Toubab Tales: The Joys and Trials of Expat Life in Africa by Rob Baker
|Toubab Tales: The Joys and Trials of Expat Life in Africa by Rob Baker|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A vivid, energetic memoir of Rob Baker's time as an ethnomusicologist in the West African country of Mali. Full of wonderful anecdotes - the educational, the warm and witty, the serious and sad - Toubab Tales has something for everyone. Just watch out for the tinned Brussels sprouts. Not good!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 274||Date: May 2020|
|Publisher: Independently Published|
"Go to Mali," they said. "The music is amazing," they said. "And you get ten hours of sunshine every day." So I did.
Rob Baker is an ethnomusicologist. A what? I hear you cry. Well, an ethnomusicologist studies music in relation to culture, so rather like a folklorist studies the oral and written story traditions relating to a culture. Rob is interested in songs and instruments and how they relate to daily life within culture: its rites of passage and its celebrations and mournings. And he spends his three years in Mali, driving long and precarious distances, finding new instruments to describe and songs to record. He gets into scrapes and he makes many new friends with his easy, curious, open nature. Toubab Tales blends memoir with ethnographic music study and so offers something to a wide range of readers.
Rob and his wife, who is a teacher, and his children, arrive in Mali after a flight subject to terrible turbulence. Relieved to find their feet back on the ground, they are soon ensconced in their new house and waiting for their car - which is arriving by ship - to bring most of their belongings. Rob immediately sets about discovering Bamako as a toubab (white man, or westerner) where he discovers the Malian les trois tasses tradition of taking tea: three cups with the first bitter as death, the second sweet and pleasant as life and the third even sweeter; as sweet as love.
During his stay, Rob travels to Timbuktu and Dogon country, he finds people and songs and music and sees how it integrates and complements daily life and how its practitioners are often honoured but sometimes persecuted. He gets into the swing of bean jokes - including the fart ones. He has some narrow escapes, often involving car problems and the availability of parts. He discovers the profitability in pigeon dung, is laid low by malaria, helps save a friend from a deadly snake bite, and, as a Christian in a majority Muslim country, has respectful and revealing conversations about faith.
The whole thing is an absolute pleasure to read. Rob has an open, informal style and a real knack for communicating what he sees with genuine enthusiasm. His cast of characters - Malians and ex-pats alike - rise from the pages as if they were in the room with you. It's a rollercoaster ride at times, particularly towards the end as unrest spreads and a Tuareg insurgency in the north leads to the military coup of 2012 with most of the westerners, including Rob and his family, find ways to leave. But mostly, I will remember the music and Rob's energetic, enthusiastic search for it. Lovely.
If more stories of Africa interest you, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott is a lovely memoir by a New Zealander in Botswana, while Blood River by Tim Butcher recreates Stanley's epic expedition through DRC and along its eponymous river.
You can read more about Rob Baker here.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Toubab Tales: The Joys and Trials of Expat Life in Africa by Rob Baker at Amazon.com.
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