Akala: My African adventure

When urban music star Akala went to Bamako in Mali as part of Roots2Routes, to join rappers and artists from across the continent, he encountered poverty and helplessness – but also good times, friendship and hope. This is his story
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A group of leading British urban musicians including Akala, the Mobo-winning rapper and brother of Ms Dynamite, and Kele Le Roc, singer of Basement Jaxx, went to Bamako, Mali, to join musicians and rappers from across Africa. There, with local musicians and others gathered from Morocco, Ghana, Gambia, and South Africa – including Kwaito's biggest-selling artist, Zwai Bala – they worked together to record an album fusing their various musical perspectives. Performing shows together, writing songs and learning under African musicians, composers and producers, they explored the question of whether black British artists' African roots are an essential part of their identity. The new collective Routes2Roots, formed on the trip, will play gigs this year including Glastonbury. Here we present Akala's diary of the trip, alongside photographs of the journey.

13 May 2008

I boarded the plane with a sense of anticipation, sure that I would return a different human being from the one that had left two weeks previously. I had planned to sleep on the plane. However, this idea went straight out of the window as I was absorbed into the collective energy of our party, exchanging stories, hopes and anecdotes. We arrived after 11 hours' travel, feeling fully ready for what was to come.

14 May 2008

I awoke at 6am to the sun already radiating at 35 degrees with one mission on my mind – get fruit! I walked out of our hotel to a street already bustling with the traffic of mopeds to find, as I expected, fruit stalls dotted along either side of the street. I managed to purchase huge quantities of bananas, mangoes, pineapple, coconut, oranges and avocado, all using my extremely sketchy French!

15 May 2008

The rickety bus chugged across the stony rubble and ground to a halt. As we exited the bus we were immediately swamped by people trying to sell us everything from mobile-phone credit to traditional cloth. There is no avoiding the obvious material poverty that afflicts the masses of the people there and today was my first face-to-face encounter with it. From the market we went straight to the national museum, where a local festival of drums, singing and dancing is held every Thursday. The vibrancy and energy, as ever with African music, was so strong you could taste it, and so when we were asked to give an impromptu freestyle performance we obliged. Durrty Goodz set off our show to a rapturous reception and I followed with a chorus of Bambara (the indigenous tongue) words that I had learnt from Salla, our guide, to an equally enthusiastic response. The whole show lasted about 20 minutes and we danced and sang with the local singers and musicians and I wondered at the obvious continuity between what they do and what we were doing and it became clear to me that, though we did not speak the same language, when it came to music we knew exactly what each other was saying.

16 May 2008

I went to a concert of one of Mali's most famous artists, a woman named Rokia Traoré, and received a musical education.

17 May 2008

We finally got down to the business of making music, though it had been organised so that the local musicians were off writing as a group and the UK musicians were another group, and this frustrated me no end. On the one hand I thought it defeated the whole purpose; on the other hand, given the endemic lack of unity in the UK black music scene, I was also conscious that this project was as much about making permanent connections with domestic artists as it was about collaborating with musicians from the continent. We made a fantastic start writing two songs which we all liked and also just establishing that creatively we were all reading from the same page.

18 May 2008

I sat in front of an enormous flag with Bob Marley's face on it (incidentally, I found out that Bob Marley is a national hero in most African states, with his birthday and the day of his death being national holidays), absorbing the drums and talking to the children in this local area that had been so kind as to throw a barbecue for us, and again the obviousness of the cultural continuity between peoples of African descent all over the globe began to dominate my mind. The dreadlocks, the sound-system speakers, the dancing, but most importantly the spirit – I could have been in Brixton, Brooklyn or Kingston, but I was in Bamako.

19 May 2008

Today was dominated by a five-hour-long debate that sprang from one of the artists wearing a T-shirt that said "Money" on the front of it and somebody questioning the morality of wearing such a shirt, especially considering where we were. From this route we spoke on everything from religion and politics to sport and love, and all went to bed feeling that we knew one another and perhaps even ourselves a little better.

21 May 2008

For the first time in my career, I recorded a song fully live with the musicians in the same room feeding from their energy, and it is a way of recording which, while it is quite expensive, I feel yields the best results. The song we recorded is called "Sister Bamako" and features Wanlov (Ghana), Pamela (Gabon), Zwai (South Africa) and the drums, kora, bass and guitar all played by legendary Malian musicians, so, needless to say, I feel humbled to feature alongside such company.

22 May 2008

We returned to the museum where we had performed a week earlier with the intention of showcasing the songs that we had written over the past seven days. However, the songs were not really ready for performance as we had not rehearsed or soundchecked, and the concerns that many of us had raised were rendered true by the slightly shambolic performance that ensued. Each artist did their best, but mics kept cutting, samples did not work and the whole thing just looked like exactly what it was: a bunch of talented artists blagging their way through an unrehearsed show. Luckily, the locals did not heckle us and were actually remarkably understanding, as we even had the audacity to start our show more than an hour late! Certainly one to forget!

23 May 2008

We spent the day rehearsing and arranging the songs so that they could be performed properly at the full showcase we were doing that evening. This was a paying show that had been advertised all over town where we were the headliners – so a repeat of yesterday was not an option. With just a day of rehearsal, the musical directors (Marshall and Tunde) managed to pull together a much more coherent piece with a definite structure and purpose and the show proceeded without incident. We even had half the audience grace the stage with us for one final jam session.

24 May 2008

I received another musical education from another one of Mali's premier artists, a man named Salif Keita, at a show that he was putting on at the houses of parliament! See, the thing people have to understand about Africa and music is that people do not play music in Africa – THEY ARE MUSIC, and a band such as Salif Keita's epitomises that.

26 May 2008

Today was a big day. Myself, Bashy and Goodz had a few days earlier designed a huge ebony necklace with an Africa pendant that we were having made and today was collection day. We were proud of this necklace for two main reasons: first of all, simply because it displays Africa and thus our cultural heritage; but secondly, as we all find the practice of US rappers laminating themselves in metals and stones that are usually in some way connected to the exploitation of their family here on the continent, a most perplexing and ridiculous exercise, we hoped that as three of the UK's most well-known rappers, our being seen wearing these will highlight just how stupid that practice is. We collected the chains and the craftsmanship was so top-notch that most of the rest of the group ordered a smaller version of our design.

28 May 2008

I spent the day writing a song involving all the artists that remained, on a kind of "we are the world" vibe. I could sense the feeling in everybody that we were conscious that things were coming to a close and that we all felt that double the time still would not have been enough, and with the rather subdued energy, the day's work felt for the first time laborious instead of joyful.

29 May 2008

I awoke at the familiar 6am to my fruit salad and sun, and being the only one of our group up at this time, I sat with my thoughts and tried to quantify what I had experienced over the past 16 days, and realised that I could not quite grasp it. You see, Africa's energy is one that can only be appreciated and understood by all five senses at once. You must smell Africa. You must taste Africa. You must feel Africa even to begin to comprehend what is there.

Africa is not a desolate wasteland of poverty and helplessness, but a reflection of the very best of humanity where their faces are rarely glum, their beat is rarely subdued and their song is rarely lamenting. As humankind marches closer to machinery and further away from each other, I believe the best place for us to look for guidance is the continent from which we all originate. There is a saying in Mali that "if you kill someone today, tomorrow you go to their funeral", as all in Mali swear to a kinship among its people. From this knowledge, a unity is formed that will not allow people to treat each other with anything but the love and respect you are supposed to have for your family.

I could not help but contrast this picture with my own situation as a young black male growing up in London, where so many of those I grew up with or around are now in jail or dead. Where by the end of this week another black male will kill another black male and nobody will be shocked. I wondered at the effect that I know for certain a trip like this would have on any of the groups of impressionable young men we call gangs; it would give young men the sense of connection we so yearn for, but most importantly it would show us just how un-African our behaviour is.

Routes2Roots is a project by Bigga Fish. For more information, see www.biggafish.com, or their MySpace page (http://profile.myspace. com/index.cfm?fuseaction= user.viewprofile&friendID= 128791453); Routes2Roots play Glastonbury and the Lake of Stars festival in Malawi in October as part of their African tour