Ryan Skinner’s Bamako Sounds is undoubtedly the most intelligent book I’ve read about contemporary Bamako in general, and its music scene in particular. It’s an important work, less for what it says about a given set of musical styles than for what is says about Mali’s wider cultural landscape, about the ways Malian people today understand who they are and how they relate to each other and the rest of the world. The book’s subtitle–An Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music–offers a clue to how Skinner approaches this landscape.
Afropolitanism is quite a young concept, only a decade in the making. Writer Taiye Selasi’s 2005 essay “Bye Bye Babar?” is generally considered its first articulation, and Selasi’s vision of the Afropolitan was subsequently criticized as shallow and elitist (e.g. by Binyavanga Wainaina, Emma Dabiri and Marta Tveit). But Skinner’s analysis follows a different Afropolitan strand, spun by historian Achille Mbembe.
Mbembe describes Afropolitanism as a form of post-nationalist, post-nativist modernity emerging in Africa’s urban spaces. He traces its meaning in a brief 2005 essay on the topic:
Awareness of the interweaving of the here and there, the presence of the elsewhere in the here and vice versa, the relativization of primary roots and memberships and the way of embracing, with full knowledge of the facts, strangeness, foreignness and remoteness, the ability to recognize one’s face in that of a foreigner and make the most of the traces of remoteness in closeness, to domesticate the unfamiliar, to work with what seem to be opposites–it is this cultural, historical and aesthetic sensitivity that underlies the term “Afropolitanism.”
Afropolitanism in Bamako, Skinner writes, draws from multiple cultural registers–ethnic tradition (mainly Mande), national discourse, the Islamic umma and the global ecumene. For the Afropolitan, these registers are not conflicting (never mind mutually exclusive) but complementary, forming a polyphony that is the backdrop and soundtrack to daily life in the city. Afropolitanism here is anything but the privilege of a jet-setting elite. For Skinner it’s “an egalitarian and creative practice of freeing oneself to present tradition in new ways” (p. 182). For rich and poor, from swanky nightclubs to the intense sociality of the SOTRAMA, Afropolitan ethics suffuse existence in Bamako.
Music is of course the author’s point of entry into this discussion. Skinner is an ethnomusicologist at Ohio State, not to mention a musician who counts kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté among his teachers. So the sonic dimensions of Bamako culture are given preeminence, in part because music is so all-encompassing in Malian society. Skinner writes that “good sound–music that stirs bodies, triggers thoughts, and incites emotions–affirms good subjectivity, audibly expressing the persistence of cultural mores and social imperatives in counterpoint with the interests, desires, and aspirations of individuals” (p. 102). His analysis of Bamako’s musical landscape ranges from “high culture” (an instrumental performance by Toumani Diabaté at the French Cultural Center) to popular vocal music (a wedding gig by Dialy Mady Cissoko, a rehearsal by Nana Soumbounou) to neighborhood rap tributes like Need One’s “Bolibana”:
Surveying this diverse landscape, Skinner takes pains to highlight the choices Bamako artists make in crafting their sounds and their presentation to others, for these choices speak to the Afropolitan ethics he seeks to map out in this book. “My attention is drawn,” he writes, “to the bargaining, improvisation, mobilizations of identity, and intersubjective revisions that characterize the ethical projects of African subjects in the world today” (p. 10).
Malian musicians’ Afropolitan tastes may be eclectic, but the reader learns that they also operate within a particular political economy characterized by constraint and uncertainty. Where most commercially available recordings are pirated and only a fortunate few artists land lucrative tours abroad, making a musical living is a tremendous challenge. In his last two chapters, Skinner outlines the postcolonial history of cultural production in Mali and shows the impact of the country’s current political turmoil on its artists. Most of us know that music was banned by the Islamist militants who controlled northern towns three years ago (subject of the documentary “They Will Have to Kill Us First“); fewer of us may be aware of how badly the state of emergency in Bamako crippled that city’s music scene in 2012 and 2013.
Even in the best of times, Skinner demonstrates, Bamakois experience urban life as an unstable mixture of conviviality and precarity, “a wild space of risk, possibility, hope, and anxiety” (p. 35) that they must navigate as best they can. Music is a vital tool with which Bamakois learn to domesticate this wild urban space, transcend it and connect with the world beyond its limits.
Bamako Sounds is a work of consummate scholarship, and this fact is at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Readers unfamiliar with Foucauldian biopolitics or Althuserrian moral subjectivity, for example, may find portions of it rough going. Yet what this book offers to any reader ready to take it on is a means of coming to terms with everyday life and cultural identity in the Afropolis, one that moves beyond sterile dualisms of modern vs. traditional and imported vs. authentic. Skinner’s take on Afropolitanism offers a fresh means of imagining “the increasingly urban, demographically young, internally diverse, widely dispersed, highly productive, intensely creative, and always already modern African World” (p. 184). As African societies become ever more urbanized and ever more oriented toward the outside world, such a perspective has never been more welcome, or more necessary.