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


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