In the winter of 1980 I travelled to Mali to visit a friend who was living there. He had a little flat in the port of Mopti on the banks of the river Bani from where he made excursions into the mysterious backwaters of the inner Niger delta to work with small fishing communities. I joined him for what I thought would be a fortnight and ended up staying six months. We made many long trips upstream into magical reaches where water and sky dissolve into one silvery timeless place. Returning from one of our journeys, we found a dusty old van parked outside the flat in Mopti. It was one of Radio Mali’s travelling recording studios, just back from collecting songs in the delta. We bought some cassettes from its darker recesses.
On one of the tapes there was a wistful song, sung by a young Fulani girl, accompanied by a sparse repeated riff on the ngoni or Malian lute. The simple melody seemed to evoke all the secrets of the delta. The dry rolling gait of the riff conjured up the shadows of the Fulani herdsmen’s cattle moving out to find new pastures. I would often play the tape as the sun set across the river from our ramshackle terrace. My friend had the lyrics translated for me. They tell the story of a young girl who begs her lover to kill the lion that has been attacking her father’s cattle. If he succeeds her father will consent to their marriage. Her lover wants to run away but she implores him to be brave. He fights and kills the lion but is gravely wounded in the struggle. Shortly after I returned to England I lent my collection of African music to a cousin in London and a few days later disaster struck. His house was burgled and the thieves stole his entire record collection including all of the Malian tapes. Almost thirty years later my wife gave me a CD called Radio Mali. I put it on for the first time one afternoon and lay down to take a nap. A familiar song came rambling into my dreams like a long-lost friend. I found myself walking along the banks of the Bani again, this time with Ali Farka Touré, who had returned the song I thought was lost forever. Mark Fry
Mark Fry and the A. Lords’ new album, I Lived in Trees, is out now www.secondlanguagemusic.com