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: