Malick Sidibé at Somerset House: the photographer who captured a youthful, joyous Mali

Malick Sidibé at Somerset House: the photographer who captured a youthful, joyous Mali

I first encountered the work of Malick Sidibé after he had he became the first photographer – and the first African artist – to receive the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2007. In his photographs, made in and around Mali’s capital, Bamako, in the early years of independence in the 1960s and 70s, I found the perfect visualisation of the country’s music that I had known and loved since discovering it in the 1980s.

So when I was in London recently, I hot footed it to the first exhibition of his work in the UK now on at Somerset House. Bringing together 45 original prints, the show captures the exuberance of newly independent Mali in the 1960s and ’70s; through Sidibé’s lens we glimpse scenes of a youthful, joyous Mali of carefree swimming parties on the banks of the Niger, partying and dancing in the city’s thriving clubs, and studio portraits of proud Malians showing off their latest outfit or prized possession. Sidibé images are an expression of a different era, a happier time in a country whose recent history has been beset by trouble and violence. Continue reading “Malick Sidibé at Somerset House: the photographer who captured a youthful, joyous Mali”


The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way

The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way

There was a rare opportunity on Sunday evening to catch the Kronos Quartet in concert at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.  No strangers to the capital, they rarely tour the UK as extensively as they are doing this month.

Kronos may look like a conventional string quartet (since 2013, they have consisted of founder David Harrington on violin; John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang – the most recent recruit to the group – on cello), but their repertoire and approach to their instruments is far from conventional.

The quartet has been in existence for over 40 years, with only the cello player changing in that time. The eclectic Kronos repertoire draws largely – though far from exclusively – on 20th and 21st century contemporary classical music, and they are renowned for championing new music of all genres and from all parts of the world. All of which was evident in the exciting programme they presented at the RNCM. Before a packed concert hall, the Quartet drew a rapturous reception, and the thunderous applause they got at the close compelled the musicians to return to the stage four times for encores.

Continue reading “The Kronos Quartet at RNCM: all kinds of music, every which way”

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM

Last weekend, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, we were treated to a stunning display of instrumental virtuosity by Ballake Sissoko, kora master from Mali, and Vincent Segal, French conservatory-trained cellist. Since 2009 the pair have recorded three albums together, delicate and lovely conversations between instruments from two classical music traditions. Continue reading “Rocking gently: Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal in concert at RNCM”

Vieux Farka Toure live in Liverpool: jaw-dropping guitar virtuosity

Vieux Farka Toure live in Liverpool: jaw-dropping guitar virtuosity

Another visit last night to Liverpool’s excellent new music venue, The Music Room at the Philharmonic, to see a superb display of guitar virtuosity from Vieux Farka Toure. Son of Ali Farka Toure, his playing is still reminiscent at times of his father’s style, but there’s no doubt that he has now emerged as guitarist with a style that is uniquely his own, a jaw-dropping blend of psychedelic blues-rock à la Hendrix and the loping, rhythmic desert blues played by Saharan bands like Tinarwen or Tamikrest. Continue reading “Vieux Farka Toure live in Liverpool: jaw-dropping guitar virtuosity”

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library

Passing through London on our way back from the David Jones show in Chichester, I decided to take a look at the current exhibition at the British Library: West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. It’s an ambitious survey of literature, art and music from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to expressions of rapid cultural and political change across West Africa in recent decades. Continue reading “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library”

The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond

The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond

This is the second of three posts which round up some of the music that I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one discusses music from beyond these shores that I have been listening to in 2015, particularly some fine West African releases. Continue reading “The music in my head (part 2): West Africa and beyond”

Timbuktu: a stunning cry for freedom

<em>Timbuktu</em>: a stunning cry for freedom

Timbuktu, from the Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako is a stunning film and likely to be the best I’ll see this year. It’s a portrait of the country of the director’s childhood, and particularly of the city of Timbuktu, whose rich culture and traditional tolerance were trampled and its people terrorised when jihadi forces from outside the country swept in three years ago. Continue reading Timbuktu: a stunning cry for freedom”

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

Toumani and Sidiki

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate on stage at St Georges Hall Concert Room

News out of Mali has been so dreadful this past two years that there was something extra-celebratory about the concert this Tuesday evening in the elegant, gilded surroundings of St Georges Hall Concert Room in which the world’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabate performed duets with his son Sidiki, the latest in a family of griots whose lineage stretches back 71 generations, father to son.

Toumani (who speaks pretty fluent English picked up when he lived in London for a while in the 1980s) didn’t mention the crisis that struck Mali in 2012 and 2013 when jihadist forces gained control of two-thirds of a country rich in music and ancient learning, and distinguished by a culture rooted in a relaxed and tolerant Sufi Islamic tradition.  But he was in Liverpool to play music from Toumani and Sidiki, the new album which he regards as a contribution to the healing process in post-conflict Mali.  It’s a collection of very old, recently rediscovered kora pieces which Toumani chose to give new titles, honouring people and institutions that he believes played a crucial role in preserving Mali’s dignity.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Sidiki came on stage first to play a solo piece, suggesting that already at 24 years of age, he has already absorbed much through his apprenticeship to his father. In addition to being the latest addition to the celebrated Diabate musical dynasty, back home in Mali, Sidiki is a star in his own right having  established a huge following as a hip-hop musician and record producer.  As a teenager he enrolled in the National Institute for the Arts in Bamako, taking up drums and learning digital recording techniques, and in 2013 – as his father proudly informed the Liverpool audience – he won the Malian Hip Hop Award, being voted Mali’s best beat-maker.

Like his father, Sidiki has been outspoken in defence of his country’s freedom. In 2012 he teamed up with rapper Iba One to record ‘On Veut La Paix’ (‘We Want Peace’), an all-star rap hymn to peace in Mali, released as the jihadist forces were outlawing music in the areas they controlled in the north of the country.

After performing the opening number, Sidiki assisted his father, leaning on a stick, to the seat beside him. For the rest of the concert father and son – who performed together in the UK for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall last year –  treated us to a dazzling display of virtuosity on the two koras. What we saw and heard comprises the essence of West African music and culture, as Andy Morgan observed in a great piece on their partnership in last Friday’s Guardian:

Take the bone-dry shell of a large gourd, a straight length of rosewood and a piece of cow or antelope hide, combine them with 200 years of craftsmanship and 21 strings, and you have the kora: sub‑SaharanAfrica’s most sophisticated native instrument. Then take a man or woman born to the task of reciting epic poetry from memory and picking the ripest words out of the air to praise or placate – now you have a griot: the hereditary bard of West Africa. Put kora and griot together, and you have the foundations of West African music and culture.

This is the classical music of West Africa, exquisite and delicate, and each player dazzled with cascading lines of melody. The communication between the two performers was so intense that at times it was difficult to tell that two instruments were being played. The interplay between father and son was especially marked in rhythmic passages where each vied with the other to drive the music forward.  The tunes they played were from their new CD Toumani and Sidiki, including this, the opening track on the album, ‘Hamadoun Toure’:

The St Georges audience responded warmly to each number with lengthy applause. Towards the end Toumani spoke for several minutes about being the descendent of 70 generations – ‘stretching back father to son, father to son’, while Sidiki, speaking in French and with a smile on his face, spoke of the complications of his apprenticeship with Toumani – ‘his father, and at the same time his master’.

Toumani made some sharp comments about Europe’s relationship with Africa by way of introduction to their final number – the delicate and lovely tune from the new album which he named ‘Lampedusa’, a moving tribute to the 360 migrants from Libya who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 while the album was being recorded in London.  Whilst the European media promote a distorted picture of life in Africa as consisting of no more that starvation and war, equally Africans gain an unrealistic impression of Europe as a place where there is no poverty, no one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and there are jobs for all.

At the conclusion of ‘Lampedusa’ Toumani and Sidiki left the stage to rapturous applause.

Here are two short videos from World Circuit Records in which Toumani and Sidiki talk about  recording the new album:


Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

Timbuktu: rescuing books that ‘bear the human soul’

A Quran from the 12th century in Timbuktu

A 12th century Quran: one of the manuscripts that comprise Timbuktu’s heritage

There is the bravery of those who save other humans from certain death (this week, for example, Nicholas Winton, the man who rescued 669 children – mostly Jewish – from almost certain death in the Nazi concentration camps, celebrated his 105th birthday).  And then there is the bravery of those who, at great personal risk to themselves, save irreplaceable books or other cultural treasures from being destroyed by armed forces driven by ideologies which have no interest in freedom of expression.

Such is the story, told in today’s Guardian, of the brave Malians who smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts out of Timbuktu after the city had fallen to Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), the jihadist affiliate of al-Qaida in the civil war two years ago.

Guardian international editor Charlie English describes the terror that came to Timbuktu in late 2012:

It was a time of devastation in northern Mali: first the rebels pillaged the town, then the jihadis imposed a brutal form of sharia law on the population. Women were beaten for walking in the company of men. Music, a vibrant part of Malian culture that has been exported all over the world, was banned. Suspected thieves had their hands or feet chopped off after summary trials.

The largely moderate Muslims of Timbuktu were terrified. “When [the rebels] entered the city, people said if you were an artist they would cut out your tongue, because they hate music and want to ban it,” Bintu Dara, a singer, tells me in the Malian capital, Bamako. “One of my cousins was beaten in front of me, given 100 lashes from the jihadis,” she says. “My drum player was caught and put in jail. One of my relatives’ sons was the first guy to have his hand cut off.” Dara fled soon after, along with an estimated two-thirds of Timbuktu’s citizens.

Timbuktu is a Unesco-listed world heritage site, the cultural and spiritual capital of sub-Saharan Africa.  Many cultural artefacts  were destroyed or damaged during the first week of the occupation –  the shrines of Sufi saints were hacked to pieces, priceless medieval manuscripts were burnt.  It was then that Abdel Haïdara and a group of brave and dedicated assistants decided to act.

Haïdara manages the largest private library in the city, a library he can trace back to a 16th-century ancestor.  He also runs an organisation, Savama-DCI, that represents other private manuscript collections. Charlie English recounts the dramatic and inspiring story of how Haïdara and his assistants succeeded in saving almost 400,000 manuscripts, moved in thousands of lockers, each of which was the size of a small trunk.

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Abdel Kader Haïdara with ancient manuscripts from Timbuktu packed into metal trunks

Timbuktu now may be a sleepy place threatened not just by war but also by the encroaching sands of the Sahara – but as Charlie English recounts, from the early 14th to late 16th centuries Timbuktu was famous for its wealth and as a centre for Islamic teaching:

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that by 1450 Timbuktu had a population of 100,000, a quarter of whom were students. Even if these figures are wildly exaggerated, Timbuktu was a thriving centre of learning, and manuscripts were highly prized: the traveller Leo Africanus, who visited in 1510, found books sold for more money than any other merchandise in the city’s market.

Books reached Timbuktu by caravan from Fez and Cairo, Tripoli and Córdoba, and what the scholars couldn’t afford, they would copy. Other documents were written in Timbuktu. The vast libraries that resulted included every subject: astronomy and medicine, law, theology, grammar and proverbs. There were biographical dictionaries, diaries, letters between rulers and subjects; legal opinions on slavery, coinage, marriage and divorce; the lives of Muslims, Jews and Christians; there were histories and poetry.

In his Description of Africa, published in 1550, the traveller Leo Africanus marvelled that in the bustling markets of Timbuktu, under the towers of its majestic mosques, the richest traders were booksellers.

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

A damaged Timbuktu manuscript saved during the rescue operation

I recall seeing, several years ago, a BBC 4 documentary in which Aminatta Forna told the story of the lost libraries of Timbuktu and their long-hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscript.  She spoke, too, of Timbuktu’s university, founded around the same time as Oxford, and of the legacy of learning preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu – the classical Greek heritage copied and preserved in the middle ages, the history and laws of Mali and Songhai, chronicles of the families of Timbuktu, the poetry and stories of north Africa.  Yet when European empires scrambled for Africa in the 19th century, Africans were regarded as primitive illiterates, with no history or literature.

The whole film can be seen on YouTube:

Reading the Guardian’s account of how the manuscripts of Timbuktu were saved brought to mind a trio of posts in the archive of this blog.  In The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story, I wrote of another documentary shown on BBC TV in 2012 that told the story of how over 10,000 manuscripts and rare books belonging to the Gazi Husrev Beg library were saved during the siege of Sarajevo. That magnificent film can also be seen on YouTube:

In An Inventory of Al-Mutanabbi Street: a hymn to the book and the word, I wrote of seeing, in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, the project conceived by poet Beau Beausoleil and artist Sarah Bodman to ‘re-assemble’ the ‘inventory’ of reading material that was lost when a car bomb exploded in al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, on 5 March 2007 – an attack in which more than 30 people died and many more wounded.

In the third post I discussed Melvyn Bragg’s week-long In Our Time special, The Written World, broadcast over one week on BBC Radio 4.  Bragg’s thesis was that writing was the greatest human invention, and the focus of the series was the technology for recording words – tablets, manuscripts and books, each of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

– Emily Dickinson

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Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore’s rock roots in Manchester

Rokia Traore

The first time I saw Rokia Traore live was in 2004.  I’d travelled to Oldham to see her perform in the tiny back room of a pub. The night before, in Edinburgh, she had been presented with the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award (Africa section). It was a memorable evening: the intimate setting, an acoustic set with Rokia’s exquisite, breathy vocals  accompanied only by a guy on water calabash and a young woman who joined her on vocals and in some wild dancing.

Monday night’s gig at the Royal Northern College of Music couldn’t have been more different: a large hall, packed with an enthusiastic audience clearly familiar with the five albums that Rokia now has to her name. And the sound: apart from one delicate number during the encores, this was a hard-rocking show.  Currently touring Britain to support her new album Beautiful Africa, Traore has assembled a band that blasts out a driving hard rock  sound, albeit that her songs and elements of the music draw deeply from Malian tradition.

Beautiful Africa is a rock album, celebrated as such by Traore herself. Of late, she has been wedded to the sound of an old Gretsch guitar, a sound unfurled on her gorgeous 2008 album Tchamantché.  On that and the latest CD, Malian n’gouni, classical harp, and kora are blended with the Gretsch, as well as acoustic guitars, layered in staggered rhythms with snares, drum kit, and percussion. On disc, the instrumentation is sparse, contrasting the Gretsch with subtle percussion effects or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been a key element of her sound.

In this live performance in Manchester, though, much of that subtlety was lost in a barrage of sixties-style rock guitar riffs. With her Gretsch loud in the mix, Rokia would  repeat a simple guitar figure endlessly through most songs.  Meanwhile, Stefano Pilia rolled out soaring guitar solos reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour – and even threw in a few passages of wah-wah to reinforce the classic rock feel.  That this is the sound Rokia has been pursuing was confirmed in an interview she gave to Pitchfork magazine:

Of course the folk guitar is the one I play very often, but I wanted a more electric sound. Not electric like the hard rock happening today. I wanted something more 1970s, 60s, 50s, and, of course, because of rock, my choice came very quickly to the Gretsch guitar. I tried it on one song and I was really satisfied, and finally all the rest of the album was composed around the sound of the Gretsch.

I do not deny the quality of the musicianship demonstrated at the Manchester show: every member of the band was on top form, from the  female bass guitarist (whose name I did not catch) to drummer Seb Rochford, the brilliant ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, and backing singers Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou. But I have to say that hearing the varied moods of songs from Beautiful Africa and the previous album Tchamantché uniformly steam-hammered by riffy repetitions of heavy electric guitar –  well, I felt something had been lost.  If there had only been some variation, a little space opened up in the aural landscape.

Pitchfork magazine described Traoré’s 2009 record, Tchamantché, as ‘a guitar album of a particularly understated bent…hauntingly spare yet ridiculously well-defined, the timbre and tone of every string presented in perfect resolution’. Here, though, the intricate, delicate instrumentation of songs like ‘Zen’ from Tchamantché and ‘Melancolie’ from the latest album were submerged beneath the attack of the killer guitar riffs.  Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘Melancolie’ is not a gloomy song, quite the opposite in fact.  But its inspirational sentiments, dedicated to all that brings joy and happiness seemed quite lost in its new arrangement that made me think a little of Bob Dylan machine-gunning his lyrics into oblivion on the live Hard Rain album:

Melancholy dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my joyful dreams

Melancholy sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

Faithful companion
Of my solitude

Melancholy, I don’t want your pain
Whirling in the fissures of my heart
Your tears that tarnish the colours of my soul
I long for laughter that explodes in sparks
Dreams that twirl and poems recite
And I’ll be gentler than the most beautiful of all joys

Melancholy, dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my dreamed of joys

Melancholy, sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

The set consisted entirely of songs from the last two albums – songs such as ‘Sikey’, ‘Ka Moun Ke’, ‘Tuit Tuit’, ‘Kouma’ and the title track from Beautiful Africa on which Traore addresses the unrest in her Malian homeland with impassioned words sung as wah-wah guitar and ngoni collide.

Although based in Bamako, Traoré has, for her son’s safety, temporarily relocated to Paris due to the current conflict in Mali.  It’s impossible for a musician from Mali to make a record today without referencing the terrible chaos and violence that has blighted the once-peaceful country since the beginning of 2012:

Malians, let’s conquer the pride that’s rife within us,
It only leads to pain.
Disrespecting our fellow being only leads to disharmony
These battles in which everyone thinks only of themselves
Bring nothing but destruction
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Battered, wounded Africa,
Why do you keep the role of the beautiful naive deceived
Yet, my faith does not know failure
More intense than ever,
My faith does not know failure
I love you beautiful Africa
Afrique je t’aime
I love you beautiful Africa
You are beautiful Africa
Hei hei héhé hei hé
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Performing title track from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

The evening had begun with Rokia playing the exquisite guitar figure from ‘Dounia’, the opening track on Tchamantché. When she begins to sing you realise that where most female Malian vocalists tend to sing rather stridently, Rokia’s voice is intimate and almost understated.  She’s the daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and studied sociology in Brussels before embarking on her musical career. She sings mainly in her native languages, French and Bambara.

Rokia’s music draws upon Mali’s traditions, but increasingly on American rock as well – music she has listened to throughout her life. In the Pitchfork interview, she explained:

I can’t do Malian traditional music because I don’t have that training. There are some specific schools for that, and I didn’t have the chance to learn how to do pure Malian traditional music – by traditional I mean not just classical, but music that is danced to and listened to in Mali today. I think this position that I have is suitable for me, because the interesting thing for me is to put together all my influences and all my experiences I got through my travelling with my father. My influences are jazz, blues, European classical music; they are rock music and pop music. So many kinds of music.

Her love of jazz – and especially of Billie Holiday – was referenced during the encores when she sang ‘Gloomy Sunday’.  Just before she recorded Tchamantché, Rokia was involved in a project called Billie & Me, with other vocalists, including Dianne Reeves: ‘I love jazz music and blues, and I used to listen to her,’ she told Pitchfork. Her own version of The Man I Love’ ended up on Tchamantché.

Towards the end of the show Rokia remarked, rather grumpily, that we were ‘a quiet audience’. We probably were – it’s not easy to let your hair down when seated in the RNCM’s concert hall.  But then Rokia and the band did a phenomenal job, getting everyone on their feet, clapping and stamping to a Malian-style praise song in which she name-checked and introduced the band members by name – as well as reciting in Bambara what sounded like their artistic cv’s. The number, which last for close on 20 minutes, just kept building momentum and energy, and brought the show to a tumultuous conclusion.

The encores included the aforementioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung acappella, the only song led by Rokia on acoustic guitar, before a final, rousing number with scorching dance moves by Rokia, Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou.

Performing ‘Ka Moun Ke’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Edinburgh, 811.13

Performing ‘Sikey’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

My determination is strong
My aim is clear to me.
Without artifice or malice,
Without ever hankering for the other summits
That tower over my own limits.
Accompanied by this unknown destiny,
Borne along by my convictions,
I advance with sure step towards the answers
Scrupulously hidden away
Behind the enigmas of life.

Hé sikey (let’s talk openly!)
Your senseless hate will change nothing.

Closing moments of the show, Edinburgh, 8.11.13

Rokia Traoré: Roots live in 2011

In November and December 2011, Rokia performed a limited series of thirteen acoustic concerts, ‘a magnificent journey where voice and strings made tribute to the Mandingo tradition, a tribute to her own roots’.  This full-length concert video shows a different Rokia Traoré to the one I witnessed the other night in Manchester.  She’s joined by Mamah Diabaté (ngoni), Mamadyba Camara (kora), Habib Sangare (Bolon), Virginia Dembele (chorus), Fatim Kouyate (vocals) and Bintou Soumbounou (chorus).

Rokia Traoré: live at The Festival Les Suds, Arles, August 2013

A full-length performance from the Beautiful Africa tour last summer, with some of the same band members.

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Mali: the music cries out

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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Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangare

Saw Oumou Sangare put on an electrifying show at On the Waterfront last night – a short series of free concerts in the spectacular setting of the Pier Head plaza. In the one-hour set, Sangare performed songs from her recent album, Seya (Joy) with a stripped-down band consisting of drums,  djembe, kora, flute, ngoni, electric bass, and two young female backing vocalists who dance and twirl calabashes, one of whom Oumou introduced as her daughter.

On an evening when the rain of recent days thankfully held off, but with a chilly breeze whipping in off the river,  the band drove the beat forward from the first number, Oumou’s voice soaring over the interweaving pulses and beats. One of the features of the set was how Oumou engaged directly with the audience, using French and her ‘not so good’ English to explain the lyrics of her songs. She is a champion of women’s rights, and she was at pains to get across how her songs express the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy and arranged marriage in Mali, but also  the importance of love, the pain of exile, and the frailty of human life.

Oumou Sangare 3

The whole performance was relaxed and joyous, ending with an extended introduction, by Oumou, of each member of her band, bringing them to the front of the stage hand on their shoulder. Introducing the djembe player, she aked if anyone in the audience could play the hand drum; several hands went up and she invited one guy up on stage to briefly demonstrate his skill.

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Oumou’s songs are expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. She has brought to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of her homeland: wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten. But by the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare took all this much further with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical colour but she also had a personal mission: to improve the subservient position of women in Mali.Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in a fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Love).

This summer I’ve been listening to her great new album Seya (Joy).  This review from Pitchfork:

Sangaré gets a hand from a whopping 47 collaborators on the album, including master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Tony Allen. Most appear on a track or two, and mixed in with all the electric guitar, bass, flute, sax, and trap drums are a host of traditional Malian instruments, including the ngoni (a cousin of the guitar and banjo), the balafon (a type of marimba), and an arsenal of drums and percussion that give the album a diverse and always interesting rhythmic base. It opens with a blast of rhythmic balafon and dives into a fractured groove topped with an arcing flute, as Sangaré sings a forceful appeal for women’s equality in society and the home. Women’s rights are an issue she’s built her public life and much of her music around, and it’s a theme that crops up across the album.

“Wele Wele Wintou” sets dark female harmonies against a sharp sax theme behind Sangaré’s rapid-fire vocal, which speaks out against forced marriage. Subtle wah guitar burbles through the verses, and Tounkara takes one of the most unusual solos I’ve heard, playing far down the neck with a dark, blunt tone. You could probably listen to just the instrumental backing tracks to most of these songs and come away satisfied by the richness of the interlocking rhythms and the subtle harmonic shifts. Even slow tracks like “Senkele Te Sira”, which features another brilliant guitar part from Tounkara, have a dynamic, vibrant character that perfectly matches Sangaré’s sometimes towering vocals. She knows how to accent a phrase, unleashing a powerful wail at key moments to drive home a thought in a way that makes her passion clear in any language.

And this from the BBC:

Seya traverses a wide range of moods, from confident and celebratory to more austere, stripped down meditations. And while few artists give as good a groove as Oumou, the latter are often the best settings to appreciate her extraordinary voice; if Aretha Franklin had grown up in Bamako, she might have sounded something like this.

Apart from the declamatory Donso – an adaptation of a traditional Wassoulou hunter’s song – the material is all original as usual, and the basis of her distinctive sound remains the twitching, funky sound of the kamel n’goni(‘youth harp’), mostly played by ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. But with fifty musicians taking part, there’s more variety of sounds and textures than ever. She’s used electric guitar before, but never with the kind of squealing rock treatments heard on Senkele Te Sira and Kounadya, which also features a great retro Hammond organ solo by co-producer Cheick TidianeSeck. There’s brass and the occasional deft use of strings, as well as guests such as flautist ‘Magic’ Malik Mazzadri and drummer Tony Allen, but none are allowed to overshadow the star.

Though it’s difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent album, the driving opener Sounsoumba and the radiantly joyful title track, with its lovely swooping chorus vocals, are the most instantly appealing of the more upbeat pieces.

Oumou Sangaré – Seya

Oumou Sangare ‘Sounsoumba’

Special acoustic version of the ‘Seya’ album opener filmed at World Circuit’s Livingston Studios, featuring Benego Diakite on kamelngoni.