Mali has a unique and deeply imbedded musical tradition dating back hundreds of years. Bordered by Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Burkino Faso, Guinea and Senegal, it is a vast, landlocked country, parched and arid, extremely poor, and difficult to navigate as a traveller. Yet aesthetically Mali is spectacular: dramatic cliffscapes, huge skies, the thread of the River Niger which weaves through the country, an unmistakable Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, the most celebrated example being the Great Mosque of Djenne. Perhaps what stands Mali apart most, however, is a distinct and delicately preserved cultural identity.
Unlike other countries in West Africa, where Congolese soukous and western pop seem to be the music genres of preference, Mali is extremely proud of its own musical personality. Local sounds are heard on every street corner, from the “wedding day” singing which resounds from hundreds of parties around Bamako on Sundays and powerful social commentaries of the female jelimuso singers, to the bluesy Bamana folk sound of central Mali, and non-jeli (griot) desert blues made famous by artists such as Ali Farka Touré and Afel Boucoum. In 2012, a black cloud hung over Mali’s music scene as armed jihadists took control of northern parts of the country, banning music in their wake. Yet, to quote the great Salif Keita, “If there's no music, no Timbuktu, there is no more culture in Mali”. Musicians composed in secret, they wrote songs about what they were going through, and gradually a revival took place.
Ethnically, Mali is extremely diverse. Indigenous groups include Fula, Songhai, Tuareg, speakers of Dogon and Gur languages. But the Mande people (northern Mande groups include Maninka, Bamana, Soninke, Xasonka, Wasulu, Mandinka, Jula, Kuranko) – descendants of one of West Africa’s greatest empires founded by Sunjata Keita in the 13th century - are the dominant linguistic group. Their music has held the greatest influence throughout Mali.
One can trace this extraordinary musical legacy right the way back to the founding of the Mande Empire and a history which has been closely guarded and preserved by a jeli lineage – master musicians, storytellers and commentators. Historically the jelis were attached to royal courts as entertainers and commentators to nobility. The profession is still guarded with an air of secrecy and within Mande culture it is uncommon for non-jelis to pursue musical careers. Even now, variations of repertoires which date back hundreds of years can be heard by some of the country’s most celebrated modern-day musicians. Though jelis are by no means the only musicians, they do hold a significant presence, and are the most respected within the realm of music for their profession. There are always exceptions to the rule and artists who have chosen musical professions outside their lineage. None more celebrated than Salif Keita, a non jeli from a noble caste, who in spite of being cast out by his family, rose to international stardom with his exquisitely powerful vocal.
The Mande heartland was originally a fairly compact area somewhere between Bamako and north eastern Guinea, but it became a supremely prosperous empire, expanding far and wide and dispersing its peoples throughout West Africa. Bamana is today the prominent dialect in Mali and the central regions of Segou and Kaarta largely inhabit its people. Being closer to the desert, the music is slower, pentatonic, and bluesier in sound. The Bamana Empire was ruled by Kaladian Coulibaly in the 17th Century. Located in southwest Mali, Wasulu is home to lineages such as Sidibe, Sangare, Diakite, and Diallo. Music from the Wasulu region is aptly known as the Wassoulou style. Here, anyone is free to become a musician if they choose, and singers refer to themselves as kono, meaning “songbirds”.
Wassoulou music draws on ancient, sacred hunting traditions and is characterized by the djembe drum and the kamelengoni hunter’s harp. Equally important is the presence of women as the greatest ambassadors of Wassoulou music, Oumou Sangare perhaps being the most internationally acclaimed and revered of all with her explosive social commentaries and soaring vocals. Soninke people are said to descend from ancient Ghana, and one can associate the name Sissoko with this particular group. The Xasonka are a mix of Soninke, Fulbe and Maninka and virtuosos of some of the most ancient jeli instruments. It is not just the jeli tradition to which Mali owes its diverse and complex musical tapestry, though there is certainly much cross-pollination. Artists such as the late Ali Farka Touré – a Songhai from Niafunké in the north of Mali – was well versed in the jeli traditions of the south. His infamous collaborations with master kora player, Toumani Diabaté, are just some of many examples of successful musical partnerships and cross influence. Mali is certainly no stranger to the international music scene and some of its exports have contributed significantly to world music. Artists spanning the full spectrum of musical traditions, including Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Ali Farka Touré and Tinarawen, have risen to great worldwide acclaim. Western musicians have gained plaudits for their collaborations alongside some of these artists: Manu Chao, Corey Harris and Damon Albarn being some of the most well-known.
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.