Tag Archives: Mali

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

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Les Sofas de la République – Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia

So far the Mali Track of the Week has been generally selected from a bluesy artist which has achieved particular recognition in the Western world. This week’s entry hopes to shake this up a little.

Hip-hop or Rap music is arguably the most revolutionary and influential addition to the art form to arise in the last 30 years. Its distinctive sound is delivered inseparably to its unique cultural and political perspectives. In the 1990s and 2000s hip-hop became a global change-making powerhouse which has left no stone unturned. Its power as a vehicle for societal change emphasised most strikingly by Jay-Z’s inclusion in Time Magazine’s world-wide list of the 100 most influential people of 2013. Note that unlike in other years where a rapper has been listed under ‘artists’, Jay-Z had broken through, listed under the emphatic title of ‘Titan’ in an article written by the Mayor of New York City.

Rap music has been on the scene in Mali since the 1990s. Unsurprisingly, hip-hop’s strengths in articulating grievance, injustice, marginalisation but also hope, loyalty and determination has found many followers. One example of which is this week’s track from Les Sofas de la République.

Les Sofas get their name from the warriors of Samory Touré – one of Africa’s great king’s who during the 19th century fought for African freedom and fiercely resisted French imperialism. They are a collective of musicians who have a very active and engaged history as shown in this fascinating article. Andy Morgan writes of the group who formed the day after Captain Sanogo’s military coup of March 22nd 2012 in his book Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali:

‘Les Sofas aren’t your classic ‘band’ as such, think of them more as a rap posse, a self-help association, a pressure group, a political party, an educational charity and a think tank, all rolled into one.’

Les Sofas’s song ‘Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia’ (which translates as ‘Leave Us In Peace!’) was also created in reaction to a deeply troubling and violent political development. The song was released following an attack on May 21st 2012 on the Presidential Palace in Bamako by – in Morgan’s words – ‘a mob of protesters stirred up by Sanogo and opposition parties’. Morgan notes the song’s potent lyrics and how Les Sofas use the song to describe their mood, and the mood of many other Malians, following the attack; that all that was precious in their country and that was good about their politics had been lost to a violent and aloof struggle for power:

“Taking up arms Malians, fiercer and fiercer yeaah. Taking up arms and making blood flow yeaah. Making tears flow and making us lose time, bothering us with stupid details…Our relatives are dying up in the north while we try and agree on who will take the tiller.”

Powerful and provocative. Thought-provoking and fearless; doing what hip-hop does best.


Les Sofas de la République – Aw Ya to An Ka Lafia

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Sidi Touré – Ni See Ay Ga Done

Sidi Touré is a guitarist from the Songhaï region of Northern Mali.  The Songhaï region once had a medieval Empire of the same name ruling over it with its capital city in Gao – the modern city being a place of severe and on-going instability despite the arrival of peacekeepers and elections. With this in mind, it is fitting that Sidi’s music captures the traditional tones that many feel is the key to Malian music’s global popularity.

Sidi Touré was one of many contributors of a stunning event at the Barbican in London back in January. Musicians performing in exile at the height of the crisis. Sidi is right up there with Mali’s most exciting and famous artists, despite only really hitting the international scene in 2011. This week’s track shows off the pacey, multi-layered, traditional blend that has become Sidi Touré’s unique identity.


Sidi Touré – Ni See Ay Ga Done

The most important tweet in Mali’s history?


At 2:44pm on the 12th of August 2013, Soumaila Cissé sent arguably the most important tweet in Mali’s history. As the defeated candidate in Mali’s run-off Presidential election, he summarised in no less than 113 characters the strong, positive spirit that his country had expressed over the election period. Though the UN has reported that the second-round of elections occurred ‘without major incident,’ the jury should still be out till all data has been processed whether the logistical fears surrounding the elections materialised. It does appear that the greatest criticisms cited about these early elections – namely reprisal violence – have not occurred. As the BBC’s man in Bamako, Abdourahmane Dia, writes:

Mali seems to be headed towards a peaceful end of its electoral process after Soumaila Cisse conceded to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita following Sunday’s run-off vote.

This is yet another example that politics is not an exact science -many had predicted chaos if Mali held elections so soon. France, anxious to get its troops out of Mali after routing Islamist militants from northern regions earlier this year, faced criticism for pushing for early polls.

Yet the electoral success lies more with the Malian people, who firmly believed the polls would end an era of turmoil.”

Though it is correct that these elections have occurred “without major incident” the difficulties and trauma experienced by some who were simply trying to cast your vote cannot be forgotten. It has been reported that individual Malian’s have been frequently intimidated and sometimes killed trying to vote. A chilling reminder to anyone reading from the Western world of awfully underappreciated our democratic rights sometime appear.

Importantly for Malian’s, Cissé rounded off his most gracious of election defeats with a vow to create a strong and credible opposition. Malian television showed images of Soumaila Cissé going with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home. The whole end to the election process was a national occasion. “Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.” Another man interviewed in the street said “I was moved to tears when I heard of what Soumaila had done. He has freed this country from any problems.” Despite all his humility, it is worth mentioning that Cissé still cited some concerns over voting fraud.

With all the news about Soumaila Cissé, it is important to remember that Mali has a new President with plenty of work to do. There is plenty of information about Ibrahim Keita on the internet. The challenges sitting in his overflowing and newly acquired in-tray are enormous. The Huffington Post immediately centres Keita’s premiership on the issue of the Tuareg while The Guardian emphasises the difficulties in reigniting the economy and managing the flow of international aid after years of endemic mismanagement. If these elections are really meant to serve as a new chapter for Mali, and putting the turmoil behind, then politics and governance must start now. Cissé appears to already begun his job. Now we will have to wait and see what IBK’s plans to do first to take his country forward.

How much can these elections put a line under Mali’s troubles? Another tweet offers a more measured and reflective point. Freelance journalist Peter Tinti aptly points out that though the elections serve as a crucial first step it is important to “keep in mind” that Mali’s problems of the last 20 years have not come from the lack of free and fair elections. The greater challenge that awaits Mali’s new incumbents – and opposition – is to resume the mission of building strong institutions. Though elections have evidently been successful in beginning national reconciliation, Mali needs to expand its democratic credentials and not rely purely on the existence of ballot boxes. It is a promising start, but a lot still needs to be done.

Indeed these successful elections are more cause for ’a collective sigh of relief’ rather than celebrations in the streets.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Ballaké Sissoko – Nalesonko (live)

The kora (or cora) is a beautiful and elegant instrument in sound and appearance. Traditionally it is a 21-string harp but formed with a resonator and neck much like a guitar. The resonator is formed from half of a large calabash vegetable covered in a cow skin with the neck made of a long piece of hard wood. They are played extensively across West Africa and Ballaké Sissoko is one of the best surely only ranking second to the “uncontested star” of the kora Toumani Diabaté – who some may remember had the honour of being our first Mali Track of the Week back in July.

Sissoko became world famous with his magical – borderline legendary – collaboration “Chamber Music” created with French cellist Vincent Segal. Two years on the magic has not diminished and this week’s track “Nalesonko” comes from Sissoko’s 2013 album “At Peace”. Segal is ever present in this new venture but takes up a different role as discussed in this review for NPR music. Where Segal plays more of an overseeing role this time Sissoko launches in, centre-stage, showing off the full delights of the kora throughout.

This week’s track is one of those that has only one flaw – it ends. Enjoy listening and watching this one.


Ballaké Sissoko – Natesonko

Peacekeeping and Elections: logistics reveal flaws of both

#Photo Peacekeepers put on new blue berets marking start of #UN Mission in #Mali @UN_MINUSMA http://ow.ly/mych9 pic.twitter.com/F5wrCAvoXQ – Courtesy of @unpeacekeeping

Mali’s economy had been torn to pieces over the last months. Economic growth figures indicated a 1.2% contraction for 2012 – the first contraction since 2001. This is despite “a good agricultural season” and steady revenues from gold extraction which are thought to have helped buffer Mali against even further economic woe.

Conflicts are inherently tumultuous but life simply has to continue. Where it cannot, it flees. People still need to find food, barter for materials, find shelter and fuel. War and violence in does not only destroy economic activity but in can also warp it; corrupting conventional channels of trade and commerce and therefore creates new opportunities for illicit and sinister ways of generating wealth. Mali has seen thousands lose their livelihoods. Though in the security void and amongst the chaos organised crime and drugs trafficking – its primary source of finance – has thrived.

Conflict-hit economies must be understood to have winners as much as they produce losers. It is with this in mind that the issue of peacekeeping must be approached. Why? Only recently has the United Nations been made aware of the enormous economic impact the deployment of a peacekeeping force has. By simply being deployed in Mali, the 12,600 strong UN Peacekeeping force – called MINSUMA – that has just arrived is already interacting and influencing Malian economics.

Peacekeeping soldiers and their support staff are usually paid enormous salaries compared to the average citizen of a country they operate in. Also the UN’s expenditure on associated services like offices, mechanics and accommodation represent an enormous injection for the local economy. The UN’s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous stated earlier this month that Mali represented “unique challenges” due to its ravaged infrastructure. The arrival of a Peacekeeping force can be massive for small economies, and change them forever. For example, in the case of the UN Peacekeeping forces that were deployed in Timor-Leste (UNTAET), Liberia (UNMIL), Kosovo (UNMIK) and Burundi (ONUB) mission expenditure in the local economy accounted for up to and over 6% of the host country’s entire Gross Domestic Product. To put that into perspective: all the expenditure on education in the UK public and private – including student subsidies – is only 5.6% of Britain’s total GDP. For Mali the arrival of a peacekeeping mission may not only mean security, but prosperity.

Mali’s economy certainly needs a boost. This article reminds us of the continuing devastation in the country. However, Peacekeeping money can be dangerous, especially when we remember that in a conflict economy illicit and sinister forces are usually better placed to exploit new opportunities. The Peacekeeping force has already gained some recognition for its ability to negotiate access with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in some remote northern territories to provide a safe environment for brave Malians to come out and vote.

A #Mali refugee proudly shows his NINA card, a biometric ID doc to vote in #elections http://twitpic.com/d53v8v by @HeleneCaux – Courtesy of @refugees

However, like the Presidential elections, the current Peacekeeping operation can be equally criticised for having a regional bias. In Bamako the election looked like an election – campaign rallies and billboards. In the north, however, 500,000 Malians remain displaced. Some feel that the impact of Ramadan, especially in the sparsely populated north, has not been fully considered. It has been suggested that Malian authorities were under intense pressure to have early elections by western donor countries (that have constitutional requirements surrounding the need for elections that blocks aid payments) which meant that national voting cards were only sent out a month before the date of election – a huge administrative challenge. A good audio interview weighing up the difficulties of holding the Malian elections is available here. There is nothing to suggest that the impacts and benefits of a peacekeeping operation will not fall victim to similar bias. Even worse, in a case like Mali – where the conflict contained historic grievences about regional political and economic inequality – a poorly managed peacekeeping mission logistically could do more harm than good.

This has happened before. Benedikt Korf argues in reference to Sri Lanka that the benefits of UN interventions are usually overwhelmingly confined to the capital city. Theoretically, there are many instances whereby unintended outcomes of peacekeeping could foster, rather than diminish, the root causes for the original conflict. In the case of Sierra Leone over ninety percent of the socio-economic benefits were thought to have been confined to Freetown. This pattern was reported in other UN missions. In Burundi the UN handed out more contracts to Tutsis than Hutus. Conflict in Burundi, and neighbouring Rwanda, has revolved around the rivalry between the Tutsi and Hutu. The view that produced this conflict was partly built on the perception that the Tutsi have earned their socio-economic dominance through favouritism from external actors, from colonial times to present day. The resonance of the favouritism displayed by the UN could easily become propaganda in renewed tensions. Carnahan explains that in this instance the Tutsi show a greater ability to navigate the UN bureaucracy and therefore can better obtain contracts. Nothing sinister, but the UN possibly is not always aware of its impact on recurring historic grievances and economic divisions that have led violence in the past.

UN peacekeeping is a very fine art and incredibly difficult to get right. Regrettably, corruption within peacekeeping missions has also been a problem historically. Provision of poorly trained troops has resulted in terrible and inhumane practice, arguably the worst example of which being the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mineral exploitation in the DRC provides a perfect example of a conflict economy. The exploitation of gold and other minerals in the DRC has been the way to raise funds for rebels to pay their troops and obtaining weapons. The case of the DRC shows the most abhorrent example of peacekeepers not only contributing to the economic aspects of political violence, but become an embedded aspect within it. Pakistani peacekeeping troops abused their position to establish a network of gold trading with some of the militia groups they were supposed to be suppressing and demobilising. Some Pakistani peacekeepers participated in handing back weapons to militias they had demobilised in exchange for gold and access to the mines rich in precious metals and minerals. The scheme resulted in multiple million-dollar deals networked out of the DRC through corrupt military personnel.

Mansa Musa – Whose Malian gold destablised Egypt’s economy in the C13 as he undertook the Hajj – courtesy of @StevieThunder

The obvious link to be made here is to the gold extraction activities that are currently crucial to the economic success of Mali. Though no foul play has been reported yet, at a recent talk at the London School of Economics, Dr Kwesi Aning stated his fears that because of a diplomatic spat between ECOWAS and the UNSC in the run up to deployment of MINUSWA African armies will not be keen to supply their best trained troops. Dr Aning believes that radicalisation and corruption will be more of a likely threat to the mission’s objectives as a result. Indeed, the African contributions to MINUSWA took a knock this month upon Nigeria’s announcement that it is withdrawing 1,200 troops to fight its own insurgency problems at home.

It is certain that restoring security will remain the central objective to Mali’s peacekeepers for some time to come, regardless of the strength of the incoming President – whoever that is. In addition to security, the MINUSWA must recognise the other responsibilities is has to Malian society. A well-maintained and sophisticated peacekeeping force is vital to Mali’s recovery. Until we can be sure that this force is structured and is receptive in a way that other missions have not been previously it is a serious concern that the presence of MINUSWA could easily fall victim to the flaws that have plagued its predecessors.

Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Vieux Farka Touré – Ay Bakoy

Now, this week is a big one. The track is “Ay Bakoy” by rising super-star Vieux Farka Touré. Vieux has inevitably spent most of his career being spoken to in reference to his father, the late and great, Ali Farka Touré. Vieux’s latest album “Mon Pays” that was released in May could potentially change this. The emotional weight and maturity that rings through the album shows that Vieux is even more than the fantastically fun, energetic, electric guitar wielding showman many of us have come to admire. Upon release a statement on his own website describes how the album “is a homage to beautiful Mali and her people”. In his own words:

“For me it is a statement for the world that this land is for the sons and daughters of Mali, not for Al Qaeda or any militants. This land is for peace and beauty, rich culture and tolerance. This is our heritage, what we must always fight to protect in any way that we can. For me, that means making music that reminds the world of who we are.”

Fresh from his musical adventures with Israeli pianist and vocalist Idan Raichel the album has depth, precision and effortless sophistication to show that Vieux, like Ali before him, has the potential to use his talents to capture the imagination of his country and the world.

The album is also overtly political. For example the title of the two tracks made in collaboration with fellow Malian artist Sidiki Diabate are entitled “Future” and “Peace”. The track “Ay Bakoy” itself feels particularly reflective especially as a new political era in Mali struggles into existence following the worst violence for a generation. Vieux confesses that the album’s direction was already underway before the crisis began to unfold in January 2012. It appears that Vieux has embraced the added significance thrust upon the album and has delivered on it beautifully.

Vieux Farka Toure  – Ay Bakoy

Vieux Farka Touré is touring at present, with some dates in Europe including one date in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 24th.