Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Djelimady Tounkara – Mansa (Mali)

The Malian griot of the modern age faces a dilemma that his or her ancestors didn’t really encounter.  Griots have always been able to attract great followings and reputations. However, the wide spread accessibility to analogue and now digital broadcasting and recording has warped the social mobility of griots and their audiences have boomed. There is a generation of a certain age that had to encounter this for the first time.  It presented a different set of difficulties to the griot ‘caste’ than in the context of contemporary, youthful Malians like Rokia Traore. People like Tounkara and Ali Farka Toure were pioneers.

As described in Worldmusic.net‘s The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends, Djelimady – despite growing up surrounded by traditional music being played by his family – was told by his parents that yes, becoming a musician was a nice idea but perhaps he should pursue something more ‘practical’. On this Tounkara and his parents disagreed, with Djelimady believing that upon arriving in Bamako from his home-town of Kita he would become a tailor. His parents hoped he would become a marabout – a scholarly Muslim cleric.

It seems that fate and his ancestry would win the day and decades later Tounkara is now widely regarded as one of his country’s greatest ever guitarists. Indeed, whilst living in Kita (a town that punches remarkably above its weight in producing musical talents) as a young man Tounkara gained a reputation as a good drummer and excellent guitarist – regarded as the best by many. This reputation led to his graduation from the government-sponsored neighbourhood band Orchestre Misira to the Orchestre National – an impressive feat and a great honour.

Fate played its part again in the early 1970s with Tournkara’s meeting with Salif Keita – an individual already destined to dominate African and world music. Despite President Moussa Traoré‘s “cataclysmic” decision to disband all state-sponsored bands, Tournkara’s career accelerated whilst being a part of Keita’s ‘Rail Band’. Disruption to the band’s membership and high-profile exits promoted Tournkara to the lime-light as lead-guitarist. This responsibility cemented his perception in the minds of Malian’s that he was one of their country’s greatest ever. He has worked on several fantastic collaborations, and was one of the many unlucky African musicians to miss out on the highly succesful and iconic Buena Vista Social Club project due to visa troubles. This was later redeemed following Tournkara’s involvement in the collaborative epic AfroCubism.

As a result of all the above it is not as surprising, perhaps, to learn that he only produced his first solo album ‘Sigui’ in 2001. However, exploring this award-winning work will have to wait, as this week’s track in an older classic that showcases his mastery of the rhythm guitar – a much overlooked discipline when one thinks of “guitar legends”.

Djelimady Tounkara – Mansa (Mali)

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