We’ve been saddened to read about the recent political upheavals in the northeast of Mali, a country that’s known more than its fair share of political turmoil over the years. Clearly writing about the intricacies of Malian politics is beyond the remit of music journalism, but suffice it to say that we’ve been particularly sad to hear that the Islamist rebels who’ve assumed control of much of the country’s northeast have sought to prevent the region’s musicians from playing — there are few countries with a richer musical tradition than Mali, and as such, it seems like a good time to survey and celebrate that tradition. We’ve therefore put together a primer on some of our favorite Malian musicians — click through and check out their work, and of course, do let us know your favorites, too.
Natives of Mali’s northern desert region, Tinariwen’s remarkable history stretches over three decades and mirrors — to some extent, at least — that of their country. They formed in a refugee camp across the Libyan border in 1979, and were involved in the Tuareg rebellion of the early 1990s, returning to Mali after the ceasefire between Tuareg rebels and the government in Bamako. They rose to international fame during the relatively peaceful 2000s, and they’ve been involved in the country’s more recent history, too — the band’s vocalist Abdallah Ag Lamida was arrested by Islamist insurgents earlier this year, although happily he was released safe and sound.
The daughter of a diplomat from the northwest Malian town of Kolokani, Traoré sings in the Bamana language of the Bambara ethnic group, and also — unusually for a female musician — plays guitar, having studied briefly with Ali Farka Touré in the late 1990s. Her music is quietly understated and evocative — the genuinely haunting “Dounia,” in particular, is one of our favorite songs of the 2000s.
The Touré family
Ask anyone about Malian music and the name Ali Farka Touré is probably the first to spring to mind — the grand old man of the desert blues bestrides the contemporary history of Mali’s culture. He was a superstar on the African continent, and also a key figure in bringing Mali’s rich musical tradition to the attention of the West — he collaborated with exponents of the blues from the other side of the Pacific (most memorably with Ry Cooder on the beautiful Talking Timbuktu) and toured the US and Europe several times. Touré died in 2006, but his son Vieux Farka Touré has maintained his father’s legacy, recording his debut album in 2007 and releasing several excellent albums since.
The influence West African music on the evolution of the blues has been well-documented, but cultural interchange is a two-way thing, and it’s been interesting to see how hip hop has traveled back across the Pacific in recent years, being adopted throughout the continent and rendered in indigenous languages to excellent effect. It’s no surprise that a country with as rich a musical tradition as Mali has embraced wholeheartedly the new sounds that have emerged as a result of hip hop’s journey to Africa, with groups like Tata Pound becoming hugely popular throughout the country. The group has also been vocal in denouncing the country’s recent travails and demanding a return to full democracy.
One of Mali’s most influential female musicians, Fanta Sacko was a founder of the bajourou genre, a relatively contemporary form that emerged during the 1960s. The music deploys guitars instead of traditional instruments, and its lyrics address issues of romance rather than more traditional subject matter like devotional music or lyric ballads. This was controversial, and more conservative musicians apparently disparaged Sacko’s songs as “jarabi jarabi,” which means “love love,” when she first emerged in the late 1960s. The genre is still popular today, although Sacko’s career ended in the 1970s after only one recorded album when she apparently overdosed on skin bleach.
While we’re on influential female musicians, Fanta Damba’s career stretched over nearly four decades, making her one of the most prominent heirs to the griot, the oral tradition whereby the country’s history and customs are passed down from generation to generation. She was also influential in bringing Mali’s music to an international audience, blazing a trail for African musicians with a solo tour of Europe in 1975.
And on a more contemporary note, Sangaré is a leading exponent of the wassoulou genre, which comes from the southwestern Malian region of the same name. Apart from its beautiful sounds, the genre is notable for being a quintessentially female one — its performers are largely women, and its lyrics address themes and subjects relevant to the lives of women in the region. (This compilation is a pretty good place to start if you’re interested in exploring the genre further.)
World music grandee Salif Keita cuts a remarkable figure, and not just because of his albinism — he’s apparently a direct descendent of Sundiata Keita, who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century. His skin meant that he was ostracized by his family, and he moved to Bamako from his ancestral village in 1967, eventually fleeing the country after the political upheavals of the mid-1970s and settling in Paris in 1984. His band during this period was called Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, an appropriate name for a group who were early stars of the nascent world music genre during the 1980s.
One of the most interesting aspects of Mali’s traditional music is that it remains very much a living sound, with contemporary musicians continuing to work with traditional instruments and create new and wonderful sounds with them. So it goes with Bassekou Kouyate — he’s a virtuoso of the ngoni, a string instrument that’s believed by some to be an ancestor of the instrument we know as the banjo. The sounds he extracts from his instrument are pretty remarkable, the rapid-fire intricacy of his melody lines rendered with a lightness of touch that makes them sound as effortless as they are intimidatingly complex.
Amadou et Mariam
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia’s music is an eclectic and ongoing experiment in cross-cultural fusion, incorporating influences from as far afield as India and Cuba, as well as traditional Malian sounds. The duo met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind in their youth, and have been married since 1980. And, yes, they’re both blind — Doumbia lost her sight at the age of five after contracting the measles, while Bagayoko suffered problems with his vision from birth, becoming completely blind by the age of 16.