On the crisp morning of Tuesday, December 26th, as the world awoke to the gentle afterglow of Christmas, the city of Bangkok stirred to life, its streets humming with anticipation for the day ahead.My excitement was palpable as I stood outside my hotel, eagerly awaiting the day’s adventure to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market. The streets of Bangkok were already bustling, a symphony of urban life awakening. At precisely 8 am, my taxi arrived, but it was no ordinary vehicle. It was a fully electric MG car, a British classic, its sleek and elegant design a stark contrast to the typical Bangkok traffic. This unique car was a testament to the owner’s admiration for British culture and automotive innovation. The driver, Mr. Lot, a 61-year-old Chinese-Thai gentleman whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my first visit in 2016, greeted me with a warm, infectious smile. “AlaaaSaaan!!” he exclaimed, his eyes twinkling with pride as he spoke of his car after our usual exchange of pleasantries.This MG was particularly special due to the hefty 200% import duty tax Mr. Lot had paid to bring it to Thailand, a symbol of his deep appreciation for British culture, which he fondly reminisced about from his visit there over three decades ago. As we embarked on our journey to the Damnoen Sadouk, situated 98km from Bangkok, the silence of the electric car’s engine was profound, a stark contrast to the usual hum of diesel and petrol engines. To fill the void, I jokingly suggested we should play some music to avoid falling asleep, leading to a hearty laugh shared between us. Mr. Lot graciously offered me the opportunity to connect my Apple Music to his car stereo, an offer I gladly accepted. The first song to grace our ears was “M’Bemba”(My Ancestors)by Salif Keita. This nearly 9-minute long masterpiece is a title-track of his 2005 album recorded in his studio in Mali, immediately captivated Mr. Lot, to the point where he seemed to forget he was driving. The song’s power and depth were evident even to those unfamiliar with its language. After it concluded, Mr. Lot expressed his amazement, acknowledging the song’s extraordinary nature despite not understanding the lyrics. He was curious about the artist and the song, urging me to share more as he was unable to Google while driving. I began by introducing Salif Keita as a Malian singer-songwriter who was born in 1949. He is one of the most influential musicians on the African continent and a member of the Keita royal family. Referred to as the “Golden Voice of Africa,” he had overcome significant challenges, including ostracisation for his albinism and breaking traditional occupational barriers of his noble status, to pursue a successful music career. I shared that even at his age at 74, Salif is still actively producing music and captivating audiences worldwide. As we delved into the song “M’Bemba”, I explained its profound significance. The song is a tribute to Salif’s ancestors who were royal. The Mandinka word ‘M’Bemba’ translates to ‘My Ancestors.’ I began to unravel the lyrics and their meanings for Mr. Lot. The song opens with a chorus, sung by Salif’s own sister:”Ah cubay watii le fè nkaramo, cubay na tuma.. Ah cubay watii le fè nkaramo, cubay na tuma duniya teh bulu-killima..” In English, these lines mean: “Ah, there is a time and moment for everything, my master. The world is not viewed with a single mind or view; meaning, it’s okay to see the world in diverse ways, recognising that every opinion matters. Following this, Salif directs a question to his ancestors:”neri coromay, ah néri coromay, aah kori tougnabè .Né ra mè ko n’gara kèlou ko kon’ka n’gara ya kè ,Ko sabou lé ya.”To translate , it signifies: “I have heard of your stories and histories, passed down by griots and historians. I understand you challenge me, as a royal offspring, to excel and be extraordinary in my chosen path, upholding the legacy of greatness embedded in our bloodline.” The next verse of the song openly addresses the young traditional singers, known as griots, in Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. Salif acknowledges his hands being tied, bowing to them for his legendary status as a musician(that was the work of the griots), a result of the sacrifices made by his ancestors. The lyrics here are poignant: “N’bolu yeng ko Jali deni nou yé La Guinea Jali deni nou beyé N’bolu yen’ko Jali deni nouyé Senegali Gawlo dindinbu beyé N’bolo yen’ko jali deni nouyé Eyè Mali Jali deni nou bay Mbemba, m’bemba léh M’bemba leka kele kèh M’bemda di saka koulou ni M’bemba leka sokè koulu di M’bemba di jong kay kulu ta kadi Jali deni lou ma ,Kakè toko songo.Aah m’bemba”.These verses acknowledge the sacrifices made by his ancestors, including offerings of sheep, herds of horses, and even slaves, to the spirits and griots. This was done to ensure that their descendants, like Salif, would excel and be legendary in their chosen fields. The song then shifts to a more critical tone in a form of a very powerful poem addressing themes of greed, evil, enemies and corrupt politicians;”Jugumorogna djoukounani morogno”.Enemies are bad, your enemies are evil.”Ada magni ada té tougna fo”.Their mouth is bad and never tells the truth.”Ada magni adacasa bolen”Whatever comes from their mouth stinks.”Ah síng mangni a síng té sigila”.Their steps are wicked, always on the move to spread evil.”Ah cono magni a cono bara bè yé gii”Their stomach is bad, filled with water.”This line metaphorically suggests that these malevolent individuals are hollow inside, filled with nothing but evil intentions and greed.”A ben’hakili diki Jon na, abeh miriya digi surukou la.” Suruku wara kele yoro do”.Here, Salif draws a parallel between these evildoers and wolves, indicating that they are akin to the most nefarious members of society, often typified by greedy political leaders. The wolf, in this context, becomes a symbol of predatory behaviour and exploitation. “Surukou bina mankalani keleng ‘di” The combination of wolves and enemies of the society will come up with their plans and initiatives to wage a war against the antelope.In this verse, the antelope represents the vulnerable and impoverished people in the community. The wolves, or the corrupt and greedy elements of society, conspire to exploit and dominate these defenceless individuals.”surukou bino kang ko kang kary.”Wolf breaks the neck of the antelope”.He vividly illustrates the brutal nature of the exploitation here, where the powerful and greedy, much like wolves, prey upon and destroy the vulnerable for their own gain. “Surukou m’ma balema musolu soh”.Wolves don’t give anything of their gains to their sister.The greed and selfishness of these individuals are further emphasised here. They are so consumed with their own desires that they neglect even their closest relations, such as their sisters. “Surukou ma balema kaylou soh”Wolves don’t give anything to their brothers.This line reinforces the theme of selfishness and greed. Despite their gains, they do not share with or care for their own kin, including their brothers. “Hakili ma djika wolodenilou na, surukou ma furu mussoh soh molou, siko gueran fenda”.This concluding part of the verse speaks to the extent of their neglect and greed. They are so engrossed in their own ambitions and desires that they forget their own children, wives, and extended family, echoing the wolf’s nature of prioritising self-interest over communal or familial bonds. In the following verses,Salif circles back to the core theme of the song, which is a celebration and acknowledgment of his ancestral heritage. The verse starts with an introspective query about the identity and legacy of his ancestors: “M’bemba lé m’bemba lé Oh oh m’bemba Oh oh oh oh m’bemba M’bemba bora moko jong na M’bemba bora moko jong na Né m’bemba bora moko jong kosa” Here, he emotionally muses over his lineage, asking, Where are my ancestors, who are they, and where do they hail from? before answering this question himself.In these lines, he passionately speaks of his ancestors, the lions(jatta) of”Fara, Dakala Jatta, Kitakuru Jatta, and Iyènè Jatta, all regions within the ancient Mali Empire established by his forefather, Sundiata Keita. He praises his ancestors, Keita and the Konè family, asserting that without a son of a woman of Konè on the battlefield, a war was deemed incomplete and unwinnable. This part of the verse highlights the valour and importance of his lineage in the historical context of warfare and bravery. The verse then delves into a profound metaphor:”soko simbo ni simbo sarama dakouma ni kabala simbo. Friki ni koma djomanou ni djoma wanya, Fouyétoukou foula katé toukoukèla anhan né m’bemba bora olou daladjala”This translates to a concept where Keita reflects on the nature of substance and value. He suggests that what is insubstantial (‘null’) tends to align with similar insubstantial elements and cannot follow or be influenced by that which is substantial and meaningful (‘lucid’). This metaphor speaks to the integrity and authenticity of Salif’s ideas, actions, and behaviours, underlining how they are influenced by the inherent qualities and high standards passed down through generations from his ancestors. The verse concludes by affirmatively stating that his ancestors, originally hail from Dakajala in the ancient Mali Empire. This powerful conclusion not only honours his heritage but also cements his identity and cultural roots, connecting him inextricably to the noble lineage of his forebears. Salif then turns the narrative towards the importance of the traditional Mandinka griots and musical instruments such as Kora, Balafong and Ngone(Riti );”Bala bararo imayé djama latolon bala mankan. Bala bararo Jali sonan latolon bala mankan.Kora bararo dja djama latolon kora mankan.Aah kora bararo Jali sonan latolon kora makan.Ngone bararo imayé djama latolon Ngoni mankan. Ngonè bararo Jali sonan latolon goni mankan.”These lines translate to: The balafong has entered the hall and entertains not just the audience but also honours the musicians’ hard work. Similarly, the Kora’s music and that ngonè are not just for entertainment but should also be a recognition of the artist’s talent and dedication. The song concludes with a reflection on Salif’s royal heritage and his commitment to his ancestors’ legacy, despite choosing a career in music. His respect for his roots and the desire to honour his lineage through his art are palpable. As Mr. Lot and I neared the floating market, he expressed his deep appreciation for the new understanding of “M”Bemba”. The drive, filled with rich conversation and music, seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. Arriving at the floating market, I was immediately struck by the vibrant array of boats, each brimming with fresh produce, colorful handicrafts, and the enticing aromas of Thai cuisine. The market was a microcosm of Thai culture – a place where tradition met the bustle of modern life. It was a perfect complement to the morning’s journey through Salif’s music, a blend of history, culture, and the enduring spirit of the human experience. As I explored the market, the connections between the themes in Salif’s music and the vibrant life around me became increasingly evident. Each vendor, with their unique stories and crafts, was a living testament to the rich tapestry of culture and tradition. The market was not just a centre for commerce but a hub for social and cultural exchange, much like the role of music in society. The day at this unique market, immersed in the sights, sounds, and flavours of Thailand, was a profound reminder of the universal language of music and tradition. It bridged gaps, connected hearts, and celebrated the diversity of human expression. My experience with Mr. Lot and the insights into Salif’s “M”Bemba” were not just an exploration of a song but a journey through the depths of cultural heritage and its enduring impact on our lives.
Alasan Ceesay is a Cambridge University scholar, entrepreneur, & British Army Veteran of Afghanistan