Monday, June 5, 2017

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

NEW YORK CITY FASCINATES ME. I'm sure that being fascinated by New York probably marks me as a true provincial, but if that's true, I'll accept the verdict. For about a decade starting in the mid-'80s, I found myself in New York regularly, at first visiting women that I was either getting to know or breaking up with, or on work assignments, back when NOW magazine had travel budgets to send photographers to shoot covers.

In the summer of 1996 I was assigned to shoot Toumani Diabate, a West African musician, for an upcoming cover, so they dispatched me on a quick day trip to New York City where he was playing with fellow Malian Bassekou Kouyate. They'd just recorded an album together and were staying in a hotel down by Wall Street, so I began pre-visualizing the two men with their flowing robes and instruments made of gourds and skin and gut on the narrow old streets of Lower Manhattan, in front of the banking towers.

Toumani Diabate, NYC, July 1996

I arrived early to scout locations, and found a really nice spot in a side door of the Federal Reserve Building. I collected Diabate and Kouyate at their hotel and brought them to the spot; I told them that I could only feature one of them on the cover, so I asked Diabate to take his kora out of its case and sit down to play in the arched doorway, underneath the massive masonry blocks that make the Fed building stand out among all the other vintage skyscrapers.

We didn't take a single frame before an armed security guard showed up and told us that we had to move on - that they didn't allow photo shoots this close to the Fed building. I wondered how they'd spotted us so quickly - it was literally a matter of a minute or two - but I apologized and asked Diabate if he'd mind if we found another location.

We walked around the corner of the Fed building and down William Street to the Chase Bank Plaza, which seemed to offer a variation on what I was looking for - a contrast between the men in their robes and the massive old towers behind them. This time I was able to shoot two rolls of 120 film with my Rolleis before another security guard showed up and told us that we were on private property, and that we needed a permit to shoot here.

I've always remembered this very difficult, awkward shoot, with its logistical and technical difficulties, and wondered where exactly it all happened. The location of my cover shots were easy enough to find - the Chase Plaza is the only space like it in lower Manhattan, and the wall of the Fed building makes it easy to find the exact spot. Diabate was sitting right where the little white square is hovering at the corner of the plaza, but the concrete guardrail behind him has since been replaced by a much sleeker one in glass and tubular steel.

Toumani Diabate & Bassekou Kouyate, NYC, July 1996

The location of my second shoot, with a now-very upset Diabate and Kouyate, was a bit harder to pin down, since the fencing I stood them against obviously indicated a future building site, and the likelihood that the view through the vacant lot behind them has long been obscured.

There's a blog, Flaming Pablum, written by a native New Yorker and music fanatic that I've followed for years, and he regularly obsesses over bits of Manhattan time capsule archaeology, trying to find the locations of iconic band shots and other scenes from the past, usually in collaboration with Bob Egan's Pop Spots blog. After reading about their hunts for the spot where Neil Young was photographed for After the Gold Rush, or where the Plasmatics stood for a promo shoot, I thought I'd give it a try.

Thankfully Google Street View makes this a whole lot easier, without having to buy a plane ticket. With nothing but the rather grand building across the vacant lot behind the musicians to go on, I hovered over Wall Street on my computer for an hour, looking for what appeared to be a wedge-shaped building next to a new tower, when I discovered that we hadn't gone very far at all - just across William to the corner of Cedar, where Diabate and Kouyate stood against the long-gone fence just behind where the burly man in the dark suit is walking in the photo above.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how, after flying all the way to New York City, I really only did two set-ups. Maybe I was feeling frustrated, perhaps even as angry as Kouyate was, judging by his expressions on the contact sheets. It seems a shame - if I'd been a bit more patent, and exercised better bedside manner, I might have persuaded the two men to help me find an even better location to pose them with their instruments; only now do I realize that Bassekou Kouyate never had a chance to take his ngoni - a form of lute - out of its case. There's something sort of lovely about the shot of Diabate with his kora, and I might have gotten something else like it, perhaps even better, of the two men.

It's not that I wasn't a fan of their music - I've been listening to West African griot music since the mid-'80s, a wholly soothing sound built around the cascading, harp-like sound of the kora and the balaphon. In retrospect I can't be angry at the security guards who kept moving us along; it was only three years since the first World Trade Centre bombing, and I'm sure they had orders to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. In any case, I can't help but remember this shoot with some frustration, and as an opportunity missed mostly because I got a case of the nerves.

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