Around the World in 575 Songs : Traditional Music from all the World's Countries, Vol 2, chapter 31

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Chapter 31 (v.1) - Ma

Submitted: April 26, 2018

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Submitted: April 26, 2018





Tinariwen – Assouf

Tartit – Eha Ehenia

Songhoy Blues – Bamako

Khaira Arby – Goumou

Bako Dagnon – M’Ba

Boubacar Traoré – Fogniana Kouma


On 22nd August 2012 Islamist forces who had seized control of the north of Mali issued this statement:


“We, the mujahedeen of Gao, of Timbuktu and Kidal, henceforward forbid the broadcasting of any Western music on all radios in this Islamic territory. This ban takes effect from today, Wednesday. We do not want Satan’s music. In its place, there will be Quranic verses. Shari’a demands this. What God commands must be done.”


The news reverberated around the world, particularly as it became clear that this music ban was deadly serious. Mali was not just any country: it had a musical tradition which was unequalled anywhere in Africa, and was still very much in evidence in the 21st century. A mere six months earlier, Tinariwen had collected a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. Twelve months before that, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté had, for a second time, received a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album, and in 2010 the Best Traditional World Music award went to Mamadou Diabate. These are just a few of the famous names of Malian music; there are far too many to list. Of the numerous voices raised in defiance at this attack on music, few were more eloquent than that of Toumani Diabaté:


It was truly devastating. I grew up with the Qur’an and the kora. To even imagine that I would be in trouble for playing a traditional Malian instrument, a part of our culture, I would have never imagined this in Mali.” [1]


The 2012 uprising began as a Tuareg rebellion, only to be hijacked by radical Islamist groups. These are the words of Eyadou Ag Leche, bassist with the band Tinariwen: “We want to live as free people in our homeland. The desert has always been our home. We enjoy the beauty, freedom of the desert.” The drawing up of new national boundaries in the 1960s, he explains, was really hard on the Tuareg, who felt like a people divided, their nomadic lifestyle under threat. For a brief moment, the uprising offered a glimpse of that freedom they longed for – “Now, finally, our dream of an independent country seemed to be fulfilled for all Tuareg. And suddenly the terrorists came.” [2]


Fighting between the Tuareg and al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist groups quickly intensified, and by the end of June Ansar Dine and its allies were in control of the three largest cities in the north, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Ansar Dine orchestrated the destruction of large parts of Timbuktu’s priceless ancient heritage: medieval shrines, tombs of Sufi saints and a mosque dating back to the 15th century were all attacked and countless ancient manuscripts lost in the process. In 2016 Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi would be sentenced to nine years by the International Criminal Court after pleading guilty to directing some of these attacks in the first war crimes trial of its kind. But I digress…


Many Tuareg fled across the borders into exile. It was a desperate time for musicians. Tinariwen were reluctant to abandon the sands of the Sahara, but it wasn’t long before the violence caught up with them. British journalist Jon Snow:


“The madmen that are Ansar Dine came for Tinariwen on 3 January this year… sweet, mild-mannered guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida was caught as he tried to save his guitars. His playing, and his voice, are a central element in the texture of the band’s sound. No one knows whether this man whose hand I shook, and who hugged me on stage in Shepherds Bush just nine months ago, is even still alive.” [3]


Happily, he was soon freed. Tinariwen spent a lot of time abroad that year, touring Europe and informing people about the situation in Mali, and recording their next album Emmaar in the sands of California, in the Mojave Desert.

It comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that it was as recently as 2001 that Tinariwen exploded on the world stage. That was the year when they headlined the inaugural Festival au Désert, performed at Womad, had their first international release. Of course they were influenced by Western rock and blues music, as well as by African guitarists such as Ali Farka Touré. Their effect on Tuareg music though was revolutionary and transformative. The electric guitar became de rigeur: almost overnight all these rocking Tuareg guitar bands were springing up, garbed in the distinctive Tuareg blue robes and playing hypnotic rhythmic ‘desert blues’. The Tuareg themselves don’t call it desert blues, they use the word ‘assouf’ which has no direct translation in English. Here’s one interpretation, by our friend Eyadou Ag Leche: “You always feel a kind of nostalgia, an inner pain. You don’t really know where it comes from. You feel good but also there’s a sense of nostalgia. That’s what assouf is.” [4]

You can hear this longing in the vocals of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib on Assouf, the opening track on the 2007 album Aman Iman. Behind him stands this array of robed guitarists: the music is powerful and pulsating, with all the flourishes that you’d expect from a festival rock band, but this is something other than rock music – it’s got depth and it’s got soul.

Modern Tuareg music is an assertion of identity, an expression of a people in struggle. The founders of Tinariwen were revolutionaries who first met up in a military training camp in Libya. Tartit was conceived in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, and its aim was simply to spread the message – the group was put together when an opportunity presented itself to perform at a festival in Belgium. Initially they were five women. They played traditional instruments: the tinde drum, the imzad (violin). They called themselves Tartit, meaning union, and their belief in unity of Tuareg peoples and the leading role of women in Tuareg communities shone through in their songs.

“Our music is a traditional music,” says the group’s leader Fadimata Walett Oumar. “But our music is also modern because we sing about things that are happening now.” [5] The group who returned to Mali in the 1990s have also looked to modernise their sound while remaining true to their cultural heritage. On Abacabok (2006) they worked with nine ‘guest’ musicians, and women from the camps provided additional backing chanting; on Live from the Sahara (2014) the majority of the tracks are acoustic while three tracks feature the group Imharhan with their electric guitars. So I’ve picked out one of their more traditional numbers, Eha Ehenia, which we’re told is “a song about a woman who is a disgrace for her family”. All that we hear is the incessant beat of the drums and the ululating chants of the women. It has that trance-inducing effect. The album was recorded by the Belgian producer Vincent Kenis at various locations in the Malian deserts.

Songhoy Blues, by contrast, represent a music that is cross-cultural, they represent youth and renewal, above all they represent the resilience of a musical culture that has become so embedded in the life of its people. When Ansar Dine arrived in his home town in the spring of 2012, Garba Touré grabbed a ride to Bamako in a bus full of refugees, carrying his guitar with him. “When I arrived in Bamako the mood wasn’t great. Different army factions were fighting each other. There were guns everywhere. All we heard was the scream of weapons.” [6] He hooked up with a couple of other refugees, Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, and they decided that the best answer was to play some music. Despite the shared surname none of the three men are related, but all belong to the Songhai people – scattered remnants of a once-great empire – so they called themselves Songhoy Blues, before diversifying the band’s gene pool by adding a drummer from Bamako.

They made music that recognised no barriers, combining their loves of rock and African music. They quickly became a cult band, playing marathon sets every night in the bars of Bamako to audiences where different ethnic groups mingled together. Then a big break: Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project was in Bamako looking for a band to record. Many bands auditioned, but it was Songhoy Blues who were selected. So it was that they became one of the stars of Africa Express Presents: Maison des Jeunes, a compilation album in which Malian artists collaborated with Western musicians and producers; then in 2015 their own debut album, Music in Exile, got an international release. The freshness and vitality of the album, and the fact that the band seemed equally comfortable belting out a hard Afro-funk tune or a slower bluesy number, won them many new friends around the world.

Bamako is from the 2017 album Résistance, it’s a very infectious piece of high-energy funk.

“With Bamako,” says Aliou Touré, “we just wanted to write something fun and positive about where we come from. So much of what people hear about Africa is negative… this track is about dispelling that image by describing something everyone can relate to — going out on a Saturday night — to show that Africa isn’t just what people see in the news.” [7]

In the video for the song, directed by Johanna Schwartz, the camera keeps switching between the heaving nightclub dance floor and scenes from the streets of the capital. Despite the slow-moving traffic, the sense conveyed is of a city that doesn’t sleep, a city pulsating with life and motion, a city that lives by music. Johanna Schwartz has also made a feature-length documentary, They Will Have To Kill Us First (2015), which follows the lives of several Malian musicians including Fadimata Walett Oumar and Songhoy Blues, in the aftermath of the music ban.

In 2012 Khaira Arby was one of those fleeing from her Timbuktu home. After she left militants raided her place, causing damage to property which she estimates at $150,000: “They destroyed my instruments – guitars, mixing equipment, the production studio.” [8] Blows such as this though could not compare to the pain of seeing music and musicians under attack in Mali – “When you take away music, you take away the joy. Without music there’s no air, no life, especially in a country like Mali where music plays such an important role.” [9]

Khaira is everything that the fundamentalists hate. She’s the daughter of a Tuareg father and a Songhai mother; and the Timbuktu that she remembers is a multicultural city soaked in history. Her pride in her region and its culture shines strongly – she sings in several African languages – and her life is devoted to the values of peace and unity of peoples. She’s also a strong woman, a woman who acts on her own convictions, and a believer in the empowerment of women.

Success didn’t come easily for her. When she was young, her father forbade her from singing. Then after she was married and raising children she found that as a woman there was so much social pressure against her performing publicly. Even her husband at the time disapproved.

“I was so tired of this thing. ‘A woman must be married. You must get married. Women must remain seated.’ I said no. Me, I’m going to play music. And I’m going to make people listen to my voice everywhere, and educate women, encourage them to do what they want. And thank God, where I am today I have succeeded. There are married women who play music.” [10]

Khaira and Oumou Sangaré broke boundaries, were outspoken, and paved the way for a generation of Malian female singers to emerge. In 2010, now in her 50s, Khaira became an international star with the release of Timbuktu Tarab. Audiences in America and Europe were smitten by this larger-than-life figure in her colourful robes and headdresses who had a seemingly effortlessly expressive singing voice. On the album she sings for the black Tuaregs (Djaba), of respect for the rights of women (Waidio), against female circumcision (Feriene). Goumou is a song about praying to one’s God. It’s a Saharan blues in the Tinariwen tradition; the guitar-playing alone puts 99% of rock bands to shame; but it’s the call of Khaira’s voice set against the echoed response of the female backing singers which really makes the song stand out.

As some fanned the flames of war, Khaira Arby was a powerful voice for peace. The politicians cannot be relied on, she would argue, women have to take the lead. “Women should pass on the message of forgiveness to their children. If they share the same message, the men have no choice but to listen.” [11] She threw herself into touring internationally, keeping the flame alive. Meanwhile in January 2013 the arrival of French troops in northern Mali swiftly brought an end to militant rule. The situation remained very dangerous, but already later that year we find Khaira appearing with her band in the north, driven by a determination to help elect Timbuktu’s first female MP. The campaign was successful, Aziza Mint Mohamed was elected. It was a result to offer hope to all those who believed that Khaira Arby’s vision, not Ansar Dine’s, represented the true Timbuktu. Under Ansar Dine, according to Mint Mohamed, “it was the women who suffered the most, because in Timbuktu the women go out a lot. They go to the market, they earn money, they run small businesses, they almost run a branch of the economy. And they are already covered, but burkas are not part of our culture. All the women who didn’t wear them got into difficulty. It was truly a humiliation.” [12]

The vision of the north of Mali as a region that embraced different cultures and traditions in a spirit of unity wasn’t based on distant history. The Festival au Désert had driven a big cultural stake into the desert sands, which was to prove immensely important when war came to the region. Many international media reports from Mali in recent years focus on the festival’s struggles to keep going, and with good reason. The festival itself was a symbol of cultural openness and the desire for peace, and its survival came to be seen as integral to Mali’s future as a multi-ethnic state.

The story of the festival is also one with a strange twist. The festival’s founder, Manny Ansar, had been inspired by a visit to a Tuareg festival in January 2000 organised by a friend and music lover called Iyad Ag Ghali. Little more than a decade later, the same Ag Ghali was back in northern Mali as the leader of Ansar Dine, a band of militants set on destroying Mali’s musical and cultural heritage. [13]

More generally, the Festival au Désert followed in the tradition of large annual Tuareg festivals when different nomadic groups would meet up, celebrate, and exchange stories. The difference was that this was something more outward-looking, set up with the wider music community in mind. So why host the festival in such remote desert villages? “I wanted to make a traveling festival,” says Manny, “a nomad festival where we invest a space to party a few hours, a few days. A festival that would be a weapon for peace.” [14] In 2003 the festival was held for the first time in Essakane, the village that was to become its permanent home:

“The British guitarist Justin Adams arrived to play with Tinariwen, whose first album he had recently helped produce. Adams was joined by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who jammed with Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré before an audience that included hundreds of foreign tourists. Thanks to Plant, the festival drew media attention around the world.” [15]

The festival had found its calling card. Although Tuareg musicians would remain its core element, guest international stars would provide extra bait for the music tourists. The Festival au Désert became one of the most talked about festivals in world music. The few who’d been there spoke of a very special experience, and many others had it pencilled in on their bucket lists.

The growth of political tensions only strengthened Manny’s resolve to hold the festival. He wanted to show that foreigners could come to northern Mali and feel safe, and feel included in the celebrations. Achieving this required an extraordinary amount of work behind the scenes.

“Manny had to increase security measures year on year. More soldiers would encircle the Essakane site, camping out beyond the dunes. And each year, Manny called people he knew in the Touareg rebel movement to ask if it was safe to stage the Festival… Their answer was always affirmative.” [16]

In 2010 security concerns forced him to move the festival to a site nearer to Timbuktu: here, despite all the fears and warnings, for three years festivals were held without incident. The January 2012 festival had been in doubt until the last minute following the kidnap of three tourists and the killing of another in Timbuktu, but it proved another triumph. Bono flew in, and jammed with Tinariwen and Bassekou Kouyaté. A collection of stars gathered on stage for a heartfelt tribute to Ali Farka Touré: son Vieux Farka Touré, Samba Touré, Mamadou Kelly, and Bassekou Kouyaté. From the stage artist after artist pleaded for peace. The Tuaregs showed great enthusiasm, not only for their own, but also for bands from Niger and Sudan.

As the fighting raged in 2012 Manny received much encouragement and offers of help. Thus was born the idea of the Caravan for Peace. The Caravan is like a touring festival, carrying wherever it goes a message of hope, understanding, and reconciliation. Security concerns led to some early plans being shelved, but nonetheless since 2013 the Caravan has visited refugee camps across West Africa where Malians are housed, and venues in Mali, as well as touring Europe and the USA. In 2016 the Caravan started in the Segou region of central Mali: “Malian singers like Khaira Arby, the diva of the north of Mali, and the Tartit band toured the camps and sang for the refugees… many refugees cried tears of joy and hope because [the] singers brought them hope.” [17] They then travelled south to the city of Mopti where a concert was held and they attended a conference that explored problems of inter-communal conflict. It was then back to Bamako where two great concerts for peace were held. The number of musical and cultural events held in Mali has been increasing generally since 2013, and the hope is that the festival’s return to its home in northern Mali is surely only a matter of time. For now though the peace settlement remains fragile, due to the ongoing threat from terrorist groups.

There is a saying in Mali: “Fade est le riz sans sauce, ennuyeux un récit épique sans mensonges, invivable une société sans griots.” [18] (Rice with no sauce is bland, an epic tale with no untruths boring, a society without griots hell on earth.) Griot culture is the foundation of Mali’s marvellous musical heritage. The first griots were the Kouyatés who were called on to serve the imperial court from the late 13th century, but as the years went by griot culture spread throughout society. More griot families appeared, and very interestingly they crossed over into other ethnic groups and other tribes. So from being the advisers to kings now they were tradition-bearers within a range of different groups and communities. In today’s Mali many languages are spoken, with 13 recognised as national languages as well as the official language of French. Griots – or jelis as they’re sometimes known among the Mandinka people – are preservers of several of these language groups and cultures, through their activities making people more aware of who they are and what their family history is. The job is a birthright, a calling. Only those from griot families can become griots, and then only after a long and testing apprenticeship as knowledge and musical skills are passed down from one generation to the next. A griot’s role may involve many such skills, music is only one aspect of it, but it’s an absolutely core aspect. The ngoni and the balafon are so integral to Malian music because for centuries they’ve been played by griots; the kora is a somewhat more recent instrument, but again it’s griots who’ve mastered its intricacies and caused it to become the great icon of West African music which it is today.

I’m familiar with the kora as this glorious solo instrument on which griot musicians dazzle us with their skills. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that this is quite a modern development, in fact up to the Second World War the kora was mainly used to accompany singing and storytelling, and its playing would have been simple and unornamented. Sidiki Diabaté, along with a handful of other kora masters in Gambia and Senegal, practically reinvented the instrument. He revamped the kora repertoire, adapting pieces from the other Mande instruments, and had an uncompromisingly creative style. In 1970 he got together with three other Malian kora virtuosos, Djelimadi Sissoko, Batourou Sékou Kouyaté and N’Fa Diabaté, to record a seminal album, Mali: Cordes Anciennes (Mali: Ancient Strings). Never before had there been an album like this, purely instrumental kora music, and kora masters jamming together.

Like the true griots they were, these men also passed on their skills to the next generation. Among younger kora masters making their mark in the late 1990s/early 2000s were Toumani Diabaté (Sidiki’s son), Ballaké Sissoko (Djelimady’s son) and Mamadou Diabaté (N’fa Diabaté’s son). In 1999 Toumani and Ballaké released their own homage to the music of their fathers, appropriately entitled New Ancient Strings. Produced by Lucy Duran, this is a beautiful, timeless album which everyone should have in their collection.

I had been assuming that the arrival of griots onto the world stage, the fact that they could now play to audiences of thousands at European festivals, offered hope for the future. Lucy Duran challenges this assumption. Once the griot becomes wealthy or becomes a celebrity themselves, she argues, then the relationships which have sustained griot culture for centuries begin to crumble:

“Every elder jeli has said to me, ‘The essence, the real essence of jeliya, the art of the jeli, has vanished. If you want to find the great masters, the ngara, as they call them, if you want to find the great ngara, you have to go to the cemetery. They are all dead.’ Why is griotism, real jeliya, dead? Essentially, it is because the relationship between the jeli, the griot, and the jatigui, the patron, has dissipated. It’s become corrupt. And it was that relationship that sustained griots for centuries. It was the patronage of the nobility to the griot – that’s what kept them going financially. That’s what gave them a base to live and be fed. But also, there was a symbiotic relationship between the griot and the patron.” [19]

Bako Dagnon was no big-name celebrity, but she was revered among her peers because she was a dyed-in-the-wool jelimuso, one of the last Malian griots who learned her trade from her elders and relied on patronage for a living. Her birthplace, and her spiritual home, is the small village of Golobladji. It’s a cash-poor place with no running water or electricity, yet it’s rich in its collective knowledge of song, tradition and history, thanks to the families of griots who live there. Bako learned many songs, but also and more importantly to her the tariku, stories from the ancient past of the Mande people.

So she performed for her patrons, she sang at weddings. Bako had no ambitions for herself. In 1974 she was recruited to join Mali’s National Instrumental Ensemble (EIN), which was comprised of about 40 of the country’s best singers and musicians. She and her family were living in Kita at the time, 100 miles from Bamako, but she managed this as best she could for a few years before moving to Bamako in 1980. Even surrounded by all these fine artists her abilities and character did not go unnoticed. For example: “Jeli Bakari Soumano, the late Chief of the Griots of Mali, an extremely cultivated man, greatly appreciated the wisdom of Bako; she was often at his side when performing ritual ceremonies.” [20]

Over the years she had released a few cassettes but in 2007 her music was finally released for the first time outside of Mali when the Paris-based label Syllart persuaded Bako to record with them. A second album, Sidiba, followed before her long term illness, and death in 2015. We might have expected, given Bako’s vast knowledge and experience of traditional song, to hear something very traditional-sounding, but instead what we find is another side of Bako. These are polished, highly produced albums, with predominantly modern instrumentation. On M’Ba, Mama Sissoko’s guitar weaves its melodic patterns while Bako’s deep smoky voice pleads and implores, holding you under its spell. It’s a far cry from the music the elders play in Golobladji. We can’t understand the words, but we can respond to her soulful voice and glimpse the wisdom and maturity of a character who carries in her the knowledge of a people. In this way, all the work put into the album will have served its purpose, and an imprint of Mande culture will have been left on the world.

If you passed Boubacar Traoré in the street you probably wouldn’t see a hero of the electric guitar. A recent Songlines magazine profile began with the words: “He’s been called Mali’s Muddy Waters” before hurriedly pointing out that he’s a modest man who has no desire to be glorified or turned into a celebrity.

“His long-time friend and producer Christian Mousset says he has to drag the 72-year-old away from his farm and seven acres of field on the hilly outskirts of Bamako to record or go on tour. ‘That’s where his true passion is, building up his agricultural business, sowing, growing enough crops to feed his enlarged family.’” [21]

This 72-year-old farmer had just released an album (Mbalimaou 2015) which could sit proudly alongside anything by Muddy Waters. The music flows so naturally, it makes you feel peaceful and serene, but it also has this reservoir of emotional depth. His warm mournful voice perfectly supplements the minor keys he plays on his guitar, which is also backed by ngoni, sokou, harmonica, drums and percussion. The music on Fogniana Kouma rolls like the sands of the desert. The languid sound of the karignan (metal scraper) marks out the rhythm and helps create the illusion of a close, intimate setting. Boubacar and the backing vocalists could be sat around the campfire, calling and responding as they pick away at their instruments. The singer is imploring his beloved not to listen to rumours.

Boubacar grew up wanting to be a footballer: his skill at dribbling earned him the nickname that he still bears today, Kar Kar. At the age of 17 he picked up a guitar for the first time. The guitar was his brother’s: his brother was a music teacher who’d spent eight years studying in Cuba. Boubacar began teaching himself to play whenever his brother was out of the house.

“When his brother finally caught him in the act, he was amazed to hear Boubacar playing riffs taken from Mandingo music for the kora… He asked me, ‘Who taught you that?’ Traoré recalls. I said, ‘No one.’ And he replied that if that was how I was starting, I was going to be world famous one day.” [22]

In fact, he didn’t have to wait long. Within three or four years his songs – Mali Twist and Cha-cha-cha 63 – were big hits that were listened to everywhere in Mali and beyond. But there was very little money in the music business – the endless radio plays weren’t earning him a penny – and for someone who wasn’t a griot, this was an issue. He dropped his musical career and disappeared from public view. For 19 years he was quietly making a living doing farm work. Then a chance meeting with journalists led to a TV appearance and the recording of a new cassette. This caused a bit of confusion as rumour had it that he was dead, and some assumed that this was a posthumous album. Then tragedy struck: his wife died during childbirth. Grief-stricken, he moved to Paris where he worked for a time in the building trade to support his six living children. Here he was living in a migrant hostel, once again invisible to the world; but somehow a producer for Sterns Africa managed to track him down, a contract was signed, and as he approached his 50th birthday a new international career was launched.

Boubacar is well familiar with the comparisons to American blues.

“My music has been called blues, however I play Mandinka music. I compose, invent, that’s my trademark. The words jazz, blues, rock are English inventions… we know that the blues come from Africa, through the African slaves sold in America… But I’m still proud when you say my music is blues.” [23]

When I read these words I immediately went back to a passage that I’d seen a few days earlier, quoting Ali Farka Touré:

“The journalists always ask me the same questions. They always want to know about blues. I say, the word blues means nothing to me. I do not know blues, I know the African tradition… The first time I heard John Lee Hooker’s music, I recognised it immediately. I argued with people; I said, ‘This is not possible, how can it exist in America?’ Because these are not Western tunes. Not at all. This music is one hundred percent African, and particularly from Mali. The tunes he plays are some of them in the Tamashek style, some in the Bozo style, some in Songhai style, and some in Peul.” [24]

Boubacar Traoré and Ali Farka Touré were both great admirers of American blues. But that is not the point. Both men possessed that creative energy and freshness of vision required to lay out new pathways for Malian music, but they also felt a sense of responsibility. They set out to make music that was both modern and West African in character, that drew on traditional music and chimed with people’s sense of identity. We have to understand this to see the scope of their achievement.























11. See note 9




13. The story is told at some length here:




15. See note 13


16. Andy Morgan – Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali (2013), p28










21. Songlines magazine, issue 108, June 2015






24. Elijah Wald – Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music (Routledge 2006), p13

© Copyright 2018 Nick Wall. All rights reserved.


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