We moved at the end of February, when all this was unfolding only in Wuhan and Italy: distant, exotic. Like most who leave for the burbs, we—I, mostly—coveted more space, less noise. Now looking back, I see what I really wanted was minimal interaction with my species. Without Chad next door screaming at football games on ESPN every Sunday, without the woman upstairs thudding about at 5 a.m., I imagined life would be larger, expanding into all the mental spaces my neighbors had squatted in. I pictured reading Proust and staring out the window, lost in thought, infinitely uninterrupted.
Now, at our home in Sloan’s Lake, a Denver suburb, I hear nearly nothing, not even our own footsteps, which sink soundlessly into carpet. Partly the quiet is thanks to the double-insulated walls that sold us on the house, but mostly it’s the pandemic. Open windows no longer let in the giggles of kids hurrying to the Boys & Girls Club down the street. Even on the most sun-drenched Friday nights, backyards remain empty of cookouts. Except for the occasional dog walking its human, the streets are desolate. Most days, the only sound I hear is the ice cream truck circling our neighborhood, never stopping.
Do I miss people, or just knowing they’re out there—knowing that my species is, for the most part, somehow, surviving?
I’ve been listening again to Amadou & Mariam’s Dimanche à Bamako, which I first heard in the Malian capital whence the album takes its name. I was twenty-six then, and it was my first time in West Africa. Distant, exotic—at least compared to everything I’d known before.
Of course, I was the one out of place, the only person in the country, probably, who didn’t already know the blind duo’s “Afro-blues.” Our night watchman, Mahmadou, played it incessantly on his Nokia phone. Sometimes I sat with him, drinking the bitter green tea he brewed on a small charcoal brazier. He’d pour the tea into shot glasses, adding two cubes of sugar in each. Then we’d listen to Dimanche. Occasionally he’d stab the air with his right index finger, shouting, “Là! Là!” when he heard a snatch of the percussion invented by his people, the Dogon of central Mali. At night, I’d wake to a breeze carrying snippets of “Gnidjougouya,”Mahamdou’s favorite track, and fall back asleep, lulled by the song’s slow strumming, the women chanting hypnotically. If home is the place where you sleep best, then home for me is Bamako, Amadou & Mariam slipping into my dreams.
On Dimanche, some tracks flow smooth and melancholy like the Niger River bifurcating Bamako. Others, like, “Coulibaly,”accelerate, Malian instrumental kora layering on rock guitar layering on Indian tablas, urging you into a frenzied night at Bamako’s Club Radio Libre or the Songhoy. The album in its entirety, as Teju Cole says of Malian music more broadly, “is ancient, majestic, but it is also utterly contemporary. It is alive to the world.” A balm, especially for right now, when so much of life appears frozen, inert.
I listen to Dimanche as I circle Sloan’s Lake mid-afternoon, the Denver sun at its hungriest. There are more geese than people. My forehead salts with sweat. Good,I think. One cannot listen to Dimanche cold-blooded.
As much as the melodies themselves, I listen for the cacophony of Bamako in the background, for the possibilities of a Sunday in the city that the album both reproduces and reimagines. Mufflerless trucks groaning under the strain of the cattle they must be carrying. A taxi driver gently hawking his services to pedestrians. The bustle of the Grand Marché, where I used to buy small sugar bananas and wax print fabric. For an instant I am again in the press of a crowd, inhaling the smells of working bodies and cacao butter. Despite the heat, I shiver with pleasure. Crowds. How delicious.
Maybe it wasn’t my species I’d wanted to escape but their disembodied presences, all their irksome residues without any of their humanity.
On “M’Bife Blues,” the last track on the album, Amadou & Mariam croon a sighing, swirling ode to love and loyalty, to commitment, to a future created together. At least that’s what I gather from the lyrics that are in French. The rest, which are in Bambara, remain mysterious to me—only a timbre, a feeling, to go on. That, too, seems apt for this moment and the future that comes after. Distant, exotic, but also not.
— Raksha Vasudevan
Denver, day 86