Tinariwen are the providers of this week’s Song of the Week. A gloriously simple song. The vocals and guitar cobble together a gentle rhythm, with both seeming intentionally lazy at times. The lyrics come across like a fatigued conversation between two friends, hours after you both ought to have gone to bed. They whisper like the thoughts that follow an extended break in conversation. The softly spoken words treading carefully through their surroundings, the guitar equally weary of disturbing the peace.
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.
‘In session’ in this context refers to the idyllic scene of any Malian music recording: acoustically, in the shade of a tree in a quiet corner of Bamako. Simple surroundings, perfect for “floating guitar lines” as choreographed by Spot on Mali Music – a non-for-profit organisation charged with sharing vibrant, up-and-coming Malian musicians with the world (with help from the Danish Centre for Culture and Development). Its Facebook page is regularly updated with information and clips of new Malian artists, with links to recent tour appearances too.
This week’s featured artist is one of these “rising stars”. In the video below, playing her guitar in the shade of a tree, is Mariam Koné. Koné is a beautiful vocalist and talented musician who is from the city of Kati, the largest town of the Koulikoro Region, which is situated a mere 15km north of Mali’s capital. Koné’s rise to fame has seen her release an album and singles complete with professionally orchestrated music videos. Spot on Mali Music’s Facebook commentary notes her increasing popularity in Europe. However, the song chosen for this week – that is presented to the world untitled – emphasises how music is the life-blood of the country. Koné sits, temporarily stripped of her growing stardom, and is framed as ordinary yet exceptional , simple and beautiful – all at once.
Fatoumata Diawara’s magic comes from her ability to create warm, tranquil music whilst still addressing very tough issues. In the case of ‘Clandestin’ the issue being addressed the that of Africa to Europe immigration, told from the perspective of an onlooker – of someone who stays behind, or has already set up a new life in Europe; both perspectives being ones that Diawara has had herself.
Diawara’s perspective is a vital contribution to this topic. Some coverage in Europe is given to explain why someone is forced to making the decision, but few have described the personal traumas as well as Diawara. “They are called ‘illegals,’ but I call them warriors as it’s not easy to leave everything behind and to trust in the unknown. In Bambara, we call them nomads,” says Diawara. “This song is dedicated to all the brothers who die on this trip and to those who have already left.”
The imagery of a warrior, or even nomad, encourages us to view each migrant as an individual – someone who has come to an independent decision, one heavily influenced by the enormous wreckage of poverty and war. From a European perspective to “leave everything” for an African appears slightly simplistically. Perhaps an overly focusing on conflict and poverty makes the issue a material one – literally what items someone leaves behind. However, Diawara speaks to them as “brothers” – they are individuals who have left a family, their country and everything they know, behind – a potentially fatal gamble for a future they know little about. Again, “they put all their trust in the unknown”. A bitterly sorrowful situation to imagine. It provides a much firmer base for empathy towards the victims and understanding for those who have managed to continue their lives in Europe.
What sounds better than a kora? Two koras! Here at the Hub we are big fans of father-son double act Toumani and Sidiki Diabate. This week’s song of the week comes from the first album the pair have released together. In another first – and according to the Festival itself- Tomani and Sidiki are the first father and son to perform on the Pyramid Stage together [pictured]. The video below is taken from a BBC broadcast in a fine Glastonbury Sunday morning just before their spellbinding set. This photo of the Glastonbury crowd posted to Toumani’s Facebook page shows just how well received their performance was.
This week’s song comes from the legendary Malian super-group the Rail Band. One of the most popular acts in Malian musical history, the Rail Band rode the rising wave of African music’s mid-20th Century obsession with Latin – and especially Cuban – influences. According to the Band’s Wikipedia page this trend started in the Congo in the 1940s, but did not emerge in West Africa till later. This made the Rail Band one of the pioneers of Afro-Latin fusion in Mali. It is a musical genre which is having something of a renaissance in Europe and America, with 60s and 70s African funk being frequently developed by DJs into hip-hop and house sets.
To our knowledge, three of the Rail Band’s previous members have been present in the Song of the Week already, Salif Keita being the most famous of them. He left to join the rival Ambassadeursgroup early in the project’s timeline however. Luckily, superb guitarist and Rail Band legend Djelimady Tounkara joined before Salif Keita departed, and they were able to share some industrious time together. Nainy Diabaté, another enormously popular Malian musician, also developed her career with the band.
This week we have one direct from the group proper that certainly shows off its Latin influences extensively. Some outstanding guitar work in the mid-section too. The Latin aspect is fitting in light of the close of an truly excellent World Cup Finals in Brazil last weekend. Enjoy.
Happy Birthday! The Mali Song of the Week is one year old this week. Vieux Farka Touré – a favourite of the Mali Interest Hub – provides a suitable party tune with ‘Courage’. In addition to Vieux’s sublime guitar and the wonderful rolling rhythm are the vocals of Issa Bamba, which really bring the song to life. It is a cool mix that makes this song a modern classic.
So, as Issa Bamba breaks into his rallying cry at the song’s 1 minute 33 second mark, its time to both take stock of all the music we have celebrated so far and to look forward to another year of the same. The musical landscape of Mali is changing all the time. The fall-out from the recent conflict and on-going political difficulties have provided inspiration for artists across the board – from rapper to griot – and has invited in new influences from around the world. Mobile phone ownership and internet activity is booming in Mali. Malian musicians have unprecedented access to each other and to the rest of the world, and they are already taking full advantage. At the same time, Mali’s global big-hitters continue to innovate, entertain and captivate in some of the most prestigious musical venues on Earth.
It is a wonderfully exciting time to be a fan of Malian music.
Again, Glastonbury Festival has done Mali proud. Or should we say Malian musicians have proven themselves once again as excellent by getting some high-profile spots on the world’s premier performing arts festival. Tinariwen finished up the Acoustic Tent on the Friday night and Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté had the Sunday lunch-time slot on the world famous Pyramid Stage.
This week’s song is from neither of these artists. Rather, it is a first appearance for Afel Bocoum. Agricultural advisor by profession, Bocoum rose to musical fame by being part of Ali Farka Touré’s group ASCO. Both men hail from Niafunké, a town on the Niger River, and are both members of the Songhai people, though this term is defined historically neither by ethnicity nor language.
Ali Farka Touré’s tutorship is obvious in this week’s song. Though in other works Afel does shows the ability to draft in range of styles, in particular the rhythmic music of the North.
Mali is split into regions, much like any country. In its southern west corner Regions I, II and III are located, along with the country’s capital Bamako which is given an administrative region all of its own. These three Regions – named Kayes, Koulikoro and Sikasso – are currently on high alert with border controls in place trying to step the flow of a deadly Ebola outbreak in West African neighbours Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. This month international medical NGO MSF has raised further concerns about the scale and danger of this outbreak. They stressed that Ebola will remain ‘out of control’ until the international community steps up its response and it could begin to spread to other countries in the region.
This week’s song hails from Kayes region which is the most westerly part of Mali. It is a region of mixed geography, dry Sahelian generally with forests and a ‘rather wet‘ climate on the Guinean border in the south. The Malian this week is Habib Koité. The bio on his website (translated by Google) explains that:
‘He inherited his passion for music from his paternal grandfather who played “Kamale ngoni”, a traditional four-stringed instrument associated with hunters from the region….“Nobody really taught me to sing or play the guitar …. ” explains Habib, “I looked at my parents, and it rubbed off on me.” Habib was destined for a career in engineering, but thanks to the insistence of his uncle who had spotted early musical talent and persuaded his parents, he enrolled at the National Institute of Arts (INA) in Bamako.
Good move, judging on his career success and great contributions to Malian music. His style provides an alternative to most Malian music associated with his generation (Koité’s youthful appearance of dreadlocks and a charming grin shades the fact that he is 56 years old and represents the generation in-between Salif Keita and Toumani Diabaté). His style is ‘intimate and relaxed, emphasizing calm, moody singing‘ rather than concentrating on instrumental technical prowess. This week’s song is a fantastic example. Here Koité is backed up by his band ‘Bamada’ which is the nickname given to Bamako by its residents.
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.