Tag Archives: Mali

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Rokia Traoré – Finini

It has been a good year for Rokia Traoré, as far as success in a musical career can go. She released her 5th studio album, “Beautiful Africa”, and staged a tour that won praise both here, across Europe and in the USA. What is most striking about Traoré is the way she is being described at present. She is being solidified as one of the greats of Malian music. She is continuously being cited alongside legends such as Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure and being heralded for her close association with the Africa Express and her performance at Glastonbury Festival. And though her most recent album has not been applauded by all with the same enthusiasm as in the past, its clear that Rokia Traoré has an enduring class about her work.

This week we roll back the clock to her first album “Mouneïssa“. It was made following a meeting and guidance by Ali Farka Toure, which could explain its more traditional orientation. However, Rokia’s knack for originality and breaking the mould is still easily identifiable. She hints of this with the pairing of the balaba – the large balafon of her region – and the ngoni an instrument favored by Bambara griots. In addition, the album also contains a blend of modern and traditional vocal techniques. This week’s track, Finini, is a great example of this.

Rokia Traoré – Finini


Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Fatoumata Diawara – Kanou

Another great track from World Circuit Records, “Kanou” provides a great summary of what makes Fatoumata Diawara‘s work so good. Despite her relatively young age, Diawara has grown to be a very important and influential artist on the African music scene. She has a professionalism and drive that has made her a leading voice in Mali’s political affairs. She was also one of the Malian big-guns that was parachuted in with the rest of the Africa Express to help revive Mali’s music scene.

This professional drive carries over into her music. Her music is always excellently produced and on this track in particular the guitar and percussion gently and effortlessly glides together in such a deliberate fashion. Finely tuned but still natural and warm at its very core. It makes for delightful listening.


Fatoumata Diawara – Kanou

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Songhoy Blues – Soubour

This week’s track of the week heralds the return of the Africa Express – a collective of African and world musicians led by Damon Albarn. No longer a project of one-off festival performances or extraordinary, train-commandeering super tours but now in the form of a début album entitled “Maison Des Jeunes” which was recorded in Mali in October in just 7 days.

On the Africa Express website it is explained that “Africa Express musicians and producers set up a temporary studio in a city youth club and worked with a new wave of contemporary Malian musicians to complete the album in one week. The club, situated on the banks of the Niger river and known locally as Maison Des Jeunes, became the venue for a week of discovery, collaboration, music-making and live performances.”  With them was a BBC crew that captured the magic as it unfolded, documenting the creative industry of up-and-coming Malian talents working alongside some world greats like Brian Eno and Salif Keita. Since mid-October the BBC have produced two decent reports into how the Africa Express’s arrival serves as a significant milestone for the regeneration of Mali’s music scene in the wake of the conflict.

This week’s track is the result of a collaboration between Timbuktu indie band Songhoy Blues and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner. In their first ever studio session they produced the track ‘Soubour’ and if this racy, adolescent stormer is anything to go by, the rest of the album will be a treat – just check out the list of other contributors.

So, as the place to record its first album, why did the Africa Express choose Mali? For many it is about solidarity. In recognition of the enormous strife that has afflicted Mali’s creative industries over the past two years many foreign artists have been driven by a sense of duty to revive it. For Malian artists it is a home-coming parade of sorts. Many, like legendary Malian guitarist Afel Boucum, thought he would never return to his homeland.

Same is the story for Songhoy Blues. They formed in response to the occupation that saw secular music banned. But the confidence oozing from a commanding riff like the one in ‘Soubour’ suggests that their contribution to Maison des Jeunes is something more than a celebration. It suggests gusty defiance and pride in the fact that they, with many others, stood up and fought their own battle for Mali’s and its music – and won.

Songhoy Blues – Soubour



There will be a “Maison De Jeunes” launch party in East London on the 9th of December. Should be one for any music-lovers diary. For information and tickets see: http://www.rockfeedback.com/concerts/detail/africa-express-album-launch-maison-des-jeunes Hope to see you there.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Issa Bagayogo – Dama

For a man of rural origins, it is brilliant that Issa Bagayogo has become the one Malian musician to be given the nick name “Techno-Issa” in recognition to his experimentation with blending traditional music and the electronic samples. Ever brilliant is the fact that the story could have been very different for Bagayogo. Growing up in the 1960s in rural southern Mali he was first introduced to music through the playing of the daro – a bell that keeps farm workers labouring. He then picked up the kamele n’goni and at the age of 30 left his local successes and the difficulties of agricultural life to take a shot at a musical career in Bamako – an equally difficult journey.

He struck some luck in the form of a pair of Frenchmen who had recently opened a studio and needed a n’goni player. Despite this fortune and successfully producing a cassette of his own money was short and he returned home. Two years later he returned to Bamako to produce his second cassette with similar result. However instead of returning home he became an apprentice bus driver, but depression set in and his health deteriorated.

It could have ended this way, but Chris Nickson explains his incredible turn-around:

“Eventually, however, he decided to turn his life around and began playing and singing again. He returned to the studio, where he met French engineer Yves Wernert and Foamed Koné, who’d been a guitarist in Ali Farka Touré’s band. What they wanted to attempt was something radically different for African music, mixing traditional music with beats and samples. At first Bagayogo was unsure, if only because it was so unlike anything he’d done. He’d never worked with drum machines before and the process proved complex. In late 1998, though, Sya was released, selling a phenomenal 15,000 copies and getting Bagayogo an award in 1999 as Malian song’s Brightest New Hope and the nickname of Techno Issa, in addition enabling him to finally quit his job as an apprentice bus driver.”

This week’s song of the week is from the 2002 album he released shortly after called “Timbuktu”. It was an international hit and Techno Issa became a house-hold name. A powerful story of determination and a struggle quite the contrary to the creative and lively jive he has become known for.


Issa Bagyogo – Dama

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Oumou Sangare – Yala

In our post last week we suggested that Sali Sidibe may have been the “the original Wassoulou musician of this popular age of Malian music”. This undermined Oumou Sangare‘s – as well as many other’s – claim to the title. So this week, it has been decided that we give Oumou a chance to make her own case.

Of course it is impossible to ever decide on these things, but Oumou’s successes are enormous. A Grammy Award Winner, she is sometimes described as the “Songbird of Wassoulou“. Her record label is the great World Circuit Records who describe her in the following way:

“Oumou Sangare is Mali’s great diva, and one of the world’s most astounding female voices. Her idiom is the hauntingly beautiful and hypnotically rhythmic home-grown music that has become her trademark: Wassoulou.”

Sangare has many great songs and she will no-doubt be making another appearance on the Hub in the weeks and months to come, but this week we are putting up a very fun track. Certain to jazz-up any Wednesday morning.

Oumou Sangare – Yala

New President, Old Problems: The early days of IBK’s regime

Men set up a stage for a campaign rally next to a poster for Malian presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) in Bamako, Mali, August 9, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney

Any newly elected executive has a difficult task ahead of them regardless of the events preceding their inauguration. For a President one opening matter is to get the right balance of characters into government and getting the country up and running. Style and the setting of priorities are incredibly important. A coherent, suitably ambitious and achievable agenda for power must be made. Get the pace wrong here and you can promise too much and deliver too little or you can end up picking the wrong fights and risk isolation. The early months of a new government can also fall victim to the reliance on the wave of euphoria that delivered them to power. Some forget that this honeymoon period comes to an abrupt end. If taken for granted, a newly installed premier can find that hope and excitement subsides into disappointment and frustration all too quickly. Just ask Gordon Brown how that feels…

So looking to Mali’s new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (fondly referred to as IBK for short) we can expect the stakes on the early weeks of government to be even higher. A daunting in-tray faces the run-away winner of this year’s elections. How has IBK tried to deliver his election-winning message of peace, unity and technical and administrative competence? Increasingly and ever important for any modern developing world President is external relations, but getting the balance between this and national stability and reconciliation is crucial. These two sides are intrinsically linked yet IBK has urgent issues to address on both fronts – how has he approached this, have some events already forced his hands, and what can we learn already?

Mali’s new cabinet

The first decision that faces any incoming Premier – in this case Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly – is the creation of a cabinet. This is a great way of anticipating the attitude of a government going forward. IBK has certainly made choices to deliver a symbolically unified government. Many of the key appointments are detailed in this article. The prestigious role of Foreign Minister has been handed to Zahaby Ould Sidy Mohamed, a Timbuktu-born Arab from the North who was a senior figure in a rebellion in the 1990s. One of his key tasks will be dealing with the United Nations and issues surrounding the already understaffed MINUSA Peacekeeping deployment picking up from the work of General Secretary Sekouba Cisse. Having an individual from the north represent Mali in this way on the world stage opens the door reconciliation with the north. Mali’s Foreign Minister will arguably be the most important portfolio for providing solutions to Mali’s most pressing needs. Firstly, Mali’s relationship with its West African neighbours will be crucial to the safe return of the thousands of refugees and restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. These countries will be vital to Mali’s economic recovery and in tackling trans-continental organised crime.  Looking further afield, the continued presence of French troops is a reminder of the importance of relations outside of Africa. The US is another key ally in this area as is the EU in the form of a major source of development aid. All in all, the decision to give this important role to a man from Mali’s north is a very encouraging act of trust indeed.

Potential international esteem has been gathered in the form of Boubou Cisse who has been made head of Mali’s Mining Ministry and Bouare Fily Sissoko the country’s new Finance Minister. Both Cisse and Sissoko have experience to draw on from their recent work at the World Bank as well as contacts to exploit. Sissoko is also one of four women in Mali’s 34 person strong Cabinet. Seeing women be given prominent roles is promising and perhaps deserves more credit – Mali has matched the number of women in David Cameron’s reshuffled cabinet of 27. An act of continuity comes with the appointment of Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga as Defence Minister who held the position under President Alpha Oumar Konare and the intriguing re-appointment of Territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and Transport Minister Abdoulaye Koumare. Both these men held these posts under the military junta who came to power through the coup in 2012 and their inclusion would hopefully have the positive effect of appeasing or even bring the disgruntled elements of the military on-side. However, their presence in government could be questioned on the grounds of legitimacy – are these men here on merit – as argued here – or as a result of the coup have they effectively made their way into Mali’s political class by force?

Managing prevailing instability

On paper this cabinet shows the breadth and depth of character and experience to deliver on IBK’s promises.  There is a theme of inclusivity and a good mixture of old and new faces. Their arrival however has not coincided with the timely arrival of a stable and peaceful Mali. The towns of Gao and Kidal in the north-east of the country continue to be the centre of a very precarious security situation. On the 7th of October, in the first attacks in several months, the rebel group Mujao have claimed the life of a Malian soldier after he sustained fatal injuries from rocket fire. At the same time the city of Kidal has only very recently been brought under government control. It recapture was not an easy task for government forces who mounted their assault just before peace talks with the MNLA were due to begin. The decision to pursue the MNLA aggressively at this time seems ill-judged and disjointed and has now placed further strain on negotiations.

Kidal City (almost) open. Source:  Jeune Afrique

The armed groups in the north appear to be in retreat. Contrary to this more optimistic assessment a terrifying document has emerged. An 80 page “Islamist road map” that written around 12 months ago has been discovered. It is thought that the document was prepared for al-Qaeda. Its contents could explain the change in the strategy of al-Qaeda and other armed groups in northern Mali. It reveals a significant rift occurred midway through last year’s insurgency and confirms that some figures within the rebel networks correctly predicted the problem of insurgency over-reach. They claimed that the ambition to make a charge for Bamako would inevitably lead to the involvement of international forces. As a result, the prospect of military defeat became a far more likely outcome. A rush to Bamako would spell disaster for the wider objectives al-Qaeda had for the Sahel and was an unnecessary risk. These individuals were right. In light of the rebels failure to advance south the recommendations of the 80 page document may have only been heeded now. Is AQIM defeated or in a tactical retreat?

Crucially, this document details how al-Qaeda must not rely on the military capacity of its insurgents. Instead it must emerge newly configured with the intention of implementing Sharia law slowly to earn the trust of locals. Is al-Qaeda regrouping, rethinking and slowly re-emerging in Northern Mali? If this is being pursued it would bring the improving security situation into dispute. Indeed, at the end of September more than a dozen people “were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack in a Malian army camp in the city of Timbuktu”. The likely aim of this horrendous act of terror attack was to crush the confidence of the Malian people, destabilise the morale of the army itself and tarnish the army as a symbol of government stability – right in the heart of Mali’s northern territories. Al-Qaeda has resorted to a fight for hearts and minds – not territory. It would be beneficial to them to make peace talks look like a government failure.

This is not a time for IBK to be drawn into a false sense of security. Was cutting his trip to France short a wise move? Probably, but in returning home does IBK look like he is buckling to Al-Qaeda pressure? Or does he come across as a man who knows that his country needs him most of all in the support of domestic peace negotiations? It’s an archetypal rock and a hard place situation.

No time to be complacent

The instability is not only a rebel-induced situation in the north, but civic tensions prevail across the country Bamako included.  Al-Qaeda and the rest of the loosely-affiliated patchwork of rebel groups still active in the Sahel appear to be making a new war of hearts and minds. IBK and the new government must take forward the principle of unity and inclusivity symbolised in their own ranks and make it a reality on the ground.  IBK has looked unflustered through-out his opening months as President. Is this professionalism or complacency? He maintains a calming presence by citing the virtues of the UN and MINUSA and by displaying the support he has from his army. At the same time, it is worth remembering that for last decade Mali has been regarded as a democratic example for the whole of Africa to follow. This view has been dramatically revised over the past months. Criticism has been levelled at the West for insisting on a narrow notion of democracy in their assessment of the country. However “it was the pre-coup status quo that led to collapse”. It appears that for IBK – as for any government – there is an urgent need to continue the strong, symbolic start and to deliver on election pledges swiftly. We will have to see whether IBK’s approach is evidence of a firm hand or “impotence” in the face of Mali’s ongoing security dilemma.

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

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