On Saturday nights they play live music at the bar outside the mining camp. A bar in Burkina Faso is a very simple affair: all you need is a big refrigerator, a lot of chairs and tables, and a field to put them in. The bar is open every day of the week from morning until the dead of night, and people arrange their tables in the shade of trees or underneath the stars and pull up on their motorcycles at all hours to drink a beer. When you want another one you whistle at a low pitch and the barman will unfold himself from the shadows beside the refrigerator and shuffle out to your table to take your order.
On Saturday nights a band assembles with their instruments. The balafon in an instrument that looks a bit like a xylophone—it’s composed of a row of planks of various sizes over hollow gourds that resonate the sound—and it’s roughly the size of a pool table. It’s played by a guy who whales on it with a pair of sticks stripped of bark, and he’s backed up by three drummers, one kid who rings bells when the mood strikes him, and a man who plays a harp-like instrument called a kora. This orchestra is amplified by a pair of six-foot-tall black speakers. There is no electricity in the village, so the speakers are connected by cables cannibalized from other equipment to a set of 6 car batteries knit together Frankenstein-style by irregular lengths of frayed wire. The refrigerator at the bar is also hooked up to a car battery, and the barman plugs it in from time-to-time to keep the beer a few degrees below the ambient temperature. Instead of paying up front for every beer I settle up at the end of the night, because, as the barman puts it, I’m easy to recognize.
On Saturday nights they plug in the speakers to play dancehall music and Malian love songs long before the band comes on. The jerry-rigged assembly of cables and batteries sends screeching feedback whistling through the amps, and people begin to assemble when they hear the electronic moans of the system echoing through the village. The bar has two lightbulbs which are plugged in only on Saturdays, and as night falls people assemble their tables in a loose circle just outside the perimeter of where the light falls. People sip their tepid beers in the shadows around an open oval of space roughly 25 by 10 yards, and as people assemble the contours of the dancefloor become more defined. The band begins tuning their instruments, which is not a complicated exercise if you play a pair of chunky iron bells.
On Saturday nights the youngest kids begin to dance first. Knots of children between the ages of four and fourteen, boys and girls indistinguishable with their shaven heads and handoff clothes, start stomping and swaying in the dusky circle as the drummers and balafon player begin testing out different rhythms. Even at such a young age they mimic the motions of the older dancers in an uncanny way; the boys all move with quick feet and languorous torsos in perfect rhythm to the unpredictable music, and the girls have the same confident shyness that their older sisters display on the dancefloor. At a certain point the bandmembers flick away their cigarettes and begin playing their instruments with both hands, and the children are shunted off the dancefloor to make room for the adolescents and the youth.
On Saturday nights every dancer creates fluid adaptations of a rigid central style of dancing. First we see the traditional dance of the Senoufo people. Both men and women slice on to the dancefloor in quickstep, fastfastfast, typically advancing from the dark end of the oval and moving across the open space towards the band in a line. Everyone holds their back straight, their head upright and straightforward, elbows bent, but their legs move in a mad jig. The feet patter across the ground many times per second, and the dancer creates variations on this style by shifting forwards or sideways and occasionally splitting their legs wide or tightening their gait even further. Ranks of boys and girls slip across the open field towards the band and then, feet away from the throbbing speakers, peel off to the sides to make room for the line advancing behind them.
On Saturday nights boys from the village do the traditional hunting dance, where the hunter crouches low and shuffles forward with swaying shoulders, pops up occasionally to scan the horizon, and then recreates the thrill of the kill by suddenly leaping into a series of whirls and whoops with the arms flung out like a dervish. People applaud the dancers who fall after a minute of reckless spinning, overcome by a combination of centrifugal force, tradition and palm wine. The women dance in concert swaying their hips in unison, and the boys clear the dancefloor respectfully. The band does not play a setlist of songs, but rather shifts from one rhythm to another without pause.
On Saturday nights some drummers began to drop off from exhaustion and are replaced by those who do not yet have swollen hands and bloody nails from slamming the goatskins for two hours. One dancer was an old man who took a long time to rise from his seat and stride slowly to the center of the circle. Nobody else set foot on the dancefloor as he rose; he was the only person to dance alone. The band began to play a sharp and rhythmic beat. The harp player had abandoned his post and all that was left was percussion and the occasional pealing bell. The old man slipped off his shoes and began to move. He was thin and small and couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds. The lights refracted off of shafts of smoke from all of the people smoking cigarettes and the charcoal of a grill where a few women braised chickens.
As the band layered complexity onto their rhythm the old man danced in the powdery dust of the arena. He danced with the plumes of dust as if the disturbed earth was his partner. He would stamp his foot and step forward thrice in quickstep, leaving three clouds of dust floating and dispersing behind him to show where he had been. As the tempo quickened he would sweep a foot in a broad arc beside him and then leap through the wall of dust he had created, or patter his bare feet like pistons before gliding backwards through the cloud he had created like a squid through its own ink. The dancefloor was dry and loose and he was alone out there, crouching and leaping and scraping. I didn’t know whether to watch him or the dust. He would kick at the ground twice and as I watched an X or a perfect circle bloom from the ground he would already be in a different part of the oval hatching new clouds.
On Saturday nights the concert ends when the car batteries run out of juice. Eventually the speakers groaned and the lights flickered and died and we were left under the bright light of the waxing moon. As I walked back to camp I left a trail of dust that drifted to leeward and settled behind the tread of my heavy boots.