Born in 1955 in Niafunké, Afel Bocoum has been immersed in its music since early childhood. “My father, Kodda Bocoum, was the best-known player in the region of the one-string fiddle, the njarka, and of the little lute, the njurkel. These are the two most typical instruments of the Sonrai. They’re powerful instruments, you must be well prepared spiritually to play them, otherwise, they can be dangerous, because they have connections with the spirit world. As a musician, if you don’t approach these instruments in the right way, it can revert back on you. My father is not a griot; he chose music for a profession. He specialized in a style of music called Se galarare, a kind of free-rhythm music for wedding celebrations.”
As an established and respected musician and member of the community, Afel strives to combine philosophical commentary on society today with an active participation in community activities such as the Flamme de la Paix – the commemorative ceremony that recreates a pioneer burning of weapons marking the end of the Tuareg rebellion in 1996. By playing at such events, Bocoum hopes to influence others to take their future in their own hands.
“Africa has spent too long relying on others to solve its problems. It is time that we listen to each other and create our own solutions.” He does this eloquently in a style reminiscent of the “desert blues” sound of Ali Farka Toure, but conveys a stripped down version to reveal the roots of the music. More firmly focused on the acoustic and traditional sounds of the surrounding cultures, he uses a one- stringed fiddle (njarka), a two-stringed guitar (njurkel) and calabash percussion with his acoustic guitar and impressive vocals – that intertwine fluid melodies and circular rhythms, inducing an image of the ebb and flow of the forces of the river and desert that surrounds them.
An introspective mood is created, wrapped within social commentary against greed and arranged marriage, as well as encouraging the need to respect your elders. As Bocoum comments, “when an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down. People have begun to forget and have become lazy – if we don’t realize this today, tomorrow we will be lost.”