Tag Archives: blues

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Boubcar Traoré – Benidiagnamogo

Back in 2003, Robert Plant – best known for his incredible voice as lead singer for Led Zeppelin – made a journey to the Malian Sahara to perform at the Festival Au Desert. Plant has travelled and experimented with all kinds of world music during his 30-plus year career as a solo artist. Working with a great range of American, European and African artists, Plant has refused to wallow in former glories and has instead kicked on, showing great respect and humility for his own achievements is reference to music the world over. His trip to Mali and his respect of the country since appear to fit neatly into this world view. Reflecting on his trip, he said it was;

“….a journey that could only reinforce the power and the great gift of music across and between cultures. Sharing outside of language. A world where, for awhile at least, borders, boundaries and barriers once again fell away…as it was long ago.”

Whilst he was on there Robert Plant made video recordings of everywhere he went, sometimes deferring camera-pointing responsibilities to his son Logan. The videos were in no way shot in a egotistical way as you may expect from a rock n’ roll front man. In fact, they are the complete opposite. He released the videos as a mini-series where in the opening episode Plant himself only really features once, and even then he can only be seen unflatteringly asleep on a plane. The series is instead an observation on Malian life. The cities, the journeys, the dunes, the people and of course, the music. Plant’s own affinity with blues and country must have set his mind whirring as he indulged into the country’s musical life blood and his artistry allowed him to capture and compose it exquisitely.

So this week’s song is a tip of the hat to Mr Plant who so respectfully and completely portrays Malian society with him – with all his musical prowess – playing the character of the novice and humble observer. The opening sequence of the video features Boubcar Traoré’s song Benidiagnamogo. A great, if not strikingly familiar choice for Plant – does anyone else hear Bron-Yr-Aur?


Boubcar Traoré – Benidiagnamogo

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Terakaft – Awa Adounia

Terakaft’s music, along with the music of Tinariwen and other music groups from the Malian desert region, is often described as ‘droning’. The architecture of their songs is frequently turned into a metaphor about the desert. Though a romantic way of imaging the music and the way it was written, but it could also be interpreted as a way of a critic saying that it is monotonous, dry, repetitive and fairly featureless.  Admittedly, for an outsider this metaphor feels like a fantastic way of imaging the world that these musicians inhabit. The intrigue surrounding the great Sahara desert is certainly a good marketing tool, and the musicians seem to enjoy talking about their music in this way.

When the music is so enjoyable, and their world feels so exotic and far away, why not get caught up with it all and imagine the desert scene in your mind, the caravan winding away through the dunes? There is a fear however that constant references to the geography and the nomadic lifestyle many of their people still lead simplifies the music under review – does this imagery cause us to forget the sophistication present throughout Terakaft’s music? When reading a review about the British rock band Muse do we endlessly read about how their music mirrors the rolling hills of Dartmoor, or how the tone of the vocals recalls images of the English Channel?

Perhaps that goes a little too far, but its a point worth considering. Anyway, let’s set that record straight. This week’s song of the week is a fantastic song, with the guitar work proving especially excellent. Look out for the mid-section, where the music imitates the sound of a lap steel guitar made famous in American blues, with the slide deployed to warp the rhythm slightly – in addition to the atmospheric production – to keep you on your toes. This theme is extended and is captured brilliantly in the sudden change of rhythm to accentuate the guitar solo. The beat is simplified and increased in tempo, to round off the song in crescendo.

Terakaft – Awa Adounia

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

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Ali Farka Touré & Corey Harris – Cypress Grove

This week’s track is to mark the unveiling of a statue of Ali Farka Touré in Bamako last weekend.  Here he joins up with American blues and reggae guitarist/vocalist Corey Harris. Ali Farka Touré once boldly asserted that the beloved American musical genre was “nothing but African”. His claim has scholarly backing too – notably from ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik. The relationship between American music and that of Africa is a truly fascinating area of study. Indeed for those of you out there who are intrigued by musical history to get you started on this subject here is a handy introductory excerpt from Gerhard Kubik’s book Africa and the Blues. Explained in the book is the general theory that:

“…the American blues were a logical development that resulted from specific processes of cultural interaction among eighteenth- to nineteenth-century African descendants in the United States, under certain economic and social conditions”.

Though it is worth adding that this ‘cultural interaction’ and ‘certain economic and social conditions’ were not always terribly pretty.

Leaving the history lesson behind we fast-forward to the 21st century. In 2002 the collaborative album ‘Mississippi to Mali‘ by Corey Harris was released. On this album Ali Farka Touré features playing under Harris’s vocals in a cover of the Skip James song Cypress Grove Blues, originally recorded in 1931.

Ali Farka Touré & Corey Harris – Cypress Grove