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From Arcade Fire to enemy fire: recording Bassekou Kouyate during the Malian coup

Reuben Maan

With a resumé that includes producing Arcade Fire’s incendiary debut album, Funeral, it’s not surprising to hear that Howard Bilerman seems to attract the heat. Usually the blaze he stokes is made by bands like Wolf Parade or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But recently he took his production skills to Mali — and was caught in the middle of a coup.

Bilerman was invited to Mali to produce the latest album from Bassekou Kouyate, the world’s best ngoni player (CBC Music streams Kouyate's upcoming album, Jama Ko, next week). Bilerman and Kouyate met when the latter was on tour in Montreal, and he felt that Bilerman was the perfect producer to add some more grit to his sound.

I spoke with Bilerman last week about recording in Bamako during the coup, which occurred in March of last year, deposing President Amadou Toumani Touré just before the planned April 2012 presidential elections.

But before we get to his story, here is the song that most perfectly captures the feeling of frustration, anger and helplessness that the crew felt because of that coup, “Ne Me Fatigue Pas.” Bassekou plugged his ngoni into a wah-wah pedal and channelled all the emotions into a blistering groove.

Conflict in the north of Mali had been mounting, and Bilerman's parents pleaded with him repeatedly not to go. Their concern reached an apex the day he left Canada.

Fifteen minutes before boarding, my phone rang in the boarding room of the airport and it was my parents making one last plea, "Please don’t go." I felt like a teenager saying, "Look, I have to make my own decisions. It’s an amazing opportunity, I’m going. My plane is boarding, I’ll call you when I get there. Everything is going to be fine. I’m going to be in the south of Mali with Bassekou, who’s friends with the prime minister himself. We’re going to be safe, we’re going to be surrounded by people who are going to look out for us, don’t worry, I’ll call you when I get to Africa."

Bilerman’s parents’ concern was unfounded — for two days, until he heard "fireworks."

… things were great. I felt like I was the right person to help Bassekou make a different kind of record and in between takes I went out to the parking lot to have a breath of fresh air, and then I heard fireworks and thought that’s weird, I wonder what they’re celebrating. Then Jay Rutledge [co-producer] ran out on his cell phone saying Jens [Schwarz], the photographer, is calling from the town square. "They've taken over city hall and the radio. There are some reports that there’s been a coup d’etat. Let’s just go inside and figure it out." So I was in Bamako for 48 hours before the coup happened.

Instantly I had the horrible sinking feeling, "Oh my god my parents were right." I wasn’t so much concerned for my own safety at the time as wanting to be absolutely sure my parents were not right. I knew they were seven hours behind me so they would wake up and Google Mali and find out there was a coup d’etat exactly in the city I was in, and I just didn't want them to worry more.

Bilerman and the band sought refuge in Kouyate’s house, far from downtown. They turned on the TV to see Amadou Sanogo, the military commander, saying, "We’ve taken over the government, the president is gone."

At this point it was super surreal. I was a bit freaked out but also felt weirdly safe. And then they made the announcement that this really is for the good for the country and don’t feel endangered, we’re not crazy people, we’re just fighting for the support we need to galvanize this country against terrorism. I did have flashes of "Wait a minute they just ousted the president, a personal friend of Bassekou, maybe there’s a chance I’m not in the right place." But that sort of passed.

Declaration of the coup d'etat:

Things could have been much worse for Bilerman.

I’ve said this before, if everyone has to get caught in one coup d’etat in their life, it really was the best coup to be in. It wasn’t two factions of people fighting against each other, it was super quick. It was the military [coming in] and then there was a new sheriff in town. Everything seems to be back to normal but there was this weird feeling of claustrophobia, we couldn’t go anywhere and there were armed guards at every gas station.

Bamako was still not a good place for a foreigner to be hanging out.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say, I was talking to my girlfriend every night saying, "Get me out. Do everything you can. Call the airline and figure out how I can get out." If I was able to leave a week before I did, I probably would have, but the military closed the airports. I didn’t want to be stupid about it, I have a daughter. It seemed like a conflict area and the Canadian government was saying, "If you can get out, get out." But then in the absence of being able to get out, the second best thing to do was to finish the record.

Bilerman feels the coup amped up the intensity of the recording.

I think if anything, it made everything everyone was doing a little more heightened. No one was working on automatic pilot. There was freedom with the ability to play music and they did it with passion … the coup d’etat galvanized us and gave us this feeling that it was all for one and one for all. Here we are together, stuck … so we all looked at each other in the eye and said let’s make a good record. So I don’t think the coup had a direct influence but it had a secondary influence, which made everyone really invested in what they were doing.

Bilerman and Kouyate created what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the best world music recordings of 2013. Montreal’s Barr Brothers add guitar and drum overdubs on some songs — stay tuned to CBC Music for an album stream and interview with Andrew Barr next week.

CBC News has more information about the current political situation in Mali.