Category Archives: History

AfroCubism – Benséma : Mali Song of the Week

Whatever the political and economic consequences of President Obama’s trip to Cuba this week, we’ve learnt a bit about him and the country he visited. We can also see that a whole lot hasn’t changed. Another thing that has evidentially remained unchanged – during that 20th Century “constant” of the Cold War conflict between the US and Cuba – is that the Caribbean nation remains enamoured, at every turn, with music. Scenes from a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays held yesterday morning show jubilation in the crowds whenever the band started up – which appeared to be every other minute. Rapturous and genuine applause even bloomed at the final notes of the Star Spangled Banner. Ahead of the game President Obama penned a short article explaining the significance and purpose of the match:

“That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken.”

This is of course must be framed as a uniquely American reflection on Cuba. Other countries, particular those in Africa, have not endorsed the isolationist policies of the US and remember different struggles. On the contrary Cuba has a rich history of cooperation in Africa where they attacked barriers from the same side. Nelson Mandela famously thanked Castro and the Cuban people for the “selfless” support received for the anti-apartheid movement. In many ways its was the “critical” intervention in the gradual and successful defeat of apartheid. Apartheid itself means  “the state of being apart” when translated from Afrikaans. To be anti-apartheid is to show a willingness to come together. In this case it was for the advancement of the rights and liberties of people from the other side of the world.

It is a difficult truth for the US to digest, no less for Noble Peace Prize winner Obama. In an incredible exchange that just about everybody should watch, Mandela during his visit to the US in 1990 was challenged by Ken Adelman from the Institute of Contemporary Studies for his praise of the human rights advocacy of Gaddafi, Arafat and Castro. In his response, Mandela alludes to the comparatively lack of support the US government ever showed the ANC, which barely extended beyond rhetoric, in its fight for human rights in South Africa. With his ‘normalising’ speeches and actions in Cuba over the last few days Obama is trying to work his magic on a particularly prickly legacy of his predecessors; that all too often American diplomacy has failed to bring the world together. Utilising sport to correct this is not a new Cold War trick and indeed its going to take a whole lot of ballgames to convince some commentators that the US’s actions against Cuba ought to be laid to rest.

Sport and culture facilitates all sorts of diplomatic relations, though not always positive I hasten to add. This is no different in Mali. Its relations with South Africa for example have been nurtured through two recent projects: 1) the crucial assistance Mali received from South Africa when its ability to host the African Cup of Nations in 2002 looked in doubt and 2) the on-going South African-led Timbuktu manuscript restoration and preservation project. With Cuba, Mali shares its music. Historically, Mali had some Cold War ties with Cuba, but over the last century its music has bound its people together more closely – even if many of them may not have known it.

Sadly, in researching this article I couldn’t find direct evidence of Malian and Cuban official relations being nurtured though musical connections, though I’m sure I would eventually. In a visit to the country last year, it is reported that (the source is from the Cuban Communist Party) President of the National Assembly of Mali, Issaka Sidibé, “thanked Cuban authorities for their cooperation with his country in various spheres, including health, sport and education”. Advancing cultural exchange was high on the agenda also. The musical harmony between the two countries is captured in this week’s Song of The Week. It hints at that unquantifiable, allusive and often dismissed quality, the very existence of it and its transformative powers Obama is banking will take hold in Cuba. Like sport music has a common language. A set of rules recognised nearly everywhere. Toumani Diabate – who features in this week’s SOTW – explained how during the AfroCubism project the various musicians from Mali, Cuba and elsewhere:

“…cannot even speak together on stage…music has created its own language. It’s the music message, and I think the message is true to the audiences [and] to the world also at the same time.”

It provides hope that separated peoples – by the Straights of Florida or the Atlantic Ocean, by education or simply by the passage of time – can find common intrinsically human pursuits to strip away the polluting effects of titles, labels, ignorance and othering. In its place there is always a chance for peace, happiness and cooperation. But just a chance.


AfroCubism – Benséma


Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group –

To get in touch with Sam for further information he’d be happy to hear from you at Any comments and ideas for improving the Hub are especially welcome. We all look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for tuning in.

The Mali Interest Hub is an initiative run by the Mali Development Group, supported by the Alliance for Mali.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Ali Farka Toure – Lasidan

This song, to me, is all about adventure. Travelling into an unknown, that magnetic pull to a place that you’ve yet to see. Firstly, its the pace. The song moves at speed. The rhythm, vocals and licks from the guitar climb over each other to keep the song moving, rolling like a wave. Its got that mysterious, care-free, optimistic sound. Like staring at a foreign landscape from a passenger window, excitement flies in from all directions. The instruments in the song compete, trying their luck with your attention. They excite and startle, all the while the rhythm and percussion pin the song together in an animated meld of sahelian sounds.

With these emotions flowing it is difficult not to imagine riding along the road to a Timbuktu of yesteryear. Ali Farka Toure was born here in 1939 and as it was French Soudan in those day the city’s inhabitants were dragged off to WWII. Things haven’t got much better for the city since. In the late 1950s the city’s main water source – a canal stretching the 12 miles to the Niger river – was swallowed up by the sands of the relentless desert. This economic decline coincided with decolonisation in the 1960s and with its position as a gateway between North and South, Timbuktu has suffered harder than most during the series of conflicts that have defined Mali’s recent history. The city’s fortunes are a long way from the time when it was home and provider to the richest person in human history.


Ali Farka Toure – Lasidan

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Rail Band – Duga

“Your work is a lesson in tolerance, dialogue and peace… it is an answer to all extremists whose echo can be heard well beyond the borders of Mali.”

For years now we have show how musicians in Mali have lent their voices and instruments to the resolution and discussion of many problems in Malian society – the conflict, ebola and the treacherous migration to a life in Europe all being some of the topics analysed, interpreted and presented through music. This is all with a distinctly nod to a growing, and lucrative, international audience. On the home front, its time for the masons to lead the charge against intolerance. The quote above is from UNESCO’s Irina Bokova, who paid tribute to the year-long work of 140 highly-skilled Malian masons in restoring the tombs and mausoleums of Timbuktu. 14 of the 16 World Heritage Sites were destroyed by extremists during the 2012/13 conflict, with the armed insurgent group claiming their contents were idolatrous – including irreplacable manuscripts, all dating back to Timbuktu’s intellectual and spiritual golden age in the 15th/16th century.

Irina Bokova continued in interview to state that UNESCO had instructed the International Criminal Court to look into their destruction as a war crime, citing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This is not a new idea as Bokova’s similar statements in 2012 encouraged a New York based law student to analyse how the legal scenario would play out. Perhaps the judicial process would only be thrilling to a legal eye, its implications however could be interesting to many.

As UNESCO recommends in a separate document, would the Malian army really prioritise in future the deployment of ‘special units’ of its army to protect ‘cultural property’ when it struggles to defend its borders and citizens? It could be an example of how a security situation can become globalised; where the demands of an intellectually engaged community across the world can influence the reordering of a society post-conflict with their own priorities. Though well intentioned, this can be based on perceived ‘losses’ during the conflict experienced from afar. The mausoleums and manuscripts are known by many world-wide and are considered world heritage. Its an issue we have discussed before and it gets pretty complex both legally and morally. I guess its worth watching this space till either the ICC or UNESCO provide greater detail on the charges, which remain unclear.

So hats off to the master masons of Timbuktu. Foreign funds have provided employment for reportedly 140 people in this project that will last up to 4 years. In the end, culture and history are important to any economic recovery too. Providing jobs and attracting tourists. Its been many decades since Timbuktu was a real destination for the adventurous, maybe even before the days of the famous Rail Band. Here’s to hoping that the excellent work of 140 locals is not in vain and a new golden age for the city is on the way soon.



Rail Band – Duga


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Fatoumata Diawara & Roberto Fonseca – Sowa (live)

It was only this time last month that we had our last Afro-Cuban blend on the Hub. Irresistible as it is here we are again, with a new duo ready to take the world music scene by storm. Diawara and Fonseca have been jamming together for a few years now and Diawara notes in this clip the ease of their friendship: though they do not spend all that much time together they already have plenty of content for live performances, even an album, albeit a live one of which today’s Song of The Week appears to be the highlight.

Fonseca through his expert piano playing brings what Cuban artists so often bring to Malian music; that unique Latin rhythm. Malians – Diawara included – furnish this setting with vocals, melodies and the more subtle familiarities found in African music. The uniqueness of the duo is found in Fonseca’s overtly jazz angle, whilst he expresses in interview a desire to use the collaboration as an opportunity to explore his personal ancestry, as well as that of his nation’s music, back to Africa. Hence the project’s hashtag #transatlanticmeeting. News broke last month of Malian librarians coming to their country’s rescue in their current political crisis by translating medieval manuscripts on good governance, peace and tolerance into modern languages, to use their lessons to “help us with today’s reality”.  In light of this would it be suitable to launch the hashtag #transgenerationalteaching?

I digress. To see the duo in action and join them on this adventure come see them at the Barbican in London on May 30th.  Promises to be a cracker.



Fatoumata Diawara & Roberto Fonseca – Sowa (live)


The Mali Interest Hub is an initiative run by the Mali Development Group, supported by the Alliance for Mali.

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“Mali’s Age of Empire”; a talk by Kevin MacDonald TOMORROW

Sudbury Library – Wednesday 15 April at 7:30pm

Mali’s Age of Empire:

Sundiata, Mansa Musa and Timbuktu (AD 1200-1500)

A talk by Professor Kevin Macdonald, University College London


Linking Sudbury with a town in Mali for 2014/15 and learning about things we have in common

Many people may have heard of Timbuktu, but how many know where it is, or that it once formed part of the greatest of Africa’s indigenous Empires? Prof Kevin MacDonald (UCL) will speak about his 25+ years of researching the past of Mali and such characters as Sundiata Keita (Africa’s real Lion King) and Mansa Musa (named recently by the  Independent as the richest man who ever lived). Within this African imperial narrative, MacDonald will consider the origins and destiny of Africa’s near mythic city of gold: Timbuktu.

Free entry but there will be a collection at the end to support work in Mali.

To download a flyer click here.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Ali Farka Toure – Heygana

Heygana is the opening track of Ali Farka Toure’s 1991 album The River. Its another example of the seamless gelling of European folk and Malian blues. Like Fats Kaplin’s fiddle muddling within a Tinariwen song, Ali Farka Toure’s music happily accommodates the harmonica of Rory McLeod.

The similarities in McLeod’s career and that of many Malian musicians does not end there. Often, griot’s have made their way onto the Hub as Song of the Week (though, Ali Farka Toure does not come from this musical background). The traditional function for a griot – amongst many other things – is the development and retelling of  stories, both factual and symbolic, to form the core of West African oral history. The songs and poetry they write is more important than their aesthetic value, carrying with them great political and cultural significance. Now its this unique to West Africa?  No, not really. But is it only an ancient phenomenon? Maybe not, either. This is where we bring Rory back in, with a selection of quotes about his work:

“Intimate, revealing, political and powerful.”

“When he sings his songs he will take you on a journey with him.”

“Poetry and dance-stories with verve, sharpness, humour and warmth about people and for people.”


When speaking of griots in a modern context, it is popular to speak only of their history. To be fair, it is incredible to picture the care and effort that has gone into this transfer of music through many, many generations. For someone brought up in a world saturated with recorded and mass-manufactured music it is awe-inspiring to imagine how this low-tech, fragile, ancestral chain of artwork even survived. How many opportunities must each verse have had to be wiped out completely? Even in the modern world, with all the protection now offered by recorded media, there are those who have still sought to destroy these histories and practices forever. This shocking and sickening work is still occurring daily in Mali and other  parts of the Muslim world – and not only to music, but to other equally fragile, beautiful, precious and above all irreplaceable artefacts.

But on the flipside, this recent, rumbling conflict in Mali has spurred on the next generation to take on the griot attitude, traditions and responsibilities. In Mali, many musicians have used music to motivate, to educate and to reach deeply into the conciousness to paint a bigger picture – to revisit an inner, more balanced, sense of self and community. Luckily, as evidenced by the quotes above, it appears that the griot tradition is battling on in this way in many societies, including Britain.


Ali Farka Toure – Heygana


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Terakaft – Ammazagh

This week’s song comes from Terakaft, the world-acclaimed band from northern Mali. The song’s title ‘Ammazagh’ appears to be an alternative spelling of the word ‘Amazigh’ which is another name used to refer to the Berber people. The word ‘Amazigh’ is the singular for ‘Imazighen’ (Free) which is a word the Berber use to refer to themselves. This word is also cognate to the Tuareg word for noble; ‘Amajegh’.

Berbers are people of great history, with Berber ancestry finding its way everywhere between the thrones of the Roman kingdoms and scoring goals in a World Cup Final. Contemporary demographics regarding the modern population of the Maghreb and its surrounding regions, including the majority of northern Mali, still show Berber as the largest indigenous ancestry, despite the ‘Arabization‘ of the region following many occasions of invasion, colonisation and political upheaval since the 7th Century AD.

With this in mind, the fanfare found in this week’s song points to this Berber pride and the historical depth – the nobility – the Berber identity carries. Terakaft deploy modern instruments to drum up familiar rousing sounds. The rhythm of the guitars denotes depth, resilience and the vocals are simple, strong and are sang in chorus. Tinariwen, another very similar Tuareg band, have noted how significant militaristic imagery weaves into their band’s identity, particularly in the way they say that the guitar is part of their battle charge, their rallying cry.

Here, these themes are channelled similarly, but in a more reflective manner – perhaps hinting at the fact that the Berber people, with their rich history, have an intrinsic strength. Despite their many opportunities to do so, they have not succumbed to the violence and oppressive forces of history. In fact, Terakaft are reminding us that they are culturally flourishing.


Terakaft – Ammazagh

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Salif Keita – Soyomba

Gold. Wealth, trade and fortune are interwoven into the history of all human societies. In almost every society that has had access to it, gold has become a symbol of and has facilitated prestige, opulence and power like no other material on Earth. For Mali, the bright yellow, dense, soft and malleable metal has been ever-present and remains a vitally important part of Mali’s economy today. From the hay-day of Timbuktu and the Empire that surrounded it to the stock exchanges of the modern world, it is gold that has been largely responsible for the economic successes of Mali – including since the conflict  in 2012/13. It is also – due to Mali’s dependency on its export price – a  source of continued vulnerability, as Mali’s fortunes are thus shackled to the successes and failures of the wider global economy.

Despite (or perhaps due to) mankind’s fascination with gold’s value, utility and aesthetics it can be a dangerous material and sometimes a curse for the populations that happen to live on the ground above where it is found. The mining of gold is not the safest of occupations and during any “rush” to obtain it human lives are often seen as a worthy risk for its extraction. This picture series from the BBC shows the working conditions experienced by those participating in the “boom” of Mali’s gold mines today.

Another problem with gold is that it is very, very rare for ordinary Malian’s to see any of its monetary benefits. The government taxation on the industry is deliberately low to attract foreign investment. Statements from both Oxfam and the International Monetary Fund have emphasised the failure of the government and of multinational companies  to share the exploits of an industry that represents 70% of Malian exports and an enormous 15% of the country’s GDP. To put that chunk of national expenditure into perspective, the UK spends around 8% of its GDP on the NHS and defence spending represents about 2.5%. For Mali, that 15% could go a long, long way if shared out correctly.

The pictures in the BBC article are taken of a mine close to the Mali-Guinea border, in a Malian town called Kouremale. The town lies about 40km north of the Niger river, 150km upstream from Bamako. The choice of this week’s song of the week is down to the fact that afro-pop legend Salif Keita hails from the region, which is soaked in history. Near the gold-mines of Kouremale is the archaeological site at Woyowayanko, which marks the place where the last West African emperor Samory Touré did battle with French colonists – his victory here in face of the superior French artillery solidified his reputation as  legendary military strategist. Not that this talk of 19th century Emperors and their impressive legacies would particularly phase Salif Keita; he is direct descendent of  the founder of the Malian Empire Sundiata Keita who lived some 800 years ago.

Another link, if you needed one, between this week’s track and the Empires of Mali’s past is found in Salif Keita’s popular nickname. As a result of his unique voice, artistic brilliance, and leadership on many societal issues he is proudly known as “The Golden Voice of Africa“.

Salif Keita – Soyomba


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Mylmo – Propheciline 

“I thought I knew something about Malian music. Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Toure, Tinariwen. They’re the heroes, right? They’re the legends, the pop icons, the road blockers. I know there are rappers in Mali, just as I know there are rappers all over Africa. But I never knew that the rappers had taken over.” – Andy Morgan

Monday just passed (22nd of September 2014) was Mali’s Independence Day. It’s 54th to be precise, and the country was congratulated from all over the world on another year of self-rule and a day of national pride. Mali is perhaps one of the few countries in the world that would receive such messages of support from President’s of both the USA and Iran, the former highlighting the Malian government’s continued commitment to democratic rule and reconciliation, the latter using the day to emphasise its on-going goal of improving relations with the country and continent.

From a British perspective Malian independence means a whole lot for the residents of Hay-on-Wye in Powys, just on the Welsh-side of the border. Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu and – accordingly – marks Malian independence with fundraising and celebrations. This year it took the form of a week-long multi-cultural affair with displays, cinema, food and music events all aimed at raising funds to help tackle some of it’s twin-town’s most pressing urban problems. In similar festival spirit seen during the Olympic games in London and the arrival of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, displays will line the windows of the town and later this week Mark Saade, Malian Consul, will judge the entries. Good luck, and good fun to everyone there.

Of course, the most important place on Mali Independence Day is Mali itself. This year passes with barely a hint of the optimism or relief from last year‘s celebrations – many people in Mali are now of the opinion that the government has failed to act, is not delivering on its promises and has slipped into the corruptive problems of the past. Regionally, the threat of Ebola looms large, bringing further bad news to an already challenging economic and agricultural recovery.  This does not mean that Malian’s are not down-trodden. Community action appears to be bubbling and Malian’s from many walks of life are motivated to step in, in their government’s absence, to make the changes they wish to see.

This week’s song of the week is for Mali’s youth. The passage at the top of the page is to remind us of all the love, support and admiration we provide for Malian’s and their country, at the end of the day, it is their country and we must celebrate the way they do. Andy Morgan declares that Malian rap music has “taken over” Mali’s music scene. Sequentially, this must mean they have also captured the most popular vehicle for political discourse in the country.

Mali’s rap may not be its most popular musical export to the Western world. However, if you want to know what’s going on in the hearts of everyday Malians – if you want to hear what its people are saying – then Mali’s rap music is definitely the place to begin listening.

Mylmo – Propheciline

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Ali Farka Touré – Ai Du

Following on from a Song of the Week published earlier in the year, another Ali Farka Touré track has been granted the title for the next 7 days. As before this is in order to point to the relationship between American blues artist Corey Harris and the great Malian guitarist Touré.

Harris has recently released a book on Ali Farka Touré, which is certainly the most comprehensive and insightful text on his life since Ali passed away in 2006. Though their music Ali and Corey developed a strong respect for each other, but for Harris it was always Touré who seemed to have more to teach him. Speaking recently at an event at the School  of Oriental and African Studies in London, Harris provided excellent insights into the world of the blues. By sharing his stories he was  able to understand and thus explain more about his identity as an American musician from the deep south, and provide a very sophisticated insight into Mali’s music and society, and Ali’s place within it.

He explained how he first saw Toure in a performance with Ry Cooder in New Orleans whilst the pair were on their 1993/94 ‘Talking Timbuktu‘ tour (incidentally this is the album from which this week’s Song of the Week originates). Recalling the post-show press conference there was, understandably, a lot of interest in this African blues artist. Specifically people wanted to know where did he learn to play like that? How did he learn to play and what made him want to play the blues? People began to speculate over his influences too. Then Ali spoke, cutting across the room to set the record straight: “My music is older than the blues.”

That certainly got their attention.

Corey had already experienced West African music in person from his time living in Cameroon. It was not till 2002 that their paths would cross again. Corey explained, in his easy-going and instantly-likeable manner, how he realised that his music, the American blues, was “not so much a different branch of the same tree, but [Ali’s music] was closer to the root…I could play a segment of his music, but he could play all of mine”. Corey tried to impress Ali with some American blues classics. He played his favourite Henry Stuckey and Skip James upon which Ali – in his typically jolly, affable and childish way – responded by exclaiming “that’s one of our tunes!”

Placed between the very enjoyable stories of their friendship Corey also spoke deeply on slavery, past and present. He also spoke on identity and on the culture that both divides and connects Africa and America. His insights can only extend deeper in what promises to be an excellent book and a must read for anyone who loves Malian music.

Ali Farka Touré – Ai Du