Western audiences and artists in the know have held the music of the West African country of Mali in high esteem for decades. Blur frontman Damon Albarn has made several pilgrimages there, first recording an album with Malian musicians back in 2002. (He was even recently made a “local king” in Mali.) Brian Eno, Idris Elba, and Bono are just a few of the other well-known passionate fans of the country’s sonic traditions. What makes the sounds of this nation of 14.5 million people so appealing to Westerners?
Afropop Worldwide‘s Derek Rath sums it up nicely: “The music of Mali is generally easy for Western ears to assimilate. Guitar, ngoni, kora and other stringed instruments are often to the fore, riding insistent and repetitive grooves reminiscent of blues artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White or John Lee Hooker. Rock music draws from a similar sonic profile. Vocally too, there is often a blues or even gospel intonation in the delivery of songs. But there is something else that draws you in: a certain deep spirituality, a feeling of ageless communion with both humanity and the dust of the Earth we tread. This subliminal element is not surprising really, given that Mali has a cultural heritage that stretches back beyond the 11th century.”
However, the musical heritage of Mali has been recently threatened. In 2012, radical Islamists took control of cities in northern Mali, instituting a hardline sharia law that banned music. Radio stations and musical instruments were destroyed, and musicians feared for their livelihoods—and their lives. Many performers were forced into exile, fleeing the north of Mali to refugee camps and into hiding. But some fought back, and that’s the story of the new documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First, which follows a group of Malian musicians who found their voices even under the most perilous circumstances. The film opens March 4 in New York City, and here’s a trailer:
Despite a military intervention from former colonizers France that released northern Mali from Islamist rule, the country remains an uncertain place for its people and especially its musicians. But the performing community of Mali remains defiant. After all, they are working within a heralded tradition that spans from the guitar blues of the late Ali Farka Touré to the soul of Salif Keita, from the feminist musings of Oumou Sangaré to the genre-defying pop of Rokia Traoré and Amadou & Mariam. I urge you to sample the aforementioned artists, and have a listen to some of the newer selections from the country. (Follow this playlist on Spotify.):
Songhoy Blues – “Soubour”
This band is featured prominently in They Will Have To Kill Us First. Originally from the north of Mali, this group of musicians went into exile and formed a band, producing indie rock that has drawn comparisons to the Black Keys. Expect towering riffs and sex appeal, encapsulated in this song:
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba – “Siran Fen”
Bassekou Kouyaté is a virtuoso of the ancient Malian stringed instrument the ngoni, and, with his band Ngoni Ba, he creates captivating, almost psychedelic funk that would make Sly Stone jealous.
Samba Touré – “Chiri Hari”
Mali has been called the birthplace of the American blues, and you can feel the centuries-old mastery of the form in this laconic and melancholy track:
Tinariwen – “Toumast Tincha”
Speaking of blues, this Tuareg band are acclaimed practitioners of “desert blues,” and this song is a gently swirling sandstorm of drums and electric guitars:
Terakaft – “Tafouk télé”
Like Tinariwen, Terakaft are from the Tuareg ethnic group found in the northern part of Mali. The hypnotic chanting and the call-and-response vocals evoke the Sahara:
Mamani Keita – “Kanou”
Mamani, which means “grandmother” in the Bambara language, is one of the elder stateswomen of Malian music. But her grooves are modern and propulsive with just a hint of hip-hop attitude, as shown by the title track of her 2014 album:
Amkoullel – “S.O.S.”
One of the few internationally known Malian MCs, Amkoullel tackles the issue of the radical Islamists’ takeover of northern Mali head-on in this urgent track. Rapping in French, he cries what translates to “It’s an SOS, SOS, it’s a state of emergency.”
Kassé Mady Diabaté – “Simbo”
This 66-year-old griot (storyteller) has been called the greatest singer in all of Mali. “Simbo,” the opening track of his 2014 album Kiriké, featuring the Malian instruments the kora and the xylophone-like balafon, is a wonderful showcase for his earthy voice.
Kandia Kouyaté – “Koala Boumba”
Malians have often used music to pass down history, and here, Kouyate passionately tells the story of her ancestors’ migration from Guinea to a new home in Mali. This song was released after a 13-year hiatus for the singer, who had suffered a debilitating stroke. What a comeback.
Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal – “Samba Tomora”
This collaboration between Sissoko, a virtuoso on the traditional Malian harp-like instrument the kora, and Vincent Segal, a French cellist, is an impossibly beautiful union of Western and African idioms.