Dance Craze and Moral Panic in Bamako

Popular sound systems blend traditional sounds with DJ beats, and keep people across Bamako on their feet.      But will Mali‘s capitol ban the “Balani Show” dance parties?

A Balani Show sound system in Mali.  Kids up to no good!

A Balani Show sound system in Mali. Kids up to no good!

Current street corner culture in Bamako is dominated by the “Balani Show” dance party, a craze that crosses traditional Mande Balafon (xylophone) music with DJ’s, dancehall moves, sound systems, and dirty dancing.  An Ivorian DJ named Dj Sénateur claims to have introduced the style in Mali around 2002, right in the midst of the outrageous dance music craze, the “Coupé-Décalé“.

In Bamako, “Balani Show” follows on the heels of another modernized traditional dance music craze, the Sabarni or Sa Bar Dance.  Where “Balani Show” incorporates Balafon, Sabarni incorporated traditional Mandinka drumming.  And like Coupé-Décalé“, its the dancing that gets the attention. Coupé-Décalé“, a blend of Ivorian pop and revived Congolese Rumba, is best known abroad for its outrageous dance moves.  Its most famous were the Guantanamo, in which dancers paraded like handcuffed prisoners, and the “Bird Flu Dance“: launched in the midst of the Asian virus pandemic of 2007, where dancers strutted their stuff mimicking dying poultry.

Sabarni dances, circa 2002, were just as controversial, if less creative.  Much bumping and grinding, in the way teenagers across the planet dance. All the rage at the discos, bars, and street corner parties of Bamako, scandalized religious leaders and politicians went so far as to convince the mayor to ban, on pain of law, the Sabarni. (Here’s a short movie from the time.)

Enter the the “Balani Show”. While elements of Balafon tinged pop have been called Balani for some time, the explosion of “Balani Show” in Bamako in the last five years has pushed DJs and mobile sound systems to the forefront.  The city rumbles with dozens of street parties on holidays: one scandalized newspaper article claimed to have counted 96 across the city one holiday night this June.  Other journalists complain that these parties breed mindless sex and violence, with “children” frequenting street parties armed with knives, guns, and tear gas canisters,  on the prowl “as if at a football match” for other gangs or innocent passers by. Students are wasting their school breaks on this nonsense, journalists warn, and every special event from birthdays and marriages to national festivals, now requires a DJ and MC to lead dance contests backed by a deafening racket.

Of course, its nice to see that any society can have a moral panic, and whether its Mods and Rockers,Gangsta Rap“,  or Balani Dance, the worried “right thinking people” always seem to sound the same.

And it seems Bamako may have learned something from the Sabarni panic.  Although the same concerned citizens are demanding their various city Communes ban  Balani Dance parties outright, other leaders are trying to direct the concerns to stimulate young people to use the infrastructure of block party sound systems to tackle social ills and give them economic opportunities.

Moctar Sissoko, mayor of Dravéla Commune in Bamako is pushing to move loud block parties to the daytime, and help set up youth run initiatives to introduce social themes for the parties.

Better yet, the Projet Danbe (a Bambara word for Dignity) “Sound System Social” group was set up in 2008 to give young DJs and organizers a chance to acquire equipment and performance space.  The next step in their plan is to set up youth run social centers, where locals could organize around issues of unemployment housing and education, with their Sound System tying it all together.

But I’m sure some people will still complain about the noise.

There’s been some academic interest in the subject.  Anthropologist Craig Tower who has written a book about community radio in Koutiala, southern Mali, is due to present a paper called “Hard, Fast, and Loud: Balani Music, Mande Aesthetics and the Production of Minority Modernity in Mali” at a meeting in a few weeks.
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