Mali, the landlocked country of West Africa has a rich, long-lived and deeply embedded musical tradition and has given us numerous musical treasures, a few of which I would like to share with you, along with a brief look at the vibrant music culture which still thrives. At the end of the article there is Spotify playlist and there are some separate film recommendations here.
Passed down through generations of jelis, (the lineage of musicians) Mali’s music owes much of it’s richness to the legacy of the Mande empire, founded nearly 800 years ago. Despite being under brutal Sharia law for a period of time from 2012, inflicted by Jihadist rebels, and many people being exiled from their homeland, much music was made and managed to migrate to the West, being received with great adoration. Along with many other simple acts and choices we have autonomy over and consider human rights; smoking, holding hands, same sex partnerships, women showing skin, wearing perfume, wearing glasses, couples living together outside of wedlock etc, Jihadists banned the listening to and playing of music. Villages were upturned, instruments were burned. Musicians were threatened with barbaric punishments that would inhibit them from playing again and risked their lives and livelihoods. Many artists fled to safety nearby while some continued to play, though surreptitiously. The celebrated annual Festival in the Desert, which had started in 2001 and which was moved to the outskirts of Timbuktu in 2010, was forced to close because of security concerns.
Even the notion of being prohibited from such a significant, elemental part of life and well-being, evolution even, is very stirring. Knowing how integral music is to the life of people in Mali and how passionately they feel about it, in my opinion, brings a far more profound experience of the music from there.
Some acknowledged the crisis as a time of great creativity: “We composed a lot of music during the crisis, but inside houses, in secret,” said Abdulrahman Cissé – a local singer in Timbuktu. Cissé and his band Buktu Jazz found their music to be cathartic through the crisis. Most musicians amplified their voices as soon as Sharia law was lifted in 2013, using their music as protest and reclaiming the powers of their long-standing traditions. Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Amy Sacko, sung against the unjust laws that were enforced, on national television, along with songstress Oumou Sangaré. Fatoumata Diawara decided to promote peace and unity, releasing a song and video titled Peace, involving 45 musicians, including Toumani Diabaté, guitar hero Djelimady Tounkara and 29 singers, including Oumou Sangaré, Amadou & Mariam and Ivory Coast reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly.
Mali began to recover, Sundays slowly became colourful again, musicians regained their livelihoods as more weddings took place and the 13th edition of Festival in the Desert commenced, albeit in neighbouring Burkina Faso. The festival’s director ‘Manny’ Ansar told The Guardian, “The brutal sound of weapons and the cries of intolerance are not able to silence the singing of the griots… Music is important as a daily event. It’s not just a business, for it’s through our music that we know history and our own identity. Our elders gave us lessons through music. It’s through music that we declare love and get married – and we criticise and make comments on the people around us.”
The sounds of Mali are easy for western listeners to digest due to similarities with blues, rock and sometimes have gospel sounding vocals. The repetitive grooves, evocative of John Lee Hooker, Fred McDowell and Bukka White make for a familiar sound. Many acclaimed artists from Mali have been Grammy award nominees or winners, including Fatoumata Diawara, Sidiki Diabeté, Toumani Diabeté, Salif Keita, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré and Amadou & Mariam. I will compile this listening list with some chronology, beginning with The Rail Band, also known as Super Rail Band, Bamako Rail Band or, most comprehensively and formally, Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, Bamako. The Rail Band were responsible somewhat for bringing Malian music to a western audience in the 1970s, with none other than Salif Keita as lead singer. One of the first West African acts to be influenced by Afro-Latin sounds, The Rail Band took their Mande Griot praise singing, along with Bambara and other Malian and Guinean traditions and wove them together. Their unique sound was a result of combining electric guitar with jazz horns and stunning Mandinka and Bambara lyrical lines, African and western drums, and local instruments such as the kora and the balafon. At their height of fame in the 1970s, the Rail Band played to sold out venues and stadia across West Africa.
In Mali, social rank is usually indicated by surname. First are the nobles or ‘freeborn’ (horon), consisting of lineages such as Keita, Konaté and Traoré, descended from Sunjiata Keita, founder of the Mande empire. And so, Salif Keita was born a royal prince, in the village of Djoliba. Salif was outcast by both his family and his community because of his albinism, which is considered great misfortune in Mandinka culture. In 1967 he left for Bamako, where he joined The Rail Band. In 1982, Salif Keita launched into his solo career and in 1984, moved to Paris to reach a wider audience. His international breakthrough album Soro was released in 1987. Salif Keita’s husky but soaring vocals cut through joyful rhythms, complimented with jazz horns remnant of The Rail Band and female backing vocals. The fourth track on the album Sina was for his father who hadn’t encouraged him to sing.
Traditionally, the kora is a family affair and musicianship is inherited, Griot families such as the Diabatés, protect the kora and an ancient oral tradition of history, poetry, craftsmanship, social etiquette and verbal astuteness with prowess. “The knowledge of music, the talent, it’s a divine transmission through blood, from father to son,” says Toumani Diabeté. “It’s only in the griot families that one can see that.” Toumani’s father Sidiki Diabaté was recognised as one of the most influential kora players of the twentieth century, as he developed his own extraordinary style, popularizing certain pieces in the repertoire such as Kaira. His son Toumani is steeped in the jeli tradition but is also at ease playing anything from jazz to flamenco. Toumani collaborated with artists including Danny Thompson, Damon Albarn, Taj Mahal, Björk and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. These collaborations led to us hearing the beautiful unison of traditional kora with rock, blues, electro, flamenco and classical music. Of course, Toumani’s son Sidiki (yes another Sidiki) inherited the artistry and has further adapted it, becoming one of Mali’s most successful hip-hop producers, able to fill football stadiums of fans. Toumani is ever proud of his son’s success and the way he has further modernised the family legacy. Toumani decided to record an album of duets, titled Toumani & Sidiki and regards his collaboration with Sidiki part of their healing and restoration after the crisis in 2012.
Oumou Sangaré‘s singing career began at the age of five, when she started singing on the streets to help her single mother earn enough money to look after the family. It was 1973 when she won an inter-kindergarten singing competition and was able to perform to a several thousand-strong audience at Omnisport Stadium. From then, she continued to flourish, joining the percussion band Djoliba age 16, touring parts of Europe and the Caribbean. At 21, Oumou was signed to British record label World Circuit and went on to tour with Baaba Maal, Femi Kuti and Boukman Eksperyans. A well-respected member of the Wassoulou community, Oumou is and considered an ambassador of and advocate for the community, proving especially outspoken about the feminist issues of her people, such as women’s low status in society, child marriage and polygamy. Oumou writes and composes her own songs, using her musicality and prominent status to express her concerns of love and marriage, particularly freedom of choice in marriage. She holds a lot of power, being both a musician, women’s rights activist and business woman involved in agriculture, cars and hotels, though does not want to push any further into the realm of politics, commenting “While you’re an artist, you’re free to say what you think; when you’re a politician, you follow instructions from higher up.”
There are numerous musicians and bands that represent the Tuareg people of Mali, a group of mostly nomadic people who inhabit the vast expanse of Sahara Desert. The sounds from this region differ quite a lot from the rest of the country and the music mentioned in this article. Whilst the Tuareg people haven’t harnessed much political power, their music is an expression of resistance, expressing their suffering caused by political unrest and the racism they have experienced, it is poetry, for people who have a lot to voice. Their music echoes different aspects of life traveling through the desert, the rhythm follows that of the camels’ gait. The Tuareg rely on this rhythm inducing a trance which eases long journeys across the desert. For this tribe, music was their traditional mode of communication, people learnt of events through song, their lyrics equating the articles of a newspaper. Tuareg music birthed desert blues, which fortunately for us, migrated west.
Tinariwen, meaning ‘deserts’, boast a stunning discography, a Grammy, and a history of performances including Festival au Désert (Mali), Womad (UK), Roskilde (Denmark), they formed in 1979 and rose internationally with their critically acclaimed Aman Iman in 2007. Their music is guitar laden (drawing on the rich Malian ‘Desert Blues’ tradition through Ali Farka Touré, Lobi Traoré, Zani Diabaté et al) though without sounding heavy, using the guitar to create multiple hypnotic rhythms, typical of North Africa, the six core members accompany their strings with vocals and percussion. What I find very beautiful about Tinariwen however is not just their music, but the knowledge that even after their success, they return to the desert; their home, and having eaten and taken tea, they pull out instruments and play around the fire. They let their music come, as naturally as it began, as poetic as it is in essence, it still is in reality. For this reason, they say that the best Tinariwen album is not yet recorded, and might not be.
Born of the Traoré lineage, Rokia Traoré was forbidden to sing and create music, though like Salif Keita, chose to reject the strict cast-system she was born into and continued to make music using both her guitar and vocals, giving a modern edge to her congenital musical stylings. Her songs speak of homeland, rootedness, and the loss of those things. Bearing the weight of years of civil unrest in Mali, Traoré and her music ebbs between delicate vocals, Bambara tradition, powerful rock and hypnotic rhythm workouts, which can be a bewitching experience for listeners. Check out her 2016 album Né So, which translates into ‘Home’ in the Bambara language. One of the most contemporary adapters of traditional Malian music, Rokia Traoré has a way of sensitively balancing her influences and expressing profound messages through beautiful, enchanting music.
Fatoumata Diawara is an actress and musician, also from the Wassoulou region, she sings in her native Bambara and having fled Bamako aged 19, to escape her parents wishes for her to marry, joined a French street theatre company before beginning her career in music. Early on, she toured with Oumou Sangaré, gaining recognition from World Circuit Records before proceeding to play to audiences worldwide, both solo and with Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca. Fatoumata recorded with Bobby Womack and Herbie Hancock and after the disruption and trauma of 2012, gathered over 40 of the country’s most renowned musicians to record a song calling for peace amongst the people. The group’s collective name Voices United for Mali includes Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Touré, Djelimady Tounkara, Toumani Diabaté, Khaira Arby, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Baba Salah, Afel Bocoum, Tiken Jah, Amkoullel and Habib Koité amongst many others. The track is called Mali-ko (Peace / La Paix). Fatou also works courageously as a social activist, campaigning against the trafficking and sale of black migrants in Libyan slave markets and in response, recorded the song Djonya which translates to slavery in Bambara.