Mali: the music cries out

Oumou Sangare

Oumou Sangare

I’ve had it mind on several occasions in the past 12 months to write something about my love for the music of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries that for two decades had been held up as a model of democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa until last January when an armed insurgency resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural centre of Timbuktu.  Earlier this week, before the French military intervention, Mali appeared to be on the brink of dissolution as Islamist forces pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

This morning, The Guardian has an article by Robin Denselow (Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’) that will have been read with interest – and dread – by anyone who has been energised and enthralled by the astonishing cavalcade of wonderful musicians who have emerged from this land. Denselow begins by observing:

Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.

He goes on to summarize the global impact of Mali’s musicians:

Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.

There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.

These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.

And yet, Denselow writes, ‘the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture’ – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.  He quotes Manny Ansar, director of Mali’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, at a recent censorship conference in Oslo as stating that the Islamic militias are banning music in order ‘to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them’. ‘They are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old.’  Young people have been stopped from listening to music and families have had their televisions smashed for watching music shows, but music was still being played underground, Ansar said.

Denselow reports that Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara has just finished a new song and video, Peace, which will be released in Bamako on Thursday. The aim was to promote peace and ‘show that … we want one Mali’.  Outside Mali, other musicians are involved in an international campaign to promote the culture of their battered country. Rokia Traoré, arguably the most adventurous female singer in Africa, is currently on tour in Australia. She explains: “I can just keep going and doing the best in my work, to try to make people think good things about Mali and see good things from Mali.”

So, here are some good things from Mali, beginning with a track from one of the first Malian albums I bought, Salif Keita’s Soro from 1987, and followed by a song from the golden era of the state-subsidised bands of the 1970s, ‘Mandjou’ by by Les Ambassadeurs, also featuring a young Salif Keita:

Last, one of my favourite pieces of music of any description: ‘Djorolen’ sung by Oumou Sangare.  Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare’s music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare’s songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. The lyrics translate in part:

The worried songbird,
Cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
The worried songbird,
cries out in the forest,
The worried songbird,
Her thoughts go far away,
For those of us who have no father,
Her thoughts go out to them.

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8 thoughts on “Mali: the music cries out

  1. Great post Gerry, I share your interests, I’ve seen the first 5 artists Denselow mentions and Toumani Diabete’s Symmetric Orchestra was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen (Cheikh Lo was support), and I also share your concerns. I think Tinariwen are back in the desert fighting (?). Malian music strikes me as both gentle and forceful, as exemplified by Rokia Traore’s voice & Toumani’s ‘chamber’ Kora (New Ancient Strings for example) neither of which are processes that can withstand fundamentalism. Ali Farka Toure made a good case for Desert Blues being the progenitor of American Blues – see Tony Palmers first episode of All My Loving which presciently captures this; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfls0dQTQ9Q Malian music is one of the worlds treasures, and a shared heritage.
    Did you see the film Bamako, which created a fictional court case where Africa tried the West for exploiting it? It starts with a beautiful, perhaps now tragic, lament by Aissa http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckYT_8uLxUg and goes to to critique why Mali has not developed more both politically and economically thanks to, well, us.

  2. Thanks for your response, Fred. I could have gone on at much greater length about – and offered many more examples of – the greatness of Malian music. Thanks for the reminder about the Tony Palmer – I watched that when it was re-released a year or so back, but had forgotten that first episode. Just a mark of how good, how informed and comprehensive that series was. Thanks, too, for the Bamako recommendation – I’ve not seen it, but remember the reviews when it came out. I’m off to check Lovefilm!

  3. Perfect timing for this Gerry – a reminder of what Mali has given us. I know and love most of those artists except, to my shame, Oumou Sangare. Definitely someone to check out. Tony Palmer’s films are brilliant too.

  4. Your post came just in time to alert us to Rokia Traore performing tonight here in Melbourne, At the Melbourne Recital Hall.
    I have long loved the late Ali Farka Toure and tonight will be a new experience. Something in the Malian sound resonates deeply for me and I find Farka Toure wonderful to listen to when I am painting.
    Thanks again, although somehow the post went to my partner and I missed it but happily he picked it up in time. I also lovethe madeleine, I had not hear of Daphne Oxenfords death here in Australia, so thanks for the memory of many afternoons of listening with mother!

  5. I’m a bit late finding this ;) but thank you for the wonderful music! Have already shared your post with a friend. I love your blog, It’s lovely to find another Liverpool area blogger.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Maggie, and pleased that you follow the blog. It is good to find other bloggers in the Liverpool area – have you discovered Ronnie Hughes’ blog A Sense of Place (http://asenseofplaceblog.wordpress.com/). I think you might like it. Oh, and by the way, Toumani Diabate is playing kora duets with his son at St Georges Hall concert room on Tuesday evening. Tickets from the Phil.

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