energy will be Green. On the roofs of just about every house—even in the nomads’ mountain sheds that are only occupied in the summer—there are solar panels, often beside a satellite dish that receives 512 channels of world-wide TV. The Moroccan nomads are better informed about international news than an average American. And since several television and radio stations originate in Morocco, they are better informed about what is going on in their own country than any generation in Moroccan history.

Since 2006, 200,000 acres of land have been turned into olive orchards, apple groves, cereal crops, and (in the mountains, to prevent soil erosion) pine trees.

Water is life for the farmers and agriculture is the third largest employer for the country, following the government and mining. Morocco is the world’s second largest supplier of phosphates for fertilizers. The fourth largest employer in Morocco is tourism. The government is the largest employer in the country, supplying over 40% of the country’s employment. There are so many policemen in the country that there is a saying that “Every family in Morocco has its own policeman.” There is a law that every check-point and guard station in the country has to be occupied equally by a government soldier, a local policeman, and a local security guard. This law was meant to ensure that the locals were always hired for any possible job but, since they were often not highly trained or educated, they were more or less mentored by highly trained and certified security forces.

Ninety percent of the country are Berbers—desert nomads—and historically they were first Jewish, then Christian, before converting to Islam in the 12th century. There are two Christian churches in Casablanca, but both were abandoned when the Christians left the city with the French in 1956. The Jews left Morocco in two waves: in 1948 and in 1967.

The first country to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation in 1776 after the War of Independence was Morocco.

We are headed into the desert and Ibrahim warns us about getting sand in our eyes. The desert tribes, he tells us, believe that sand helps to keep the eyes clean and improves the vision.

The tradition of covering a woman with a full burqa comes from the southern black tribes, not Islam, Ibrahim tells us. It was taught in African tribes that completely covering a woman was necessary to keep her from being overcome by evil. She is seen not only as the giver of life but as something to be feared, because she does the cooking and knows black magic and poisons and can spend all day plotting with her children against their father. But the younger children do not believe in this superstition and on this trip it has been rare to see a full burqa outside of the poorer parts of the country, mostly in the south, or in the immigrant communities near Marrakech. 

In the center of the roundabout entering Erfoud, a teenage couple is lounging on the grass. His head is in her lap and her right hand smoothes and strokes his hair. He reaches up and cups her left breast and she smiles down on him tenderly like a Madonna giving milk.

Nomads conceive of numbers abstractly, as not having a literal meaning. When asked their ages, they have no sense of what it means to be twenty-five or fifty or eighty years old. A nomad does not count their flocks (although they know numbers and can count if they have to) but examine each of their flock’s faces as they pass on their way back into the pen at night, and can recognize when one is missing. A neighbor of Ibrahim’s can tell which goat is missing out of a flock of 195.

A water source within a hundred miles is close enough for a nomad family. Several family members will travel in shifts on camels or donkeys, or individual members of the family will travel in one continuous walking relay. A camel travels twenty-four miles a day and a donkey or mule covers five miles a day.

Many of these nomads are now technically rich, not only in land wealth (since the government acknowledges their ownership of the lands where they have traditionally grazed their cattle) but in cash.

There is one private university (where 80% of the classes are taught in English) and forty public universities, where tuition is free. The purpose of education in Islam is “to become what you should become.” Education and international economic development are seen as the future of Morocco and they are investing heavily in the next generation. There is a saying in Morocco, “The beautiful ones are not yet born”—there are better days to come.

Shaman’s Door, Meknas

The Desert

This is the desert—
what’s been taken
and what’s been left behind.

It is finished.
It’s the past and now just looks lost.
Driving on empty highways for hours at a time.

The sky above the desert is transformed,
broken slivers of light crisscrossing a puff of cloud
the color of smoke and sand in a water-white sky.

We can’t make it to the ruins before the storm—
we could run but wouldn’t reach the jeeps before it was too late,
so getting wet is absolutely certain.

The waiting’s not so painful
when there’s absolutely nothing to be done.

Open for Business, Ouarzazate

Western African Music: Volume I, Number 4: Mali, Part 1
Song List

Track 1: Mandjou, Salif Keita From “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 2”

Whenever I asked people in Zimbabwe and Botswana and Zambia who their favorite musicians were, Salif Keita always topped the list. After Keita, the lists varied greatly.

Keita was born in Djoliba, Mali on August 25, 1949. He was a direct descendent of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita. Since he was of royal caste and not of the griot caste, he should never have been able to become a musician, but because he was an albino—a sign of bad luck—he was cast out by his family and ostracized by his tribe. He left Djoliba for Bamako in 1967, where he joined the Rail Band de Bamako. He then left them to join the other big band of the time, Les Ambssadeurs. Salif and the band had to leave Mali in the mid-1970s for political reasons, and they settled in Cote d’Ivorire, and changed the name of the band to Les Ambassadeurs, Internationaux. In 1977, Keita received a National Order award from the president of Guinea, Sekou Toure. Keita moved to Paris in 1984. His bands combine balafons, djembes, guitars, koras, organs, saxophones, and synthesizers. In 1990, Keifta contributed “Begin the Beguine” to the Cole Porter tribute/AIDS benefit album “Red Hot + Blue.” Critics generally find his work from his Paris years his least rewarding, but in 2000 he returned to Bamako, Mali, to live and record. In 2002, he released “Moffou,” and its success allowed Keita to build his own recording studio where he records to this day.

His 2009 CD, La Difference, is about the world albino community (where they are still sometimes used as human sacrifices in remote tribes). One of its lyrics says: “I am black/ my skin is white/ so I am white and my blood is black /… I love that because it is a difference that’s beautiful….” He recorded the CD in Bamako, Beirut, Paris, and L.A., and it includes a famous jazz trumpeter from Lebanon, Ibrahim Maaluf. It won the Best World Music 2010 award at the Victoires de la musique. There will be more about Keita in a later column.

Track 2: Ah Ndiya, Oumou Sangare. From “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 2”

Oumou is from the southern region of Wasulu, which is the only area in Africa where musicians are free to choose to be a musician even if they were not born into a music caste. The name given to a musician in Wasulu is kono, or “songbirds.” Wassoulou, as their music is called, originated in sacred hunting music, and features a hunter’s harp (or kamelengoni) and djembe (the frame drum that originated in Wasulu). Women singers are thought to be the real musicians, and it is said that men should play instruments, but it’s the women who should sing. There will be more about Oumou in a later column.

Track 3: M’Bifo, Rokia Traore From “Africa 50 Years Of Music – West Africa 3”

Rokia is Bamana—the group who refused Islam and have remained outsiders ever since. Though born into a culture where caste determined your future, Rokia became a musician even though she was not a jeli or griot but the daughter of a Malian diplomat. As a child she extensively traveled the world and as a young adult began singing in clubs in Brussels and Paris, where she went to school as a diplomat’s child. There will be more about Rokia in a later column.

Track 4: Allah Uya, Ali Farka Toure. From “Niafunke”

Ali Farka Toure (1939-2006) was born in the Timbuktou region of Mali. Although he won two Grammy Awards, he toured infrequently in order to be free to work his land and said “I am a farmer first, and then a musician. My responsibility is here, in this village.” His breakthrough album was entitled Niafunke, the name of his hometown. In 2004, he became the mayor of his hometown, and spent his own money building roads, sewage systems and installing an electric generator. There will be more about Toure in a later column.

Track 5: Kar Kar, Boubacar Traore From “Kar Kar 5:20 Boubacar Traore From “Desert Blues 3: Entre Dunes Et Savanes Disc 2)”

Boubacar is known as “Kar Kar,” which comes from “karikari,” which means dribbling. He scored two goals for his football team in a final but some of the observers thought that he was dribbling the ball and would shout out in Bambara “karikari” as he ran with the ball. In 1963, he became internationally famous for recording “Mali Twist” and became known as “The Rocker” (le blouson noir) for his imported jeans and black leather jackets. He played with a band in Bamako incorporating jazz, twist, and Latin-American standards until 1968, when the country was taken over by the military. Boubacar got married and didn’t play music for twenty years and was even erroneously reported to have died in 1981 (it was actually his brother who had died). A television production in 1988 revived interest in his music. A headline at the time read “The Elvis of Mali Lives!” At the time he was working as a construction worker in France, but he recorded a cassette and began playing in African laborer’s hostels in the evenings until sales from his music allowed him to concentrate fully on music. There will be more about Boubacar in a later column.

Track 6: Soubala Molea, Djoliba Ensemble. Djoliba Ensemble of Mali, Recorded in April 2008.

The only info I can find is that Djoliba is the name of a river in Mali.

Track 7: Saramaya (live), Habib Koite. From “Putumayo Presents Mali” Putumayo.

I’ve written about him extensively in a previous column, but in brief Habib is a Malian guitarist and singer.

Track 8: Ouili Ka Bo, Idrissa Soumaoro. From “Putumayo Presents Mali” Putumayo.

Idrissa Soumaoro played with Les Ambassadeurs with Salif Keita in Bamako. He received the Knight of the National Order of Mali in recognition of his contribution to Malian culture and music. His CD “Kote” was produced by Ibrahim Sylla, who has also produced Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, and Ismael Lo. His day job is to teach music to visually handicapped children and teach them to read braille; at night he plays in the local hotspots.

Track 9: Toroyo, Issa Bagayogo. From “Timbuktu” Six Degrees Records.

Issa Bagayogo is a Malian kamele n’goni player (a 6-stringed West African banjo) and singer born in 1961.

Track 10: Madam Mariama, Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara. No info. I got this off of one of Joel Davis’s excellent “Spinning the World” collections—this is from TerraSonic Vol. 15.

Juldeh Camara is a Gambian griot born in 1966 in Basse, West Africa.

His blind father received the gift of music from forest spirits who took the use of his eyes in return. Playing the Ritti, a one-stringed fiddle, he participated as a griot in traditional Fula society.—realworld.com.

Camara has played with the Blind Boys of Alabama, kora player Seckou Keita, and Tunde Jegede’s African Classical Ensemble. In 2009, he performed at St. Denis Cathedral in Paris with Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Kasse Mady Diabate, Sambou Susso and the Brodsky Quartet. Justin Adams is a guitarist from Dallas, Texas. His MySpace friends include Brian Eno, Sinead O’Connor, Billy Bragg, Hubert Sumlin, Calexico, T-Bone Burnett, and traditional groups from six different African countries.

… songs that echo the raw exuberance of The Clash, the rolling blues of Muddy Waters and the delicacy and grandeur of the ancient griot ballads.
                                                                                                      —The Guardian

This is an extraordinary album…the track Sahara negates any need for a Stone Roses revival.                                                                                            Mojo

Track 11: Koulandian, Keletigui Diabate. From “Putumayo Presents Mali”

Kélétigui Diabaté is a balafon player and a founder of one of Mali’s earliest bands in the 1960s Formation A. He joined the Ambassadeurs when Salif Ketia was their vocalist, and became a member of Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra.

Kélétigui’s unique style was influenced by a chance meeting with Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz musicians. He developed a wider range of flexibility on the balafon, which has a fixed set of tones tuned to a single scale, by using two balafons simultaneously which are offset by a semitone. His son, having learned the balafon from his father, is now also a rising musician in Mali.

Track 12: MDana Mogo, Lobi Traore. No info.

Lobi Traore is known in Mali as “The Bambara Bluesman.” He says, “Long before I started making music myself, I listened to the blues a lot; John Lee Hooker and so on.” His band includes traditional African percussion as well as the ngoni (the traditional 3-5 string lute), and a French harmonica player, Vincent Bucher.


Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.



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