Buffet Hotel

by Jimmy Buffett, Bill Flanagan, and Mac McAnally

from the album Buffet Hotel


Well the train slipped into the station
A worn out steel blue soul
A relic from colonial days
When the French were still in control
Lorsque les Francais ont ete en controle

It’s an outpost in transition
Where the faithful in the bar
Know from the whistle and the squeaking wheels
That the next stop is Dakar
La prochaine etape etait Dakar

Talk on the radio
Talk on the street
Talk of men with money loco from the heat
Talk about the rail band
Pickin up the beat
We lit that great reunion
With the headlights on the jeep

And there’s history on that jukebox
Where the spies and scoundrels dwell
It was the place to go in Bamako
Direction Buffet Hotel
Direction Buffet Hotel

Now we’re lost in the Sahara
Four hours north of Tombouctou
Lookin’ for a nomad who knows
Or maybe some wandering Jew
Allons a Essakane, Syndou
(Get us to Essakana, Syndou)

Then we heard that Tuareg combo
We had come so very far
And we were welcomed out of history
By the wind, the sand and the stars
J’ai commence a le percevoir

Sand in the couscous
Sand in the wine
There was sand in my guitar case
Stories in my mind

Machine guns on the hilltop
Camels in my tent
Buried in a sandstorm
As the music came and went

Well we crawled out of that desert
And the storm erased our tracks
The Sahara showed her heart to us
And then she took it back

Well we made it back to Bamako
Before that last call bell
We bought rounds for all our newfound friends
We owned Buffet Hotel
Nous avons eu Buffet Hotel

I recall dipomats
And hookers
I saw strangers diggin’ wells
And for that one great night in Bamako
We owned Buffet Hotel

Jimmy’s Note:

“36 hours in Bamako” sounds like the title of a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie, but I assure you there was no Dorothy Lamour in our caravan. Needless to say, embarking to West Africa in search of musical encounters and that most enviable inky jewel so sought after by travelers – a Timbuktu stamp in your passport – far eclipsed the past adventure-turned-album voyages. (Remember “Volcano” and “Far Side of the World”?)

I actually didn’t go to the desert with the pre-conceived notion of returning with an album. I went looking for stories. And stories are still the things good songs are made of. The story that sparked this song, which eventually turned into the title track and name of this album, began the minute we set foot on the patio of the infamous Hotel De La Gare Buffet in the Bamako train station, better known as Le Buffet Hotel.

Bamako is the Memphis of West Africa and Le Buffet Hotel is Beale Street, where a pleiade of famous Mali musicians got their start. Like musicians got their start. Like musicians all over the world in the early struggling days of a career, they had other jobs. The Chemin de Fer de Dakar au Niger that runs from Bukina Faso through Bamako and on to Dakar in Senegal, was where many of these stars by night held down day gigs. At Le Buffet Hotel workers played for passengers and fellow workers on the patio, and it was on that patio that a musical hot spot bubbled up in the 60’s. Dances were invented, flash bulbs popped, friendships were forged, bands were formed and careers were launched.

But like the worn out locomotive that passes through the disheveled station, those days were gone, another flash of 60’s brilliance that had faded to black by the end of the last century – BUT NOT QUITE YET!!! Enter the Buktu Brothers, musical pilgrims on the way to the Tuareg version of Canterbury – at the oasis in Essakane and the annual Fete du Desert.

Once across the Atlantic, we were welcome to Bamako by our trip organizer Syndou who had mapped out a schedule for us. While I paid a visit to the U.S. Embassy, the other Buktus went shopping and wandered the streets of the Capitol taking photos and videos and looking for vintage CDs of famous West African singers and bands. We regrouped for lunch and then went to Le Buffet Hotel to pay homage to the place where the Rail Band, one of the most important and influential bands in Mali, had blazed a musical path out of Mali to the rest of the world.

As our luck would have it, Tom Buktu ran into Djelimady Tounkara in the bar. He was one of the original members of the Rail Band. When asked if they still played there on occasion, Djelimady told Tom they weren’t doing anything that night. Well one thing led to another and around sunset, band gear arrived in a beat up pickup truck. A quick trip to an ATM machine produced cash that was exchanged in the bar with the manager of the band. By dark, it was obvious that word had spread on the coconut telegraph as the place started to fill up. While the Rail Band set up on the patio, I opened the evening’s entertainment with a solo set in the bar to a collection of patrons that would have given the Star Wars bar in the pirate city of Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine a run for its money. Shortly before 10 pm, the Rail Band took the stage and Buktu Productions had done its first show on the African continent. Only six more to go.

Our self-indulging congratulations was short-lived as about half way through the first number it dawned on the Buktu Brothers that we had forgotten about lights. American ingenuity came to the rescue. Road dog experience coupled with quick action by U.S. State Department employees of the Embassy produced an instant lighting rig by lining up the vehices of the American, French, and Canadian Embassies and aiming the headlights at the stage. Voila! International cooperation and my tax dollars at work.

But the night did not end there. How could it? We bid adieu to the Rail Band and headed for Le Hogon, the late night club that was home to Toumani Diabate, the greatest kora player in the world, and the Symmetric Orchestra. We had received a message from Toumani that he had heard Chris Buktu, his old record label head, was in town. Toumani had invited us all to a special late night show. We were trailed by a legion of followers from Le Buffet who, like us, were not ready for the night to end. Toumani and Chris shared a great reunion and then the show began and last until the wee hours. When asked by Toumani to sit in the the band, I did so and opted for “No Woman No Cry” when my turn at the mike came. I think Bob would have liked the whole scene.

Toumani and the band made clocks melt and feet move. I had absolutely no idea what time we said good night to Toumani but the night was far from over.

Our caravan crossed the Pont des Martyrs over the Niger River and we arrived at Hotel Wasulu, the musical home of Oumou Sangare, the songbird of Mali who greeted us like an old friend. Yes, there was champagne and celebration music til dawn, including a tribute to Bo Diddley.

36 hours later, we were lost in the Sahara hours north of Timbuktu, where Syndou was looking for a nomad who knew the way to the Festival in the Desert, but that is a whole other story (it’s on the website for those interested). The point is that for one great night in Bamako, Le Buffet Hotel came alive again and sparked one of the most amazing musical nights of my life. This song, spawned by this and many other Buktu stories, is the by-product of that night, and hopefully will keep the fires of fun burning in that old train station where it all started: yes, for one great night in Bamako, we owned Buffet Hotel.