Mali’s magical musicians

In a couple of years’ time I am planning to swap the damp greyness of January in Britain for the warmth and sunshine of the Sahara to attend the annual Festival in the Desert just south of Timbuktu in the landlocked west African state of Mali.

Mali may be economically impoverished, but it is musically wonderfully rich. I have quite an extensive collection of world music, but only recently did I notice that the majority of the African tracks were by Malian artists.

Why Mali? To be honest I’m not completely sure. There is certainly a strong and varied local tradition of music making, but added to this is a great enthusiasm for embracing musical influences from other parts of the world. In the 1960s, Cuban music and the blues began to heavily influence a local scene that was flourishing on the back of financial support for music festivals from the first post-independence governments.

Until his death in 2006, Ali Farka Touré was Mali’s preeminent musician. A wonderful bluesman, he won international recognition and is on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.  He was able to blend to perfection the rhythms of traditional Malian music with those of the American blues. Here he is playing the track Savane:

Guitar playing runs in the family and Ali’s son Vieux is now one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians and performed at the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. This jamming session is a real beauty. I love the fact that he is in a dusty courtyard, playing to a couple of kids.

On my way to the festival I plan to have a stopover in Bamako, the Malian capital, and stay at the Hotel Wassoulou. It’s owned by the singer Oumou Sangaré (“The Songbird of Wassoulou”) and is a magnet for musicians as well as a performing space for Sangaré herself.  Oumou Sangaré is an extraordinary character. Not only a great vocalist and savvy business woman, she is also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in conservative Mali. There really is something magical about her. Here she is singing her 2009 hit Seya (Joy):

Perhaps the best known Malian musician in Britain is Salif Keita.  He performs here regularly, both live and on TV (Jools Holland is a big fan). Keita is particularly recognisable as he is an albino. Although a direct descendant of the founder of the Mandingo Empire, Keita was cast out by his family and shunned by his community because of his albinism which is seen as a symbol of bad luck. Despite all this, he established himself as a musician in Mali before relocating to France in the 1980s, a move which was to propel him to international fame.

Here he is back home, singing Mousooloo from his 2002 album Moffou:

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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

7 thoughts on “Mali’s magical musicians

    April 10, 2011 at 11:35

    Glorious music this, and completely new to me – thankyou!

    This sentence – “Although a direct descendant of the founder of the Mandingo Empire, Keita was cast out by his family and shunned by his community because of his albinism which is seen as a symbol of bad luck” – could have been written in any century in the history of the world. That it’s written now just confirms that the 21st century’s Great Lives and Adventures are African, in or out of Africa.

    April 10, 2011 at 12:18

    Why Mali?
    Well Toby, to quote His Bobness ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’ and with more than half of the Malian population living below the poverty line, the only way is up – through music perhaps?
    But even this seemingly innocent activity is challenged in this male dominated society. I read recently that a blind singer and instrumentalist had been repeatedly abused and challenged for playing (singing is OK), it being viewed as an unfit activity for women, blind or not. It had even been suggested that her blindness was in some way a punishment for her immodestly picking up a musical instrument!

    ian russell
    April 10, 2011 at 16:36

    Toby, you appear to have forgotten to mention the best living musician out of Mali – Toumani Diabate!

    Never mind, have a good festival!

      April 10, 2011 at 17:30

      Fair point, but I can only take so much kora on its own so he didn’t get into my top four. I loved his collaboration with Ali Farka Toure though.

  4. Gaw
    April 10, 2011 at 19:31

    Magic, true. I particularly enjoyed the stunning guitar playing by Vieux and the last song, by Salif Keita. Amazing how so much space is created in the music – it makes even the Beach Boys sound as if they’re playing in a box.

    john halliwell
    April 10, 2011 at 22:04

    My wife finds ‘Waking the Dead’ (BBC 1 9.00pm) essential viewing. I don’t, so have clapped on headphones, brought up Toby’s post, and discovered some quite marvellous stuff. I love ‘Savane’ – hypnotic. But the stand-out for me is Oumou Sangare – what a singer! What a lady! Wonderful. Thanks Toby.

    April 10, 2011 at 23:27

    Lovely post, thank you very much. Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré and Salif Keita are three of my favourite artists. There is so much good music from this part of the world and from West Africa too. Hope you have an excellent adventure out there.

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