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Mali and its wailers: How music unites this West African country

NSalif Keita performs at The Apollo Theater on April 9, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Shahar Azran/WireImage) - Credit: WireImage

A stunning musical heritage is one of the things that keeps this disparate nation together – even through the hard times. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports

‘Music is our cotton, our gold and our diamonds,’ says Grammy-winning Malian musician Toumani Diabaté, a key ambassador for the music of his homeland.

Landlocked and half desert, Mali boasts a musical body of work that is both deeply rooted in the ancient past and has great currency in the present. For nearly 30 years it has been the toast of world music, its blues rhythms and inimitable spirit having instant appeal.

Yet in 2012 half the country faced a complete ban on music as a rebellion of Tuareg separatists and a military coup created conditions for Islamists to seize control of the northern regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. An official decree banned all western music as ‘the music of Satan’. Musicians were threatened and attacked. Instruments were piled on pyres and burned. For a country with such an incredibly rich musical tradition this was a deep obscenity, but while music was stifled, it couldn’t be suffocated altogether.

Amid the chaos of 2012 many fled south to the capital Bamako, a polluted, seething, low-rise city on the banks of the River Niger. But the capital too was in turmoil in the wake of the coup, and the legacy of thirty years of undemocratic rule and the murderous suppression of protests during the March Revolution of 1991 still hangs heavy.

Despite the speedy recapture of the north, Islamist violence continues. In November 2015 an attack on the city’s Radisson Blu Hotel saw 170 hostages taken and 20 killed by Al-Mourabitoun and Al Qaeda, and much of the country remains outside government control, while full democracy still eludes the country.

But for all this uncertainty, one thing has remained a constant. Bamako has always been the nerve centre of Malian music, a place with a djembe drum player on every street corner where Mali’s myriad ethnic groups come together to cross-pollinate their musical traditions.

Here songs are sung in the tongues of the Bambara and Mandinka peoples (part of the broader majority Mande), as well as Songhai and Tuareg, the official language of French, and Bambara – the lingua franca across more than 40 native languages.

The tradition of the Mande griots – the troubadour singers of historical and praise songs – and the somewhat meditative ‘desert blues’ of the Mandinka and the Tuareg peoples loom large in Mali’s musical exports to the West, and Malian music has been hot property for decades.

A steady stream of western musicians have gone to Bamako for inspiration and to record, Damon Albarn’s collaborative album Mali Music (2002) being a notable recent example of co-option.

The story of modern Malian music begins with the Rail Band, founded in 1970 as one of many government-sponsored projects that sought to use culture as a focus for national pride.

The Rail Band were so named as they were the resident performers at the bar of the Bamako Station Hotel, the place to be seen in 1970s Bamako.

Melding electric guitar and jazz brass with African drums and traditional instruments like the lute-like kora and ngoni, the Rail Band sang Mandinka and Bambara lyrics based on a griot template. Featuring vocalist Salif Keita, who stood out both for his noble birth as a Malian prince and his albinism, and singer and kora player Mory Kante, the band toured across West Africa and became Mali’s biggest stars.

But the Rail Band had rivals. Les Ambassadeurs were the resident band at the exclusive Motel de Bamako. A jukebox band, playing a cosmopolitan mix of styles, Les Ambassadeurs
featured the famed Guinean guitarist Kanté Manfila, who joined the band in 1972.

That same year, Salif Keita defected to Les Ambassadeurs and their trajectory to becoming a more serious creative force, fusing disparate international influences into something that spoke to the Malian post-independence experience, was set.

While the Rail Band’s Mory Kante would have a No.1 single across Europe in 1988 with Yeke Yeke, it was Salif Keita who led the charge of Malian music breaking out on to the international stage as a critically acclaimed force. His third solo album, Amen, went to No.1 on the Billboard World Music chart and earned him his first Grammy nomination in 1991.

Quickly bringing up the rear was Ali Farka Touré, his Talking Timbuktu (1994) album with Ry Cooder also topping the World Music chart and winning a Grammy. Touré was born to farming stock in the village of Niafunké in the Timbuktu region, where he later became mayor, but it was 600 miles away in Bamako, where he moved in 1970 and became an engineer for Radio Mali, that he made his first recordings as well as his last.

By the time of his death in 2006, Ali Farka Touré was considered a Malian national hero, the fact he sang in a range of the country’s languages giving him broad appeal. His fusion of the traditional music of north Mali with desert blues and American soul, blues and funk would also have massive appeal in the West, the propulsive drive of his guitar and traditional stringed instrument playing compared to John Lee Hooker’s sound. It was through Radio Mali that he made the first of his albums in the 1970s, and he bookended his career with two albums recorded on the top floor of Bamako’s Hotel Mandé – In the Heart of the Moon (2005) and Savane (2006).

Both the Hotel Mandé albums were recorded with Toumani Diabaté, and one of Touré’s greatest contributions to Malian music was his role as a mentor to younger musicians.

Diabaté, born in 1965 and from a long line of musicians, is a player of the kora and has taken over Touré role as the face of Malian music. His music is well-rooted in the musical melting pot that is Bamako, his 2006 album Boulevard de l’Indépendance, also recorded during the Hotel Mandé sessions, namechecking the thoroughfare that runs from the national museum to the river, famous for its large statue of a hippopotamus in the middle of the road.

Since the crisis in Mali began in 2012, music has been a means of processing the trauma. Samba Touré, like so many others, moved south to Bamako from his ancestral village in search of work. There he joined his first band, Farafina Lolo (‘Africa Star’), and was mentored by Ali Farka Touré (no relation), as well as touring internationally as part of his band. His adaptation of the older man’s playing style to the electric guitar has earned him comparisons to Hendrix.

Even before the events of 2012, Samba Touré’s Songhai-language songs often called for peace and Malian unity, but 2013’s LP Albala (‘Danger’) reflected on the crisis directly and was recorded as Touré’s own village in Timbuktu was under occupation by radical Islamists. On the track Fondora – one full of foreboding – he directly demanded that ‘all killers leave our road’, while 2015’s Gandadiko (‘Burning Land’) analysed human failings at length once the occupation was over.

The four-piece Songhoy Blues were forged directly in the turmoil of 2012. Having fled the north, they got together in Bamako, starting out by covering the foundational songs of Ali Farka Touré. The band’s debut album Music in Exile (2015) had a far more rock attitude than other notable Malian acts and was co-produced by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Extensive international touring and widespread critical acclaim has followed, the band featured prominently in the 2015 documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First, and their funk-influenced album Résistance (2017) saw them collaborate with Iggy Pop.

Today, the music of Mali has an unassailable place on the world stage, and includes a diverse range of acts. Bamako-born husband and wife 
team Amadou & Mariam began performing together in the 1980s, 
and their joyful French-language songs like Beaux Dimanches, capturing the festive atmosphere and parading of Sunday best in Bamako, are a world 
away from the rock influence of Songhoy Blues and the driving Tuareg desert blues of Tinariwen, who formed in Kidal in 1979 but waited 20 years before they were ‘discovered’ by the French recording industry at a music festival in Bamako.

Solo artists like Bassekou Kouyaté, virtuoso player of the traditional ngoni, Vieux Farka Touré, son of Ali Farka Touré, and the enchanting Bambara singer Rokia Traoré, who all moved to Bamako in their youth, add to the palette of Malian music. Traoré has been quoted as saying ‘Without music, Mali will cease to exist.’ Since Malian musicians have kept on playing, even in the face of extreme violence, there seems little danger of that.

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