Category Archives: Song of the Week

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Sali Sidibe – Yacouba Sylla

This week’s song was a discovery of complete chance. The song was found whilst researching the life of the Aston Villa player Yacouba Sylla – who is also from Mali. Believing this song may be about the young midfielder it was a strange to read that this week’s song was written in 1996 when the footballer was only 6 years old.

In the opinion of the person who posted the song onto YouTube Sali Sidibe is:

“One of Mali’s greatest female vocalists and recorded her first singles in the ’60s and helped lay the foundation for the Wassoulou music sound of the ’80s. She was also a former singer with the National Ensemble of Mali.”

They continue stating that:

“Her earthy, powerful vocals are set to a unique blend of didai, sigui, and sogonikun dance rhythms. In 1993 she released her first solo album, Wassoulou Foli.”

This high opinion is reiterated by Frank Bessem:

“In the footsteps of the pioneers Kagbe Sidibé and Coumba Sidibé, Sali became one of the most popular Wassoulou singers in Mali.”

Wassoulou is a region of deep south-western Mali on the borders of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. It’s music – performed mostly by women uses traditional instruments like the soku and the kamalen n’goni (a six-stringed harp) in a progressive manner; placing women in a position to address the vocalise on issues that concern them. The prominence of Wassoulou music may go some way to explain how some liberties for women are respected highly despite Malian society on the whole being ranked as one of the world’s most unequal. Legendary Wassoulou musician Oumou Sangaré for example found great resonance, fame and popularity across West Africa for using her songs to address the issue of freedom of choice in marriage.

But according to Frank Bessem, Sidi Sidibe had had a musical hit in Mali before “anyone had heard of Oumou Sangaré“. Perhaps Sidi Sidibe was the original Wassoulou musician of this popular age of Malian music. However, it is not yet understood who the original Yacouba Sylla was.

If we ever find out we’ll let you know.

Sidi Sidibe – Yacouba Sylla

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

SMOD – Les Dirigeants Africains

SMOD is a music group formed in 2000. The name SMOD is an acronym of the first letters of the names of the founding band members, however the ‘M’ – for Mouzy – left to pursue a music career in Europe shortly after the band was founded. They all remain close friends.

SMOD is made up of three hip-hop inspired young Malian MCs. ‘S’ – for Sam – is the son of hit double act Amadou and Mariam. Through Sam’s parents SMOD met the highly successful Spanish/French singer Manu Chao and have since created several works with him. Through their association with him and other Malian artists they have quickly gained recognition. A leap into the spot light for SMOD came when they performed in both the Opening and Closing ceremonies for the 2002 African Cup of Nations football tournament that was hosted in Mali.

Their musical style is typical of young African rappers. They represent a break from the traditional perception of what Malian music is as well as what hip-hop is about. Below are Andy Morgan’s comments following an interview with the group:

“No mincing words or metaphors. No ancient musical traditions that cosy up to power. No decadent ghetto fabulous fantasies. None of that. Just plain rhyming about the simple truth that everyone can see out of his or her window.”

Andy’s article chart’s their history very well. It also points out that African rap in general has taken up hip-hop’s rebellious cause in is own way, which is expressed elegantly by SMOD. Even before the recent political crisis and coup SMOD were vocalising their fears surrounding Malian unity. Throughout the crisis they have worked “more than ever” for hope and unity. They express a sense of responsibility that artists have to raise funds – particularly abroad – to help support efforts at home.

This week’s track is an example at one of their more negative appraisals; this time of the African leadership. The song is not angry though. More disappointed, tired and resigned. It also has a fairly well put together music video – an increasingly vital part of the upcoming generation’s strategy for global recognition.


SMOD – Les Dirigeants Africains


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal – Mama FC

Ballaké Sissoko is about to embark on the UK tour. Starting with an appearance on BBC Two’s Later….with Jools Holland on the 29th of October, Sissoko along with his Quartet and special guest Babani Kone – and impressive musician in her own right – will be touring the UK through the whole of November. His performance in London will form part of the London Jazz Festival.

When Ballaké Sissoko last appeared as the Track of the Week it was with a track from his most recent album – the one he is presumably promoting through the tour above. However, this week we return to some of his earlier work with cellist Vincent Segal. Their collaborative works were released as in an album entitled  “Chamber Music”. This masterpiece rocketed both artists into international recognition and Sissoko has been regarded as one of the great kora players of the modern age by ever more people ever since.

To celebrate and welcome Ballaké to the United Kingdom this week’s track returns to this great collaboration. It shows off some of his greatest traits; his mastery of the kora, his trademark delicacy and effortlessness, and the soothing and subtle approach to music that must make him a dream to work alongside. Nothing is left to chance. One commentator even makes that points that “the silences are full of meaning”.

Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal – Mama FC

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Toumani Diabaté – Jarabi

Continuing the recent posts of Malian griots, today’s track of the week is our second Toumani Diabaté song so far.

Considered by many to be “the world’s greatest kora player“, Diabaté will be entertaining London in the Royal Festival Hall in November. Again he comes from a rich family of kora players and oral historians including his father Sidiki Diabaté who recorded the first ever kora album in 1970.

His own research shows that his family have been doing this for 71 generations. Hundreds of years of human learning, knowledge and experience. History is contained in his work and that of his own family – which continues to make history also. To some of us it must appear strange for a person’s life’s work to be destined so. The on-going instability and violence in Mali are a threat to their existence – much like conflict is a threat to anything endangered and precious in the world. Luckily, due to the joy and respect for griots the world over there is a new generation taking up the reigns.

For now, with Toumani Diabaté, we still have an example of a generation that is still undoubtedly at its best.

Toumani Diabaté – Jarabi


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba – Jama ko

Bassekou Kouyate is the one of the best and indeed the most famous ngoni player of his generation. Other greats include Cheick Hamala Diabaté and Issa Bagayogo, all following on from the legendary, Malian “national treasure”, Bazoumana Sissoko who was blind from the moment he was born. Sissoko was from the Ségou region of Central Mali and also happens to be Bassekou Kouyate’s grandfather.

“Ngoni ba” is the name of Kouyate’s band. The ngoni itself has many varieties but is essentially a banjo-like stringed instrument with a body and neck made of wood or calabash and a dried animal skin stretched over its body. Kouyate’s international identity has become synonymous with that his of the ngoni so much so that his Wikipedia page and the page of the instrument use the same photograph.  The ngoni is a historic instrument going back around – or at least – 800 years.

Kouyate is a griot – a ‘oral historian/musician’ as described in last week’s “Track of the Week”. His fame is appreciated by many as being a vital boost to the ngoni musical tradition – through which much history and knowledge is carried – which was at a risk of dying out. Also helping the cause are two of Kouyate’s sons who play alongside their mother and father in Ngoni ba.

Again, through the on-going crisis, he has been a welcome boost to the cultural values of Mali. This week’s track “Jama ko” is the title track of his 2013 album. On the inside cover Bassekou explains:

“Jama ko means ‘a great meeting of people’: you may be rich or poor, Muslim or Christian, let’s get together and enjoy ourselves. Jama ko, c’est pour tout le monde…There are over 90% Muslims in Mali, but our form of Islam here has nothing to do with a radical form of Sharia: that is not our culture. We have been singing praise songs for the Prophet for hundreds of years. If the Islamists stop people music making they will rip the heart out of Mali.”

In response, Kouyate ensures that Mali’s heart is going nowhere. Take a look at the music video for “Jama ko” – it is exactly what it says it will be. The YouTube poster states that the video is “a cry for tollerance [sic] and peace. Bassekou invited the Christian community, Muslims, Touareg friends like Manny Ansar (head of the festival au desert), the tailor from next door and many other people to celebrate the open spirit of Mali. Bassekou launched the video on TV in Bamako on Africable and ORTM to spread the message.”

In addition to the above, or perhaps as a result, it is a fantastic party track too.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba – Jama ko

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Rokia Traoré – Ka Moun Ké

The story of Rokia Traoré usually starts with a discussion about caste in Malian society. Though music is very much the life-blood of Malian society its creation and practice has traditionally been regarded as a profession of a “certain lowly caste” called “griots“. Now, this description of a “lowly caste” is slightly at odds with the perception of a griot as “something of a societal leader due to his traditional position as an adviser to royal personages”. The best comparison that can be made in a British perspective is that of a bard.

However, unlike bards, griots are not a a thing of the past. Originating from the 13th Century Mali Empire they continue to serve a crucial role in Mali today.  Naturally, they have modernised. For example Bakari Sumano – the head of Malian association of griots till his death in 2003 – acted as a consultant to UNESCO and participated in seminars around the world.

So, why does this matter to the story of Rokia Traoré? Stacia Proefrock explains:

“Rokia Traore’s family was both a blessing and a curse for her musical career. Her father was a diplomat and she spent her childhood travelling over several continents, to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and France. There she was exposed to a variety of styles of music, from classical, jazz, and pop to Indian traditional composition. However, her family was also part of Mali’s nobility, which has traditional caste prohibitions against their members making music.”

Luckily for us, the listener, her family – though not initially keen on her musical ambitions – were not strict enough to prevent her from pursuing it. Her adventures around the world have had a profound effect on her music, producing a  worldly blend of traditional and modern instruments fashioned in her own personalised style.

This week’s track is a great example of the above. It shows her characteristically strong but smooth vocals over a gentle minimalist mix of traditional Malian sounds over a rhythm of electric guitar and a steady jazz beat.

Rokia Traoré – Ka Moun Ké

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Samba Touré – Be Ki Don

Born close to Diré near the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, Ibrahima Samba Touré is a successful Malian guitarist and singer. The quality of Samba’s artistry is best signified by that fact he used to be in Ali Farka Touré’s band and was invited by Toumani Diabaté to recreate his mentor’s work on his Ali Farka Touré Variations tour.

This week’s track comes from his most recent album “Albala” which means “Danger” and has many politically motivated tracks on it, as well as those created as a response to Samba’s experience with the recent turmoil.  He is known for his cool and glittering guitar solos backed by a hypnotic roll of acoustic, bass and electric guitars in an “insistent” rhythm section. In this manner “Be Ki Don” does not disappoint.


Samba Touré – Be Ki Don

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Ali Farka Touré – Timbindy

This week sees Mali celebrate its 53rd year of independence from France. Due to the intense sadness of recent years and the recovery that is battling bravely into life, this year’s independence parties and ceremonies will no doubt have a different feel to them. Amongst the celebrations it appears that for many the day will still be a time to reflect and look back on what Mali has endured. The new President will use the day as a way of forwarding national reconciliation by organising a get together of all former Heads of State, including previous military leaders.

Back in February, some argued persuasively that the military intervention of France would undermine the perceived independence of Mali in months and years to come.  On the other hand, it is widely accepted that the French intervention “brought Mali back from the brink” of total collapse.

Independence is a difficult concept to measure. Perhaps Mali’s sense of independence is still on the mend and the successful election process has been the most important aspect in its re-assertion since the intervention – Malians can begin to feel that they are back in control of their country.

Is it the same country?

This week’s track is from way back, long before Mali was a democracy. It has an undetermined date of when it was first written and it was recorded originally in the 1970s. “Timbindy” was released on Ali’s 1984 “Red” album – so called due to the bright red sleeve the record was contained in. Legendary broadcaster Andy Kershaw first heard of Ali Farka Touré by a chance selection from a Parisian record shop’s bargain-bin.  Immediately it was clear to him – his radio listeners – that this guy was special and had “just got it” and soon Farka Touré was in the UK and his world wide fame flourished. Many Malians will reflect, remember and reconcile this weekend. Looking back  provides us with reasons to look ahead too. Difficulties hit the Sahel in the early 90s, with violence in the north and political unrest and revolution resulted in deaths and political instability. Democracy, stability and economic growth eventually won the day, yet the recent return to violence has made many question if this was ever the recovery they thought they had achieved. Nevertheless, Mali’s people can be hopeful that their country will recover. The 12 months since their last independence day have been the some of the most difficult of Mali’s modern history. Again, democracy and stability prevailed. Of course the situation remains incredible fragile and complex. And although Mali’s resilience is difficult to explain, it is easy to observe.

By going a long way back, this week’s Track of The Week is a small symbolic way of illustrating not only the enduring and timeless strength of Mali’s music, but also of Mali itself.


Ali Farka Touré – Timbindy

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Ali Farka Touré – Diaraby

Ali Farka Touré…

Ever since the Mali Track of the Week started it has been difficult not to queue-up thirty Ali Farka Touré songs. He was one of Africa’s most internationally recognised musicians and is still the modern reference point for all Malian musicians trying to make it big on the world stage.

There is too much to say about Ali to do him justice here. At the time of his death in March 2006, the BBC 3 broadcast this hour long obituary as a tribute to his life, the spirit of his music, and to mark the passing of a great man  – told from the very people who knew him best and loved him most. In particular, the obituary opens with a vibrant snippet of party life on a boat, on the Niger river, heading to Timbuktu and captures the moment that Ali himself climbs aboard. Magical moments. May times like these return in full-swing soon.

So now to the impossible task of finding a track to do all the above justice. This week’s track is taken from his 1994 album “Talking Timbuktu” created in collaboration with American guitarist/producer Ry Cooder – the mastermind producer behind the “Buena Vista Social Club”.  It’s the final, parting track on a gift of an album.

So difficult was this choice the Mali Track of the Week will have back-to-back songs from Ali Farka Touré. This is a special gesture to celebrate Mali’s up-coming Independence Day (22nd of September) and also to mark the great progress made by the Mali Development Group over the last 12 months.

Please, above all, enjoy Ali Farka Touré’s “Diaraby”.

Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder – Diaraby

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Tinariwen – Tenere Taqqim Tossam

Tinariwen are one of Mali’s most successful bands. Malian music is more or less dominated by powerful and iconic characters. Many of course play with support bands, but on festival billings and album covers the name is usually only the name of the superstar member playing the dominant instrument e.g. Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté.

Naturally, therefore, Tinariwen being a band means that their songs are dominated less by one instrument, building instead songs where each instrument contributes to the rhythm and are varied in tempo, style and mood.

This week’s track comes from their 5th studio album “Tassili” and the track itself is their first single release. This album was actually recorded in Algeria- their only album to date to have been recorded outside of Mali – however the band originates from the most northerly Saharan part of Mali. Their name comes from the Tamasheq – Tuareg language – for “The People of the Deserts” – Kel Tinariwen. However after receiving military training in Lybia as young men, it is explained in the bio on their own website that if there was ‘one image’ that could summarise Tinariwen it was “that of Touareg rebels leading the charge, machine gun in hand and electric guitar slung over the shoulder.”

The band itself can be seen as a case of successful demobilisation, at least on a micro scale, despite devastatingly impoverishing conditions. Many of those that fought in the war were not as fortunate. After the ceasefire of 1994, the band – already gaining in popularity regionally – moved back to Mali. In their own words they “became the spokespeople of a generation which looked on helplessly as their harvests thinned, their animal herds wasted away and their world slowly crumbled.” Each successive album has been a greater and greater success and their international stature only seems to increase.

Tinariwen is obviously made up of emotive and hardy people. The keen-spirited nature of “Tenere Taqqim Tossam” and the album “Tissili” is a perhaps intentional. The band point out that the album was their first attempt to “ditch” the gun-wielding image of the band described above. A new album is apparently on its way, as is a UK tour, however details are thin on the ground. We will have to wait and see if and how the events of the years since “Tissili” was released in 2011 have affected the bands musical compositions.

But for now, enjoy Tinariwen’s “Tenere Taqqim Tossam.”

Tinarwien – Tenere Taqqim Tossam