Amid the agreeable mix of spirited ngoni plucking and syncopated karignan scraping on the second track of Bougouni Yaalali—a compilation of indigenous musicians recorded by Jack Carneal in the West African nation of Mali—comes a sudden and incongruous blap-blap-blap that sounds like a muffled handgun. "That's just some guys playing checkers," Carneal recalls with a smile. "If you listen really closely, you can also hear a donkey braying."
Such ambient accompaniment—adults conversing casually, children calling out—punctuates several of the cuts on Bougouni Yaalali, one of three CDs of Malian music released last year by Carneal's fledgling Yaala Yaala Records.
A drummer who has recorded and toured with indie rock bands Palace Music and Baltimore-based Anomoanon, Carneal found himself plopped down in the southwestern Malian city of Bougouni in 1999. At the time, his wife, Chris, was earning her PhD from Florida State University in international education development. The couple's son, Tabb, was just two years old.
The family existed solely on a grant awarded to Chris, who was studying rural schools in Mali. "We could not afford to live in a fancy ex-pat place," explains Carneal, a 40-year-old lecturer in English at Towson University, as he sits in the second-floor study of the Evergreen townhouse he shares with Chris, Tabb (now 10), and the couple's other son, 6-year-old Maxwell. "We lived in a cinderblock shed with a tin roof, in Bougouni, among Bougounians."
That meant enduring 120-degree temperatures in the hot season with no air-conditioning. Outside of a Peace Corps volunteer and a handful of nuns, the Carneals, to the best of Jack's knowledge, were the only Westerners in Bougouni, a town of 35,000.
While Chris dove into her research, Jack wheeled Tabb around in a rickety stroller. "We'd get up in the morning and start walking," Carneal recounts. "We'd go to the market, buy something for lunch, and that is really how I started to hear a lot of music," often "stumbling across" performers serendipitously.
Using a mini-disc device, he sometimes recorded them on the spot; other times, he invited musicians back to his place to play informal sessions under a mango tree in the family's dirt courtyard—all for his own enjoyment, he points out, and not for commercial purposes.
Occasionally, Carneal allows, "a great sense of absurdity" governed his Malian musical odyssey. For example, while buying a shirt from a merchant, Jack inquired if the vendor knew anyone who sold djembes (drums). He didn't, but the "kid" who worked for him did. Carneal followed the kid for an hour and a half, as they wandered through the streets of Bougouni.
The pair ended up at a house and Carneal was told to sit in the courtyard, where two musicians appeared and played their ngonis, which are lutes, not drums. "Why did they start playing?" he asks, still baffled by the experience. "I never mentioned anything about a ngoni. To this day, I have no idea." Still, he was impressed enough to make arrangements to record them later.
Similar surreal experiences governed his efforts to chronicle the sounds of local musicians. "I would say, 'Are you able to come over tomorrow at approximately 9 a.m.?'" he recalls. "And they would answer, 'Of course.'" On the next day, "I'd sit there looking at my watch as it passed 9 and 9:30 and 10:30, and realize that they're not coming."
Weeks later, he'd encounter them on the street and ask why they hadn't posted, as promised: "I'd get these hilariously blank looks, like, 'What do you mean?' And then a few days later, I'd hear somebody in my yard at 6 o'clock in the morning, and find that they had arrived."
Gradually, it dawned on Carneal that his ingrained, linear Western approach was crashing into an utterly different mindset: "In Bougouni, it wasn't that people had decided not to observe time in a Western way; it was that they had never observed time in that way."
Carneal discovered other Malian music by purchasing cassettes at the town market, where vendors manned stalls with a two-deck boombox. "They played music all day long," Carneal says. "If you liked what you heard, you paid 75 cents and they would dub a tape for you."
A few Western artists were available, but mostly the vendors sold regional Malian music. That's how he encountered the jolting sounds of Pekos and Yoro Diallo. "When I heard it," he remembers, "I immediately said, 'I have to have that, whatever it is.'"
Although popular in the Wassoulou area, these names are likely off the radar screens of even the keenest American and European fans of Malian music. Such fans are more accustomed to devouring a steady diet of releases by that nation's commercial superstars: Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, and Toumani Diabate. But Carneal believed the music he'd recorded and heard was on a par, or even superior to, the work of those artists.
After coming home in 2000, Carneal settled into teaching, playing drums with Anomoanon, raising his two sons, and writing a nonfiction account about his African adventure. Over the next several years, when time permitted, he gradually transferred to his computer the music he brought back from Mali and burned CD copies for friends.
Among them was Dan Koretzky, co-founder of the Chicago-based independent record label Drag City, which had issued CDs by Palace Music and Anomoanon. Koretzky and Carneal discussed the possibility of releasing some of the Malian music, and, ultimately, "Over the course of a very long time," Jack notes wryly, "he convinced me that it was not an idiotic idea."
Distributed by Drag City, Carneal's first three Yaala Yaala discs were issued last spring, featuring Carneal's evocative black-and-white photographs of Bougounian life, but with virtually no information regarding the contents: song titles, credits, etc.
The trio of recordings captured the rich musical heritage of West Africa's Wassoulou region: from riotous djembe (drum) and mellifluous griot singing to frenzied balafon (wooden xylophone) and percussive karignan (metal tube) on the multiartist Bougouni Yaalali; raucous ngoni (spiked lute) playing and Alpha-male vocals on the explosive Pekos/Yoro Diallo; and trance-like singing on Daoda Dembele.
Praise and condemnation for the CDs quickly ensued. "I think a lot of the stuff on there is brilliant; it's really wonderful to listen to—powerful and touching," observes Robert Fox, co-founder/bassist for the D.C.-based Afrofunk big band Chopteeth, and founder/editor/writer for the AfroFunk Forum blog.
While most published reviews lauded the actual music, some questioned Yaala Yaala's modus operandi of releasing records without the express permission of the artists involved. An especially incensed writer for the British music magazine The Wire accused Carneal of outright exploitation.
"It's an active debate," Carneal admits. "I see their take on things. But it was my intention when we started this label to not profit from it. If it made any money whatsoever, I was bound and determined to get it back to Mali."
Accordingly, he established what he calls the Yaala Yaala Rural Musician's Collective for that exact purpose. But reconnecting with the musicians has proved problematic. "Logistically, it is so extraordinarily difficult to send this money back to where I want it to go," Carneal explains. "The musicians I met in Bougouni were rural: They don't have cell phones; they certainly don't have e-mail addresses; I can't Google them and go to their MySpace page and say, 'Hey, fellows, I owe you a little money.'"
This past December, Carneal returned to Mali, on his own dime, in an effort to track down the musicians and distribute to them what little money Yaala Yaala had generated through sales. But with no contact information, he completely struck out, characterizing the effort as "not quite a fiasco, but almost."
While there, however, he met Yoro Sidibe, a respected "hunter's music" performer and officially secured the rights to issue an existing Sidibe recording as Yaala Yaala's fourth CD, which comes out this month. Carneal even paid Sidibe an advance. "It's very, very old, ritual-oriented music," Carneal says, dating, in fact, from the 14th century. "The hunter's musicians play in order to get the hunters excited and revved-up to kill things."
Some ethnomusicologists have speculated that the sound represents the roots of Western popular music. "You could make a very strong case," Carneal states, "that a lot of the rhythms, a lot of the melodies" in our music can be traced to West Africa.
It's one of the reasons Fox and others wholeheartedly applaud Carneal's guerrilla endeavors. "I think music wants to be liberated and shared across cultures," says Fox. "That's the history of the development of music. The net effect of what Carneal has done is that this really interesting and challenging music is touching people all around the world."
That assessment deftly encapsulates Carneal's ideal for the future of Yaala Yaala. "There's so much great music out there, we're going to try to start putting it out as frequently as possible," he notes. "We think it's pretty wonderful, so here it is."