Foutanga Babani Sissoko, known also as Baba Sora, was one of the most generous patrons of Malian musicians, particularly griots, in modern times. His gifts of cash, gold, cars and houses are legendary, and the amount of music he inspired was voluminous. But the source of all those riches turned out to be dubious, to say the least. And when he died in March 2021, he had spent his later years a poor man. In this episode we hear the man, the music and the remembrances of those whose lives were changed by his extraordinary generosity. Featuring interviews with Lucy Duràn, Kandia Kouyaté, Lassana Diabaté and Baba Sora himself. Produced by Banning Eyre.
The Enigma of Baba Sor
WINDOW: M01_Dabia_sumo-1997.wav (YouTube) (28 seconds, then to bed)
GEORGES: WE’RE HEARING A GRAND SUMU, A MUSICAL GATHERING OF MALIAN GRIOTS HELD IN 1997 IN THE SMALL TOWN OF DABIA, IN WESTERN MALI. THE OCCASION IS THE RETURN OF THE TOWN’S FAVORITE SON, FOUTANGA BABANI SISSOKO, OR BABA SORA. BABA SORA IS A PRAISE NAME FOR A MEMBER OF THE SISSOKO CLAN. IT MEANS “PIERCER,” SIGNIFYING A PERSON WHO WAS GREAT IN BATTLE. THE NAME ALSO HARKENS BACK TO A TIME WHEN THE SISSOKOS WERE BLACKSMITHS, FABRICATING ALL IMPORTANT FARMING TOOLS. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THIS PARTICULAR SUMU, AND THIS PARTICULAR SISSOKO, ARE REMARKABLE, EVEN HARD TO BELIEVE.
FOR SOME, BABA SORA IS A HERO OF HIS COUNTRY, AFRICA’S GREATEST PATRON OF THE ARTS; TO OTHERS HE’S A DISRUPTOR, A CRIMINAL, A CON MAN. ALL THIS IS PART OF OUR STORY TODAY. HELLO, GEORGES COLLINET WITH YOU ON AFROPOP WORLDWIDE FROM PRX. THIS EDITION, THE ENIGMA OF BABA SORA.
WINDOW: short, with vocal
GEORGES: BABA SORA, WHO DIED AT AGE 79 IN MARCH, 2021, WAS WITHOUT A DOUBT THE MOST GENEROUS AND BELOVED PATRON OF MANDE GRIOTS IN MODERN TIMES. COUNTLESS SONGS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN IN HIS PRAISE.
ACTY: 01_Lassana_deserves.wav: (French)
ACTY: 01A_Lassana_deserves.wav: Yes, Baba Sora. He deserves it.
GEORGES: THAT’S BALAFON MAESTRO LASSANA DIABATE, JUST ONE OF THE MALIAN MUSICIANS WE’LL HEAR FROM ON THIS PROGRAM. ANOTHER IS SALIF KEITA, WHO RECORDED THIS SONG FOR BABA SORA ON HIS 2002 ALBUM MOFFOU. A PERFECT WAY TO GET US IN THE MOOD.
MUSIC: M02_Baba.m4a, Baba, Salif Keita, Moffou (Decca, 016 906-2) (start under Georges, emerge on vocal at 0:19, up to 2:30)
ACTY: 02_Salif_Baba.wav: (French)
ACTY: 02A_Salif_Baba.wav: Baba. Baba Sissoko. They say he is a swindler, but I like the way he swindles. Even God likes his way of swindling. He doesn’t go into a bank to rob that bank. No. When I give you something, that’s enough. Why do you have to call on someone else to help you multiply your money? It’s enough already. You are the thief. Baba is someone who struggles against thievery. That’s why I sing about him, because he makes the poor rich. He has given houses to people who never even had a room to sleep in.
GEORGES: SALIF KEITA, PRAISING THE GENEROSITY OF BABA SORA SISSOKO. NOW, BEFORE WE DIG INTO BABA’S STORY, HERE’S A LITTLE BACKGROUND ON GRIOTS AND THEIR PATRONS. WE SPOKE WITH OUR COLLEAGUE LUCY DURAN IN HER HOME IN LONDON, ENGLAND. LUCY IS A SCHOLAR, AUTHOR, EDUCATOR, MUSIC PRODUCER AND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS MANDE CULTURE ABOUT AS WELL AS ANY WESTERNER.
WINDOW/BED: M03_Hommage a Baba Cissoko.wav, Jatigui, (Globe Stye Records, ORB042) (you’ll need to adjust volume down when vocal comes in after 1:19)
ACTY: 03_LDuran_jatigui.wav: The way that things work in Mande griot culture, is that you have the jeli who was a hereditary musician, born into a lineage of musicians. They don't necessarily all play music, but they are all considered griots, and they all have a knowledge of the art of the griot. And then there is the jatigui. That's the Mande word for patron. So you have this symbiotic relationship which has been going on for centuries where you have a patron who takes care of the griot, and his or her family. They know each other really, really well. That is all that the griot does. They don't cultivate the land. Everything is given to them by their jatigui, by their patron. And as you would expect with colonialism and then with independence, that has all changed dramatically. The old, long generation after generation relationship between patron and griot if you like, jatigui and jeli, that's all changed.
GEORGES: BABA SORA MODELED HIMSELF ON THESE JATIGUIS OF OLD. BUT THERE’S A TWIST.
ACTY: 04_LDuran_Kenieiba.wav: However it has to be said that Baba Sora himself was a jeli, born into a griot family. He never played music, but he was incredibly musical. Other members of his family were musicians. His mother apparently was a singer, and he had very profound knowledge of the jeli repertoire, particularly from his region, Dabia and Kenieba, on the border with Senegal and Guinea. It's a region that's very rich in gold. A lot of the goal of Mali comes from that region. And it also is the region of, to my mind, some of the most beautiful music of Mali, if not of Africa. I mean just incredible melodies. Every time I hear a beautiful melody that the jelis sing and I ask them where is that from, and they say, "Oh, it's from Dabia." Or "Oh, it's from Kenieba.” So it's just one of those regions that has produced gold and melody. And Baba Sora was born into that region and had deep knowledge of music. He knew a good tune from a bad one. And he also knew a good musician from a bad one.
GEORGES: THE SONG WE’RE HEARING IS FROM A VERY GOOD MUSICIAN INDEED, THE LATE TATA BAMBO KOUYATE. IT’S HER 1985 HOMMAGE TO BABA SORA BASED ON ONE OF BABA’S FAVORITE TRADITIONAL SONGS, “BAMBOUGOUDJI.”
WINDOW: (a bit of vocal, up to 2:58)
GEORGES: NOW, AT THIS POINT, I NEED TO BRING IN PRODUCER BANNING EYRE. IN 1995 BANNING
WENT TO MALI TO STUDY GUITAR WITH MAESTRO DJELIMADY TOUNKARA, A GRIOT HIMSELF, AND THE LEAD GUITARIST OF THE SUPER RAIL BAND OF BAMAKO. BANNING WROTE ABOUT ALL THIS IN HIS BOOK, “IN GRIOT TIME,” WHICH ACTUALLY INCLUDES AN INTERVIEW WITH BABA SORA. HAVE I GOT THAT RIGHT, BANNING?
BE01.wav BANNING: Yes, you do, Georges. My interview happened in March of 1996, and it’s a quite story, which we’ll get to. But at one point, Baba spoke about his early life, which is where the mysteries begin. Here’s what he told me.
ACTY: 05_BabaSora-Dabia.wav: (French)
ACTY: 05A_BabaSora-Dabia.wav: Dabia, from the month of March until late August, is dangerous, because there is a lot of wind. When the women prepare food, they must close all the doors so that the fire does not spread. I was born at 9:00 in the morning on the 17th of August, 1945. In these years, there wasn’t much rain. My father had gone to the army. After my birth, they asked for fire to light my mother’s room. Everyone went to the fields. One person stayed with the fire. And after a half hour, the wind came. It came into the room and the room caught on fire. The fire burned the whole house, except the room where I was sleeping as a baby. So I had to rebuild the village because my birth had brought misfortune to my mother, the woman who made me, and to the whole village.”
BE02.wav BANNING: By many accounts, Georges, Baba was a distracted child, quiet, industrious, private. He used to sell coffee by the cup in Dabia. He told me that even when he became wealthy people tended to underestimate him.
ACTY: 06_BabaSora-secrets.wav: (French)
ACTY: 06A_BabaSora-secrets.wav: People said to my brothers, ‘Your brother. He’s an imbecile. He’s an idiot.” People came and said, “Why is your brother wasting money like that? He hasn’t built hotels and factories. Why do you let him do that?” They were afraid to tell me. But I said, ‘God is great. My heart is clear. I am a Muslim. I am a Protestant. I am a Catholic. Our God has said has said to be honest. Once you’ve gained your own good fortune, you must help the next one, your parents, your friends. You cannot take happiness like a lemon all by yourself. You must pass the bread to everyone.’ People asked, ‘How does Baba still have money?’ Well, it’s simple. No one reveals the door to his happiness. You never tell your secrets.”
BE03.wav BANNING: Baba recounted a tense exchange he had as a boy with his father, who was deeply frustrated that his son refused to play music.
ACTY: 07_BabaSora-refuse.wav: (French)
ACTY: 07A_BabaSora-refuse.wav: My father said, “You are going to tell me. Why do you refuse to love music? What are you going to do? You didn’t finish school. Your grandfather wouldn’t allow it. You didn’t go into the army. Your grandfather wouldn’t allow it. Are you going to become a thief to defend African music?’” I said, ‘This music is very important. You are right. But people don’t understand its value today. When the time comes, and if I can, I will show the true value of this music.”
GEORGES: FROM HIS HUMBLE ORIGINS IN DABIA, BABA SORA SET OFF ON AN ADVENTURE THAT WOULD TAKE HIM TO SENEGAL, TO INDIA, MAYBE OTHER PLACES, AND EVENTUALLY BACK TO AFRICA TO GABON.
ACTY: 08_LDuran_early.wav: It's true that the first part of Baba Sora’s life is shrouded in mystery. The way it has been explained to me by all his kind of musical mates, like Douga Sissoko and Tiekoro Sissoko; they would say he's a wanderer, he's an adventurer. He was always someone who wanted to be a catalyst for something happening. And that's very much also in the pattern of jelis in the old days. You know, they were always wandering, going from one place to another looking for a new patron.
ACTY: 09_Lassana_Douga wav: (French)
ACTY: 09A_Lassana_Douga wav: Even his brother, Douga. He knew he had a brother named Baba, but he didn’t know where he was.
BED: M04_Kandia_Sunjata-Intro.wav (Afropop Recording, Sommerville Theatre, Boston, 2002)
BE04.wav BANNING: Lassana Diabate did not know Baba Sora well, but he had long heard the stories. Baba was in in Senegal, in India, in Gabon. And the word was he had magical powers.
ACTY: 10_Lassana_Bongo1 wav: (French)
ACTY: 10A_Lassana_Bongo1 wav: The first time he came to Mali with money was during the time of Omar Bongo.
GEORGES: OMAR BONGO WAS THE AUTOCRATIC PRESIDENT OF GABON FROM 1967 UNTIL 2009.
ACTY: 11_Lassana_Bongo2 wav: (French) (let’s hear his last line and laugh in clear after VO)
ACTY: 11A_Lassana_Bongo2 wav: Baba had learned that the president’s sister in law, his wife’s sister, was paralyzed. Baba presented himself and said that he could cure Omar Bongo’s sister in law. Now Bongos family was richer than the country itself. Money was not the problem.
BE05.wav BANNING: (laugh) Bongo had been to the US and Europe looking for a cure with no luck, so now he asked the Malian how much money he needed.
ACTY: 12_Lassana_Bongo3 wav: (French)
ACTY: 12A_Lassana_Bongo3 wav: But Babani was ambitious. He said he would cure the woman and his condition was that he then be allowed to marry her. Bongo was astonished, assuming it was all about money. “You want to become a Gabonais?” Babani said, “Give me her hand in marriage and I will get to work.”
BE06.wav BANNING: And so it went. Baba made the woman, whose name was Marie-Louise, walk. Bongo approved the marriage, and Marie Louise became Baba first wife. Money came with the marriage of course, but something more as well.
ACTY: 13_Lassana_gift wav: (French)
ACTY: 13A_Lassana_gift wav: He was a mystery. Everyone knew he had some kind of special gift.
BE07.wav BANNING: Sometime in the 1970s, Baba Sora returned to Mali with some 15-million CFA and began giving it away, a thousand, two thousand dollars at a time.
ACTY: 14_Lassana_griots wav: (French)
ACTY: 14A_Lassana_griots wav: It wasn’t just griots either. He gave a lot to the government as well. He gave away money like it was paper. He did things people couldn’t believe. At that time, nobody gave that kind of money to a griot.
GEORGES: WE’RE GOING TO HEAR A LOT ABOUT GIFTS BABA SORA REGALED UPON MUSICIANS. BUT AS LASSANA SAYS, HIS GENEROSITY WENT WELL BEYOND MUSICIANS, STARTING WITH HIS HOME VILLAGE, DABIA.
ACTY: 15_LDuran_Dabia.wav: He razed all the buildings to the ground in Dabia, and he rebuilt everything in cement. Everything before had just been in straw and mud brick. And he built a hospital. He built schools. He built an airfield…
BE08.wav BANNING: So by the time Baba Sora returned to Mali from another adventure in 1984, everyone knew of his generosity. That’s when another of his favorite female griot singers, Babani Kone came to know him.
WINDOW: M05_BabaniKone-Bambougoudji-Intro.wav, Babani Kone, Bambougoudji (YouTube) (This is just a vocal intro. Need to cleverly crossfade into the bed as her VO comes in.)
BED: M06_Babani Kone - Badjourou (Baba Sora).mp3, Babani Kone, Badjourou (YouTube)
ACTY: 16_BKone_intro.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 16A_BKone_intro.wav: Greetings everyone. My name is Babani Kone, born Fatoumata Kone. I am a griot from Segou.
ACTY: 17_BKone_ Hippodrome.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 17A_ BKone_ Hippodrome.wav: The first time I met Baba was at his home in Hippodrome. By coincidence, we both went by the same name, Babani. His real first name was Foutanka, and mine was Fatoumata. We were immediately happy to meet because we had these similar names. I had been invited there with four or five other musicians. Because Baba loved music, especially the music of the griottes. He was a fanatic, and every night he would invite artists to come play and sing for him. He was very nice. We would stay until three or four in the morning. Then he would let us go home to sleep.
GEORGES: BABANI RECALLED THAT ON THAT FIRST NIGHT, BABA SORA REWARDED ANOTHER JELIMUSO—OR FEMALE GRIOT SINGER—SADIO KOUYATE, WITH A KILOGRAM BAR OF GOLD. INCREDIBLE! BUT OF ALL THE JELIMUSOW BABA ADORED, PERHAPS NONE WAS CLOSER TO HIM THAN THE INIMITABLE KANDIA KOUYATE.
ACTY: 18_LDuran_Kandia.wav: Kandia Kouyate I would say is the greatest female voice of Mali in the late 20th century. She is a jelimuso, a female jeli, enormously popular. She has incredible charm when she sings. She has a real deep knowledge of the jeli tradition, the griot tradition. And she was absolutely tops at the time when she met Baba Sora Sissoko.
BE09.wav BANNING: With the help of Moustapha Diallo from Macina Film, we reached Kandia at her home in Bamako, during a late season rain storm. That house, by way, like Babani Kone’s, was given to her and paid for, by Baba Sora.
ACTY: 19_KandiaK_intro.wav: (Bambara) [sings]
ACTY: 19A_KandiaK_intro.wav: I first met Baba thanks to his brother Douga, who had played guitar with me for a long time. He invited me to perform a concert for his brother Baba, who had just returned from an international trip. (let’s hear the whole vocal intro in the clear)
BED: M07_KandiaKouyate_Sora.mp3, Sora, Kandia Kouyate, Ngara (Syllart, B01K8RD7MW)
GEORGES: THE SONG KANDIA BEGAN WITH THERE IS “BULA,” WHICH SIGNIFIES ALL PEOPLE WITH THE SURNAME SISSOKO. IT’S A STORY THAT GOES BACK TO THE 12TH CENTURY SORCERER KING, SUMANGURU KANTE. AND KANDIA ALWAYS SINGS IT WHEN SHE SPEAKS OF BABA SORA.
ACTY: 20_KandiaK_Bula1. wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 20A_KandiaK_Bula1. wav: My meeting with Douga was at first very exhausting. He invited me to come in the morning. I came and I waited, and waited. Then I became angry and I was about to leave. But Douga came to me and said, “No. I did not give you a false invitation. My brother has just returned from Gabon and I want you to sing djeliya for him.” I refused. I was angry. But eventually I calmed down and began to perform djeliya for Baba. I began with the song “Bula,” which says many things concerning Baba.
ACTY: 21_KandiaK_Bula2. wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 21A_KandiaK_Bula2. wav: When I began to sing “Bula,” he gave me 50,000 CFA. That was a lot of money at the time, and I was delighted. The next day he called for us. He was living at the Grand Hotel in Bamako at the time. I came with my daughter. Afterwards we recorded an album with some other griots. Then a lot of things happened. H e bought me a return trip ticket to France. I was so happy. It was my first time. Upon arriving in France, I went to my jatigui. He took the telephone and called Babani and asked, “Do you know who is in France?” Babani gave his address to Bazou and we arrived right away at Babani’s place in Paris.
ACTY: 22_KandiaK_kora. wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 22A_KandiaK_kora. wav: When we got there, I began to sing, and Bab asked if I knew a kora player in Paris. I said, “Yes, I know Bakari Diabate.” So I called Bakari. We played and we recorded and from that time I stayed close to Baba as a friend and a djeli.
ACTY: 23_Lassana_Kandia wav: (French)
ACTY: 23A_Lassana_Kandia wav: At one point Baba said, “Kandia is not my griot. She’s my sister.”
GEORGES: IN THE MID 1980S, BABA SORA WAS BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN HIS HOME IN DABIA, HIS HOTEL IN GAMBIA AND BAMAKO. HE MIGHT TURN UP AT ANY MOMENT.
ACTY: 23B_Lassana_10pm.wav: (French):
ACTY: 23B-A_Lassana_10pm.wav: He would arrive at 7pm in Bamako. At 10 pm, he would call Kandia. “Come and play for me.”Getting a call like that was like striking gold. Nobody would be late for such an appointment.
ACTY: 23C_LDuran_car.wav: One of the times that Baba Sora returned to Mali, like the return of the hero, all the jelis were in such a state of excitement. The head of the griots in Mali organized a huge party in the big field in the west of Bamako, where the old airfield used to be. And so there were dozens and dozens and dozens of griots at night in the evening in the dark with their drums and their various instruments, and hundreds of female griots dressed to the nines in this enormous circle shuffling around doing their griot dances and everything. And he didn't show and he didn't show and he didn't show. And then he turns up in a car, a Mercedes probably, and he drives into the circle and they were drumming. And he actually drove backwards and forwards rocking the car backwards and forwards in time to the drums, in time to the dancing. And people just went completely mad. This was not just their patron. This was a fellow jeli who really understood the music. That was it. He really knew their music from the inside, and there he was in a car driving just very gently but rocking that car. It was an amazing scene.
GEORGES: LUCY DURAN MET KANDIA KOUYATE IN 1987, AND WAS IMMEDIATELY SMITTEN WITH HER TALENT. THE SINGER HAD RECENTLY COMPOSED A SONG DEDICATED TO BABA SORA, WHICH LUCY PRODUCED FOR AN ALBUM THAT YEAR.
ACTY: 24_LDuran_Konady.wav: It’s called “Konady la Beno.” It's highly metaphorical and actually quite difficult to translate, but it's a metaphorical way of praising someone who was very, very generous, almost to an excess. “Konady la beno” means when you sow a seed it spreads and grows very quickly. So the generosity of Babani, this man blessed with luck, allowed many musicians to dedicate themselves to their profession instead of having to grovel around and saying just any old thing for anyone. So it was a tribute to him as a great patron in the mold of the great old pre-colonial patrons, the kings of the warriors. And of course the company is “Diaouwara,” the music of his region, music for farming. It's all part of that metaphor of cultivation. When you cultivate the land, you grow things that give life, and that's what Baba Sora Sissoko did.
MUSIC: M08_Kounady la beno.mp3, Kounady La Beno, Sidiki Diabaté and Ensemble, Ba Togoma (Rogue Records, FMS/NSA 001 (start under Lucy, and emerge on vocal around 0:20-3:00, then to bed)
GEORGES: KANDIA KOUYATE WITH “KOUNADY LA BENO.” ONE OF THE FAMOUS STORIES OF THIS ERA IN BABA SORA’S LIFE WAS HOW HE GAVE KANDIA KOUYATE AN AIRPLANE. SOME LATER CLAIMED THAT THIS NEVER HAPPENED, OR THAT THE PLANE ACTUALLY BELONGED TO OMAR BONGO AND HAD TO BE RETURNED. BUT LUCY DURAN HEARD THE STORY AT THE TIME, AND STRAIGHT FROM KANDIA.
ACTY: 25_LDuran_plane.wav: She told me, without boasting or anything like that, "You know, I've been given a plane. I've been given a very small plane. It's a two-seater, and obviously I don't fly planes. So I have a pilot and he comes and he picks me up when Baba So ra wants me to be in his home village in Dabia, because it's too far away to drive there and come back the same day. He's built an airstrip especially for small planes like this, and I have a petrol account in the airport, and they just fill it up. I don't pay for a thing, and off we go.” Now whether it was a plane that was on loan been borrowed, I don't know. But as far as Kandia was concerned, she had been given a plane, and that plane was used to take her up to Dabia to sing for Baba Sora and his family.
GEORGES: WELL, LADIES AND GENTELEMAN, IF YOU THINK THIS STORY IS GETTING CRAZY, YOU AIN’T HEARD NOTHING YET! VISIT AFROPOP.ORG TO READ OUR FULL INTERVIEW WITH LUCY DURAN AND MUCH MORE ON BABA SORA. I’M GEORGES COLLINET, AND YOU’RE LISTENING TO AFROPOP WORLDWIDE, FROM PRX.
WINDOW: 20-second break: M09_Bula.wav Mali, Khasonke Soninke (National Museum of Mali/Ethnologisches Museum zu Berlin, LC 24654)
WINDOW/BED: M09_Kedo.m4a, Kedo, Djelimady and Solo Tounkara, In Griot Time: String Music from Mali (Stern’s Africa, 7 40042 10892 9) (first 15 seconds then to bed)
GEORGES: I CAN SEE YOU’RE ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT. WE PICK UP BABA SORA’S STORY IN BAMAKO IN THE MID 1990S. HERE’S BANNING EYRE.
BE10.wav BANNING: When I went to Bamako in 1995 to study guitar with Djelimady Tounkara of the Super Rail Band, Baba Sora had not been to Mali for about seven years. People didn’t know where he was. I didn’t even know who he was. But I would soon learn that Baba was a close friend of Djelimady’s, going back to childhood. Among other things, they shared the experience of difficult djeli fathers, who harbored unrealistic expectations of their sons. At one point in the 1980s, Djelimady had frustrated the Rail Band by actually going to live with Baba in France for a year.
ACTY: 26_Lassana_family wav: (French)
ACTY: 26A_Lassana_family.wav: Baba’s relationship with Djelimady, it was like they were family.
BE011.wav BANNING: Sure. Folks like Lassana knew that, but in four months, Djelimady had never mentioned the man to me. Suddenly, Baba was there, dolling out money, cars and other extravagant gifts. For me, it was like a dream. One morning I arrived at Djelimady’s compound for breakfast, and his sister-in-law, the singer Yayi Kanoute showed me a kilogram bar of gold that she had received the prior evening singing for Baba Sora. It must have been worth thousands of dollars. And this in one of the world’s poorest countries, where the griot musicians I knew scrounged for cash at weddings and baptisms. Now a kind of mass hysteria took hold among the musicians I knew. Lucy Duran arrived in Bamako around this time and saw it too.
BED (if needed): M11_Kouyate_Diaoura.m4a, Djelimady and Adama Tounkara, In Griot Time.
ACTY: 27_LDuran_Hippodrome.wav: His house in Hippodrome, which is kind of the expensive part of Bamako, I mean, day and night, day and night, day and night, there were just hundreds of people, sitting on the ground, sleeping all night, waiting, waiting, waiting to see him.
ACTY: 28_Lassana_president wav: (French)
ACTY: 28A_Lassana_president wav: At the time, it was easier to go to Washington and enter the President’s office than it was to visit Baba.
GEORGES: BUT FOR THE RIGHT MUSICIANS, IT COULD BE DONE. AND ONE NIGHT, LUCK SHONE ON LASSANA DIABATE .
ACTY: 29_Lassana_11People.wav: (French)
ACTY: 29A_Lassana_11People.wav: I myself went there once and earned 750,000 CFA, about 1000 dollars at the time. That day, there were quite a few of us. There was Djelimady, there was Solo, their brother Adama. There was Bassekou, there was Modibo Diabate on guitar, his brother Cheikh. There was a tama player. In all, we were 11 people.
BE12.wav BANNING: And no doubt there were many jelimusow, female singers, present that night as well. I witnessed one of these soirees in Hippodrome, and it was intense, all the singers vying for a turn at the coveted microphone.
ACTY: 30_Lassana_war.wav: (French)
ACTY: 30A_Lassana_war.wav: The microphone was a war. To get ahold of the microphone to sing or speak, it was war.
WINDOW: M12_Lamban-at-Babas.wav, Lamban, Sadio Kouyate, (Afropop field recording) (this is a 5 minute track, but we only need a minute or so. It can stretch if needed)
GEORGES: THAT’S BEAUTIFUL, A TASTE OF A SOIREE CHEZ BABA SORA IN 1996.
BE13.wav BANNING: You know, Georges, some years later, I met a kora player in Boston, playing in Harvard Square, speaking good English. He turned out to be one of Djelimady’s nephews, Balla Tounkara. And apparently, he had one the war of the microphone one night, and it had changed his life.
ACTY: 31_BallaT_12k.wav: I sing for Babani Sissoko. Djelimady was playing the guitar with Modibo, Bouba Sacko, everybody… A griot woman was singing and I just jumped around, sing for five minutes. And he just stopped the music. “One minute. Who is this boy?” And he just stopped the music and wrote a check for 12,000 American. In Mali that’s 6-million. Because I sing, and what I say, my voice, and he see how young I am. He sees my talent right away. He just give that to me. And then I finally got my visa and come to the United States because it was my vision for a long time.
GEORGES: WHAT A STORY. IT’S BEEN SAID THAT BABA SORA WAS A FAIR MAN. HE MIGHT GIVE MONEY TO THE GREATEST DJELI ALIVE, OR TO A YOUNG UPSTART WITH A DREAM.
ACTY: 32_Lassana_Sunjata.wav: (French):
ACTY: 32A_Lassana_Sunjata.wav: He really wanted to live as if it were during the time of Sunjata. Every time he invited musicians, they sang for him. And frankly, he deserved it because what he did was insane. He could spend 200-million CFA in a single night. It was crazy. But this was someone who was very passionate about music.
BED: M13_Sunjata.m4a, Djelimady Tounkara, In Griot Time (This is only 38 seconds, but goes with Lassana’s quote. Use as you see fit)
GEORGES: (chuckle) WELL, THAT’S AN UNDERSTATEMENT! BUT ONE THING PUZZLES ME, BANNING. HOW DOES A GRIOT LIKE BABA SORA TRANSFORM HIMSELF INTO A KIND OF NOBLE?
BE14.wav BANNING: That’s a key question, Georges. And Lucy Duran had something to say about it in comparing Baba Sora to Mali’s greatest pop singer, Salif Keita.
WINDOW/BED: M14_Nyanyama.m4a, Folon, Salif Keita, Folon, The Past (Mango, 162 531 022 2) (time to next emerge. You’ll need to edit. Good to hear a bit of vocal under Lucy, but you can cut out most of the long instrumental)
ACTY: 33_LDuran_Salif-Baba.wav: Well, it's really interesting that Baba Sora became a kind of a patron of Salif Keita. Because there is Salif Keita who is in theory descended from Sunjata Keita the founder of the Mali Empire, the incarnation of royalty if you like. They're not supposed to sing or to play music at all. So there is Salif, who despite having been born to this noble heritage, he's a singer. And in fact, almost all of Salif’s music is drawn from the griot tradition. A lot of his tunes are taken directly from that region where Baba Sora was from. And then you got his patron who is in fact a griot himself, and yet he has cast himself in the role of the patron, the noble. But to my mind that is one of the wonderful things about Malian culture and Malian society is that nothing is really set in stone like that. You can talk about it like that, but the reality is there are many griots who behave like nobles and have never sang a note in their lives. And then you have many nobles who are very musical, I mean all the Wassoulou musicians. They're all of noble heritage and they're not griots.
WINDOW: Nyanyama, (edit to emerge 2:45-3:53, then to bed.)
GEORGES: SALIF KEITA, WITH “NYANYAMA,” THE TRUTH WILL COME OUT IN THE END. SO BANNING, SPEAKING OF THE TRUTH, YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU ACTUALLY GOT TO INTERVIEW BABA SORA. HOW DID YOU MANAGE THAT?
BED: M15_Ballaké Sissoko - Yafa Djini Te Djitoyaye - From_ Sorties.wav
BE15.wav BANNING: Well, it was all thanks to Djelimady. It was something of an ordeal. You’ll have to check out my book for the whole story.
GEORGES: THAT BOOK, BY THE WAY, IS “IN GRIOT TIME: AN AMERICAN GUITARIST IN MALI.”
BE16.wav BANNING: Anyway, it involved a number of false starts, and then a lot of waiting. But finally, at around 2AM, I was escorted into Baba Sora’s grand receiving room, and right off, I asked him how he became the greatest patron of Malian griots? Here’s what he said.
ACTY: 34_BabaSora-mango.wav: (French)
ACTY: 34A_BabaSora-mango.wav: You know the fruit, the mango? When it starts, it’s very small. People don’t even see it. But when it becomes big, everyone notices it. We have a proverb among us. If a snake stays hidden, it will live a long time. But everyday, if people see snakes, snakes, they will kill them. Now, people have discovered that Baba has money. But Baba was a billionaire for twelve years before anyone knew.
BE17.wav BANNING: By this time I had seen not only Baba’s generosity, but the kind of anxiety and determination his presence was causing among musicians. So I asked if Baba ever felt they were manipulating him to win favor. He did not.
ACTY: 35_BabaSora-dignity.wav: (French)
ACTY: 35_BabaSora-dignity.wav: The griots come from the most dignified society. Very, very dignified. We have many billionaires here. But you can’t play music for an idiot who doesn’t understand it. The griots want to give to someone who understands their value. Because they value dignity. People who spend on griots buy their dignity.
ACTY: 36_BabaSora-music.wav: (French)
ACTY: 36A_BabaSora-music.wav: Our museum in Africa is music. It is the griot. Without music, we have nothing. Today, we have the Sissokos. They are proud. The Keitas. They are proud. Traoré, Diarra. These are the descendants of the six families of Manding. But why are these families still proud? It’s because of the griot tradition that tells them their history. The history of African music is very profound. All the African presidents who love their music are powerful. All that’s left in Africa now is music.”
GEORGES: A WISE MAN, NO?
BE18.wav BANNING: Absolutely. Georges, Lucy Duran mentioned Wassoulou artists, and how they are great musicians but not griots. As it happened, once Baba Sora arrived in Bamako in February 1996, Djelimady suspended our guitar lessons to spend time with Baba, and eventually, he flew off to Dabia. So then I spent time with the great Wassoulou singer Sali Sidibe. And even though non-griot musicians were not getting invited to Baba’s soirees in Hippodrome, she was also susceptible to what I called Babani fever. She recorded a 10-minute praise song to the man. Here’s a bit of it.
MUSIC: M16_Sali Sidibi-Babani Sissoko.wav, Sali Sidibe, (Afropop field recording) (length TBD. For starters, put in 2 minutes, then fade to bed)
GEORGES: AFTER BANNING LEFT BAMAKO, BABA SORA RAN INTO TROUBLE WHEN HE TRIED TO BUY TWO HELECOPTERS IN THE UNITED STATES TO USE IN AN AIRLINE HE WAS STARTING IN THE GAMBIA. THE PROBLEM WAS THAT THESE WERE MILITARY HELECOPTERS LEFT OVER FROM THE VIETNAM WAR.
BED: M17_Kora Kan.m4a, Madou Sidiki Diabate, Buru Ju (Madou Sidiki Diabate, 2011)
BE19.wav BANNING: This is a very long story, but the upshot is, Baba was arrested for bribing a customs officer and spent about a year in house arrest mostly in a penthouse in Miami.
GEORGES: BUT THE REAL SHOCKER CAME AFTER HE WAS RELEASED IN NOVEMBER, 1997, AND RETURNED TO THAT GRAND SUMU IN DABIA, WHERE WE BEGAN OUR PROGRAM.
BE20.wav BANNING: Baba Sora had continued his conspicuous generosity in Miami, and got a lot of attention for it. As a result an enterprising reporter at the Miami New Times, Jim DeFede, was determined to find out where all this cash was coming from.
GEORGES: IT TURNED OUT THAT BABA HAD WORKED HIS MYSTIC CHARMS ON AN OFFICER OF THE BANK OF DUBAI. HE WAS ALLOWED TO WITHDRAW 242 MILLION DOLLARS OVER A TWO YEAR PERIOD.
BE21.wav BANNING: Now in another context, this kind of thing might have caused a big scandal back home. But what was the reaction? Here’s Kandia Kouyate.
ACTY: 37_KandiaK_fortune.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 37A_KandiaK_fortune.wav: God is great! When I first learned that Baba had hijacked money, it was nothing new. But there are many who hijack money and it never returns to their country. Baba was thief perhaps, but in my opinion he was the Malian Robin Hood. I can give you examples. Baba helped the football team to travel to matches. And when Malians were trapped in a foreign country, Baba went to find them with his plane. So if he is a thief, I like this kind of thief. There are many thieves and you never see the color of their money.
GEORGES: AND HERE’S BABANI KONE.
ACTY: 38_BKone_ fortune.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 38A_BKone_ fortune.wav: After I learned the source of his fortune in Dubai, it did not bother me at all. Because he returned with his fortune to the land of his birth to build the nation. The thing that did bother me was the attitude of certain Malians who were jealous of him. That’s the nature of money. Even if you were not one of those rewarded by Baba, he did his best to redistribute the money he found outside the country.
GEORGES: LUCY DURAN SAYS THAT BABA SORA COMBINES TWO TYPES OF POWERFUL CHARACTERS IN MANDE CULTURE. FIRST THE NGANA (nya-NAH), A HERO WHO ACCOMPLISHES THINGS WITH HIS PHYSICAL ABILITY, AND THE NGARA (nya-RAH) A PERSON POSSESSING SUPERNATURAL ABILITIES.
ACTY: 39_LDuran_Ngara.wav: In a way, what you see in this incredible character of Baba Sora is that he's partly ngana. He is partly a hero. But is also a ngara. He's also a great master. And you put the two together, and he managed to persuade the Bank of Dubai to give him millions and millions and millions of dollars in the process. It's quite amazing.
BE22.wav BANNING: I asked Lucy if Baba’s early training as a griot might have helped him in his, let’s say, extra-griot exploits.
ACTY: 40_LDuran_psyche.wav: A griot needs to have that kind of insight into the human psyche. The really good ones, they really do have a kind of uncanny sensibility and knowledge. That was one of the gifts of Baba Sora. He had that ability to get under the surface of things and really understand people, and possibly for the same reason, to be able to fool them, or con them, or persuade them.
BE23.wav BANNING: How exactly he did that I doubt anyone will ever know. But after his return from Miami, a wanted man, he would never be able to pull off such financial wonders again. So that reception in Dabia in November 1997 was a return, but also a kind of ending.
BED: M18_Kanougnon (feat. Majid Bekkas).mp3, Kanougnon, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, Miri (Out Here Records, 170542)
ACTY: 41_Lassana_Deputy.wav: (French)
ACTY: 41A_Lassana_Deputy.wav: After Miami, he did many, many things. He continued to give money. But at that point everyone realized that that the money had come from the Bank of Dubai. The Arabs and people in Dubai wanted to have him arrested. That’s when he went into politics and became a deputy. The President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, ATT, felt that even though the money was stolen, Babani had done a lot for the country.
GEORGES: THAT’S INCREDIBLE. SO HE ELUDED INTERPOL BY BECOMING A MALIAN POLITICIAN?
BE24.wav BANNING: Yes he did, and it worked. Baba Sora remained a deputy of the National Assembly until he died. He lived out his life, mostly in Bamako and Dabia and was never arrested or prosecuted. But without travelling, he could not replenish his riches, and gradually, all the money was gone.
ACTY: 42_Lassana_poor.wav: (French)
ACTY: 42A_Lassana_poor.wav: By 2015 to 2020, he became poor. I remember one time they came and turned off the electricity in his home in Hippodrome. It was an event. Here is Babani Sissoko, and he can’t even pay for his electricity!
GEORGES: IN 2010, LUCY DURAN WAS WORKING IN BAMAKO, AND BY CHANCE, SHE STAYED WITH A FRIEND JUST ACROSS THE STREET FROM BABA SORA’S HOUSE IN HIPPODROME.
ACTY: 43_LDuran_meeting.wav: Already in 2010, Baba Sora had seriously run out of money. His funds had finished. One by one, the lights went out in his house. It was kind of sad. And then he started clearing things out of his house, or somebody started clearing them out. And so suddenly that was all this kind of Louis XIV furniture on the sandy street in front of his house in Hippodrome. And no one touched it. That's how much everyone respected Baba Sora. And one evening, Bassekou Koutate the ngoni player and his wife Ami Sacko, who are great friends of mine, went to see Bubba sora, and they brought him to meet me. It was the only time I ever met them, but we had such an interesting conversation. It was just straight off the deep end, talking about all sorts of philosophical things. And then I sang that song, the song that Kandia had sung for him. (sings K la Bena). And he started explaining it to me and I was completely gripped. And I thought, "This is a very special, thoughtful, gentle human being.” He'd lost his money, but he hadn't lost his dignity. From there, he went back to live in Dabia and I never saw him again.
GEORGES: BUT SURELY THE PEOPLE HE HELPED, ALL THOSE ARTISTS AND POLITICIANS, THEY MUST HAVE COME TO HIS AID.
BE25.wav BANNING: Some musicians certainly rallied around him, including Balla Tounkara, who returned from the U.S. and continued to perform for his patron. But Lassana Diabate says those with the means to really help mostly did not.
ACTY: 44_Lassana_sadly.wav: (French)
ACTY: 44A_Lassana_sadly.wav: Sadly, sadly. After he became poor, people abandoned him. I’m sorry to say that, but even the griots abandoned him. Sometimes that’s how it is with us. When you have money, everyone comes. When you have no more money, you have no family. That was the case with Babani Sissoko. Four days after he died, Babani Kone organized a sumow next to his house. People insulted her. They said, “No, the griots should pass one month without playing music, in memory of Babani.” That was when his ex-wife said, “No, when Babani fell sick, it was Babani Kone who visited him. And every time she came, she gave him 500,000, 600,000 CFA.” “Leave Babani Kone alone. What Babani did, no other griot did that.”
BE26.wav BANNING: No one seems to know exactly how Baba Sora died. But the people we spoke with do have some ideas about how he should be remembered. Here’s Babani Kone…
ACTY: 45_BKone_ThankGod.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 45A_BKone_ThankGod.wav: What I want people to remember about Baba Sora is that he was a very happy man, and a fanatic for music.
BE27.wav BANNING: And Kandia Kouyate…
ACTY: 46_KandiaK_ gossip.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 46A_KandiaK_ gossip.wav: The memory I want to people to hold about Babani is that people have to stop gossiping. Baba was part of a phenomenon that has existed for centuries and centuries. But people like Baba don’t come along all the time. I want people to remember that Babani was generous, and good, and he did good things.
ACTY: 47_KandiaK_ prayer.wav: (Bambara)
ACTY: 47A_KandiaK_ prayer.wav: I ask God to welcome Baba into his paradise, and that the children he leaves here on earth will be as good as he was.
ACTY: 48_LDuran_Yiriba.wav: (a couple of pops and bumps in here to deal with) There's a wonderful, very metaphorical proverb that the jellies quote when they're lamenting the death of a great patron, and it goes (sings). Yiriba Boita, that means “a great tree has fallen. The birds have all scattered, and the birds are the jelis.
WINDOW/BED: M19_Kora Bali.m4a, Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko, New Ancient Strings (Hannibal, 0 31257 14282 3) (this is the music to the end)
ACTY: 49_LDuran_Google.wav: You know, it's so interesting. When you Google Baba Sora, what you find is that he is invariably described as a schemer, a swindler, a thief, a con man. And none of these reports mentioned that he was also a great patron of music and the arts. And his country. And his country. He did a lot for his country, and no one mentions anything about that. If you think about what he managed to do as a patron of music, you have to think about how much less music we would've had, wonderful music, classical music, if Beethoven hadn't had a patron, if Mozart hadn't had a patron, if Bach hadn't had a patron. This is what Baba Sora did, so I sort of feel a bit angry that he's always described as a con man. Because he's much more than that. Much more than that.
GEORGES: THANKS TO MOUSTAPHA DIALLO FOR RECORDING INTERVIEWS WITH KANDIA KOUYATE AND BABANI KONE. THANKS ALSO TO KASSIM KONE AND CHERIF SISSOKO FOR VOICE OVER TRACKS.AND A VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO LUCY DURAN. IT IS ALWAYS A PLEASURE TO HAVE YOU ON OUR AIRWAVES.
BE28.wav BANNING: And another special thanks to Djelimady Tounkara and his family for hosting me and educating me in 1995 and 96. Without your generosity, I would never have learned about Baba Sora’s.
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