Situated in the heart of West Africa, Mali is one of the world's great musical treasures and widely acknowledged as a primary source of the music that America would remake into the blues. From its fertile southern savannas to the Sahara Desert in the north, the country is awash with diverse musical styles. For centuries music has infused Mali’s cultural identity, with musicians holding revered places in society, but since the arrival of radical Islamists intent on stamping out indigenous music, the culture has been under serious threat.
In late 2012, the guitarist Anansy Cissé was forced to dismantle his studio following the invasion of Mali’s northern regions by militant Islamists, many of whom are opposed to secular music-making. The poignant track ‘Gomni’ calls for peace across Mali and is a reminder of the despair felt by many at the political divisions and connected social reverberations caused by religious tension in the Northern region. Forced to relocate further south, Cissé headed to the beating heart of Mali’s capital city Bamako, where he recorded his debut album Mali Overdrive. Likewise, Alba Griot’s musical adventure was concocted under the rich and dry skies of Bamako, combining the Afro-Manding styles of Malian Yacouba Sissoko with the Celtic and psychedelic folk sounds of Scottish-born Mark Mulholland. The track ‘Horonia’ is delivered inclassical Mande style, and is a beautiful example of how this unlikely union defies geographical differences.
The Songhai bluesman Samba Touré is a protégé of the legendary Ali Farka Touré, a musical giant largely responsible for putting Mali’s desert blues on the map. Samba’s harmonious blend of River Niger blues, traditional Songhai themes and Western influences represents a point of intersection where traditional Malian music meets its North American cousin the blues. Typically, his songs convey important moral messages about Malian culture, and in ‘Yermakoye’ Samba talks of finding troubles in another land and returning to family and friends.
Like the late great Ali Farka Touré, Ali Baba Cissé hails from the rich musical soils of Niafunké. His song ‘Kaya’ is taken from the Riverboat Records release Lost In Mali, with his beautifully laid back guitar groove embellished with traditional ngoni(lute) licks, monochord and calabash (drum). Also from Niafunké and continuing the theme of peaceful reconciliation are the band Alkibar Jr. Being former students of another Malian guitar great Afel Bocoum, the band carry on his musical legacy with their song ‘La Paix’ calling for peace and harmony. Other lesser-known gems in this collection include the track ‘Yawoyé’ by veteran musician Sabu Dorienté, whose heavily fuzzed guitar joins forces with the ngoni in a rip-roaring yet soulful performance. Equally uplifting is the unmistakable beauty of the kora accompaniment on Modiba Diabaté’s ‘Bonya’, where he implores rich Malians to invest their wealth back into their motherland.
In the same way that certain themes are prevalent in American blues such as lost love, discrimination and travelling far from home, similar experiences are dealt with in the repertoires of Malian artists, and none more so than the female-fronted band Tartit. Originally created to safeguard Tuareg traditional music which was slowing disappearing, Tartit’s members all originated from the Timbuktu region and formed the group whilst in refugee camps in the mid-90s during the Tuareg uprising. Led by the charismatic singer Fadimata Walet Oumar known as ‘Disco’, Tartit remains a beacon of hope for the Tuareg people and offers hope for a brighter future on ‘Afous Dafous’ meaning ‘Hand In Hand’, a song inspired by a children’s game that encourages unity and solidarity. Like Tartit all of these artists share the same common goal of galvanising the Malian public, and never before has the musician’s role been more centrally important to the struggles of a country during times of upheaval.