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One night I was at a Restaurant in Mali and a drunk old donso mimed shooting me with a pistol.
Κείμενο Jack Carneal

A Donso copping a squat in Mali. Photo by the author.

I lived in Mali for a while. One night as we sat down to eat in our local restaurant Bar Restaurant in Bougouni, a drunk old donso mimed shooting me with a pistol. I could tell he was a hunter because of his mudcloth uniform and the fetishes dangling from his collar, not to mention the enormous rifle slung over his shoulder. He leaned his rifle against his bike, stumbled over to our table, picked up a drumstick bone, and ate it like a breadstick. Then he picked up the greasy ribcage and shoved it into his mouth, daring me to stop him. I didn’t. According to legend, the donsos — hunter/musicians of southern Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Guinea — have been around since donso-saint Sunjata’s founding of Mali in the 12th century. Ethnomusicologist Eric Charry, in his book Mande Music, posits that donso ngoni music “might be one of the oldest living musical traditions with still living vestiges.” Yoro Sidibe is one of the handful of donsos whose cassettes are sold in the markets of Bamako, Bougouni, and Sikasso. I was lucky enough to see a donso ceremony in the village of Kolondieba where the participants who weren’t holding ngonis were firing rifles. It’s easy to hear in the music’s galloping 4/4 beat and Sidibe’s aggressive and Lemmy-like vocalizing, not to mention his glowering and intimidating appearance (and the rifles), that donso ngoni music shares a great deal with rock. Draped in gris-gris and frocks made of stained mud cloth, you can always recognize donsos in the markets and towns of Southern Mali: also, they’re usually the only ones toting huge rifles. Donsos are of the pre-Muslim darkness and their music and lifestyle has long been considered unclean in parts of polite Muslim Malian society. Donsos get drunk, shoot their guns into the air and eat pigs. They dance and sing about the great pre-Muslim heroes of Mali like Sunjata and Fakoli and about hunting and rambling, about lives lived hard and on the move. Most of the donsos are still underground: their magic is ancient and not to be trifled with. In villages throughout the Bougouni and Wasulu regions the donsos are still honored, whereas in parts of Muslim Mali the donsos are considered out of touch with contemporary Malian society.  In the 50s, recognizing the corrupting influence of donso music, the Muslim government paid some musicians to invent a new kind of G-rated non-donso music played with the ngoni. What resulted is called kamelen ngoni (“youth ngoni”) music, which sounds a lot like funk played on an acoustic bass, and even given its “for the masses” provenance is still fantastic and interesting music. Lyrics usually consist of moral parables: Listen to your father! And you will do well one day! Compare to this donso lyric quoted in Charry’s book: You who have offered me a skull
As a face-washing bowl,
And offered me a skin
As a covering cloth. 
You have given me a great tongue
So that I may speak to the world. 
The brave offered me fresh blood
As face-washing water,
And gave me a tail
As a hut-sweeping broom,
And offered me a thighbone
To use as a toothpick. 
It is the hunter who has done this for me A Malian friend whose father was a donso told me a possibly apocryphal story: If one is dancing during a performance of the hunters who is not supposed to be dancing, he or she runs the risk of being killed by medicaments. It seemed like a good idea to let the guy eat the chicken carcass.