Thursday 15 November 2018

Dambe: The Mali Project ****

(G, limited release)

Paul Whitington

Bob Quinn and others have suggested links between Irish music and that of north and west Africa, but never has the point been more eloquently made than in this absorbing new documentary.

Directed and filmed by Dearbhla Glynn, Dambé: The Mali Project follows traditional musicians Paddy Keenan and Liam O'Maonlai on a journey across the dry and dusty west African country of Mali. They're bound for a musical festival in the far north of the country, on the edge of the vast Sahara, but on the way they meet local musicians, perform for the Malian people and discover how powerfully exotic -- and endangered -- a country this is.

Their chief musical ally is Afel Bocoum, a celebrated Malian musician who works with O'Maonlai and Keenan to fuse the music of the two countries. This proves remarkably easy, and Keenan's uileann pipes and O'Maonlai's sean nós-style singing seem to strike a powerful chord with the locals. Keenan's background is in the Traveller community, and he sees many parallels between the way he grew up and the way the nomads of Mali live. When they get to the 'Festival au Desert' at Essakane, near Timbuktu, they encounter a riot of colour, dancing and a fusion of tribal traditions. But all of this is under threat, from state persecution, drought and the steady encroachment of the Sarahan sands.

Engrossing, visually rich and surprisingly moving, Dambé: The Mali Project perfectly captures what must have been an unforgettable experience for O'Maonlai and Keenan. It would be easy to poke fun at Mr O'Maonlai's willingness to join in with African dances and don the local garb, but his openness seems to forge genuine connections with the locals, and his and Keenan's music effortlessly fords all cultural and linguistic barriers. n

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