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.

See also

African Soul Rebels

Went to see Salif Keita at the Phil – part of this year’s African Soul Rebels package. Strangely, he was on second, sandwiched between the other two acts, as this review from the Guardian observes:

The fourth annual African Soul Rebels tour is dominated by one man. Salif Keita has long been praised as the finest singer in Africa, and has experimented in acoustic styles ever since his glorious Moffou album six years ago. Now he is back with a new acoustic lineup, and the result is an intriguing new chapter in his ever-changing career.

Mysteriously, he only appeared second on this latest, agreeably varied triple bill, but he reigned over the first night of the tour with his exhilarating singing and playing. He came on in his now familiar white robes and white cap, sitting alone on stage to play gently lilting guitar and show off his fine, soulful vocals on a revival of Folon, before gradually introducing the rest of his current band. With the harsh-edged Malian lute, the n’goni, currently in fashion thanks to Bassekou Kouyate, it was a shrewd move by Keita to include duets with a lesser-known n’goni player, Makan Tounkara, who provided exquisite and delicate accompaniment before Salif brought on his full band, including calabash percussion. He played guitar throughout, and his singing was confident, understated and thrilling, ending with a powerful tribute to the 16th-century Islamic scholar Ahmed Baba.

His outstanding performance was tough on the other two Rebels. Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi, who opened, lacked originality, and his rapid-fire French lyrics were matched with simplistic political cliches in English. Some of his songs were backed by wailing electric guitar but he made more original use of an amplified kora.

Tony Allen, the headliner, is an inspired drummer who has worked with everyone from Fela Kuti to Damon Albarn. He had a fine, post-Afrobeat band, but they needed a frontman to give the performance some presence.

Press release:After three series of acclaimed concerts, the African Soul Rebels tour has raised its game further for 2008, uniting two legends and a young groundbreaker for 10 nights. A West African spectacular, the tour features Mali’s Salif Keita, perhaps the finest singer the continent has ever produced, Tony Allen, the man who put the beat in Nigeria’s Afrobeat, and Awadi, the latest hero of Senegal’s fertile rap scene.

A soul rebel to the core, Salif Keita’s life has been one of confounding expectations. Because of his noble surname, he should never have been a singer; as an albino he was considered an outcast from the day he was born. Now, more than 40 years after he became a musician, Keita can look back on decades of unparalleled international success: his album Soro (1997) has been labeled the best African LP of all time; both the albums he has recorded since returning to Mali in 2000, Moffou and M’Bemba, have been called classics. For this tour, he is going further back in time, to the acoustic sound he grew up hearing while working in his father’s fields.

It’s not for nothing that countless fellow musicians have called him the greatest drummer of all time. A master of jazz and traditional African drumming styles, Tony Allen was the heartbeat behind Fela Kuti in the 1970s, playing on albums such as Zombie, Sorrow Tears and Blood and Gentlemen. After leaving Kuti, he followed his own instincts, bringing dub and hip-hop to Afrobeat, and his most recent project, The Good, the Bad & the Queen (recorded with Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon and Simon Tong) won Best Album at the Mojo Awards in 2007.

One of the founding members of West African rap pioneers Positive Black Soul, Didier Awadi, has spent two decades mixing contemporary American soul with traditional Senegalese music. In January, he releases a new album, Presidents D’Afrique, based on speeches by African leaders, which tackles questions of heritage, independence and debt. “What I’m trying to do”, he says, “is use hip-hop as an entertaining way to get Africans to re-appropriate their history and give these presidents their rightful place in our pantheon.”

Salif Keita – Mandjou (full)

Salif Keita – Mandjou (live at the Roll Back Malaria Concert, June 2007)

Salif Keita live: Tekere

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