Music: The Heartbeat of Mali

“If there's no music, no Timbuktu, there is no more culture in Mali”, Salif Keita

To imagine Mali without music is like trying to picture a world stripped of colour. It signifies a cultural black hole, removal of a heartbeat, destruction of an entire identity. To quote Manny Ansar, director of the Festival in the Desert: “Everything is transmitted in Mali through music, through poetry. We enjoy life through music”.

Indeed, musical is an essential cultural artery. Not only is it a form of craft, expression, and entertainment, but it is the destiny of entire bloodlines to practise music professionally. For artists such as Toumani Diabate - part of a line of seventy one generations of kora players - there is no other conceivable profession. It is their history, legacy, career, and way of life.

On my first visit in 2002, music filled the streets and set the country apart. Not just any music, but distinct sounds, seemingly particular to Mali and unlike anything else I’d heard in West Africa. Loping, bluesy guitar rhythms, heart-stoppingly soaring female vocals, a beautiful, classic, harp-like instrument (which I later knew to be the kora), sounds which seemed to veer between melancholia and commentary, classical and modern guitar, slow laments and up tempo dance beats. It sounded important.

I arrived in Mali by chance, almost over the flick of a coin, and certainly with no expectations or prior knowledge of its already world-acclaimed music scene. By the time I left, I had a rucksack full of cassettes - Djeneba Seck, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Boubacar Traore – and I played them over and over again. I certainly wasn’t the only one to have felt the effects of this musical powerhouse. As Blur frontman, Damon Albarn, identified in an interview for the BBC published in October 2013: “I felt the culture was very sure of itself, had a very clear sense and connection with its past, and its oral tradition was still totally intact. I had never experienced that sort of immersion in music that I found here."

In writing this account it is appropriate to point out that Mali’s cultural freedom has endured its fair share of jeopardy. On 22nd March 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a military coup and much of northern Mali was seized by rebel Islamic fundamentalist groups. Important towns such as Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal were taken over and a puritanical form of Shari’a law, coined by mujahedeen militia groups, was implemented. For a period of 10 months northern Mali was “switched off”. Music was forbidden, condemned as haram, and a punishable offence. Despite the temporary celebrations as troops regained Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, Malians have endured a great deal of uncertainty. Musical activity suffered a huge blow with various movements championing to revive Mali’s heartbeat.

I have listened to, collected and enjoyed writing about the music of Mali for many years, mostly as a personal hobby but also professionally. We are always interested to hear from anyone who would like to incorporate music as part of their travel experience. For more information please contact