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Bamako, Mali: Sounding Griots, Global Aesthetics

This article is a collaboration between Ali Colleen Neff and University of London School of Oriental and African Studies graduate student/kora musician Julia Morris (email Julia juliamorris67 (at) hotmail (dot) com)

Our new Mande griot friend and teacher, Boubacar Cisshoko

The overland trek from coastal Dakar, Senegal to Bamako, Mali’s interior bushland metropolis cannot be considered in one thought. is it disjointed, discontinuous, pocked with potholes and shady police checkpoints. It’s about 35 hours of jerky driving alone; once the bribe-wringing, papers-checking and inevitable auto difficulties are folded in, the trip is a couple long and dusty days.  From Dakar, we took the northern route through the former French Colonial capital of St. Louis; up into Baaba Maal‘s Hal-Pulaar homeland of Podor, a collection of crisp river-washed campements resonating always with delicate river country calls to Islamic prayer; into the heart of Fouta-Touro, where careful curve and crimson-and-gold-dyed mud make up breathtaking traditional architecture and gawlos (griots) line the market walls with their stringed xalams and heroic ballads; into the heart of Bakel’s breathtaking Soninke hill-and-river country, where one shares a two-minute boat ride  to Mauritania with a boatful of wizened women talibés (devotees) on a visit to their northern Sufi mystic/scholar; and across the contested and scorching-hot border of bribery into the vastness of Mali, where rings of ten mud-and-stick huts are few and far between wild bushfires, high-walled mud mosques and  crisscrossing nomadic Peuls, who guide their giant white longhorns across the dwindling road as we wait for them to cross.The Peuls are never without their tinny radios, hanging from shoestrings from their right arms as they sound their way across the increasingly-dusty Sahel grasslands. We are jamming old cassettes of the local Fula (a vast West African ethnic group that draws together Pulaar, Peul, Fulani and other semi-nomadic peoples) music,which involves rapid-fire storytelling and jaunty fingerwork on the stringed Xalam,most of this way. Click play here to hear a Xalam track.

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A joyous Bambara motorbike rider in faux military gear balances a big ram on his lap and a shotgun on his back, lifting and settling in the wind. His bike is creaking from the weight as it struggles to climb the red rock hillside, but his dinner will be well worth it. He grins big for the camera; we wonder whose flock from which the bounty was harvested. We understand that banditry is at a height in this country and tuck out passports and cash into the car’s crevices, hiding our American faces as money-hungry informal “police” shake us down at stop after stop.

As the sun sinks again over our wayward Dakaroise auto, we stop again for a little cup of Nescafe and bread from a young Bambara in a Tupac Shakur t-shirt . Only another ten hours or so to Bamako.

We sink back down into our vague terrors of the foreign expanse and wake up fifteen hours (and five checkpoints) later in Mali’s bustling capital, exhausted. The entire city bathes itself in golden morning light under the red crusts of hills lining the river Niger, which calmly wedges through the center of the city. By the time we rouse and eat, it’s time for the disco. This one was suggested to us by Lucy Durán, a musician, ethnomusicologist, public scholar and professor at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies; she’s an advisor to Julia’s MA work and an inspiration to both of us; her work with the women

praise singers of Mali and her double-duty as a university researcher and public radio personality (World Routes on BBC3) are groundbreaking.

Our first Bamako club experience unfolds in the darkness of Titan, a local’s club in Bamako’s Quartier ACI 2000,  a scene especially crafted for and by for Mandé jeli (griots) and musicians in this growing, multiethnic city. We were excited to catch the group, headed by the younger cousin of London-based koraist Toumani Cissokho: Boubacar Cissokho, who is growing into his own status as a respected koraist and jeli. This night, he is jamming with his sharply talented crew in the dark red folds of a bar and brothel for a sparse-but-enthusiastic local audience. The players included exuberant young Mandé (of the Bambara Mandé people, specifically) vocalist Zoumana Diabate (, who crisscrosses the room and improvises lengthy praises for nearly all of its inhabitants. They are honing some pretty impressive lyrical and musical skills, with double koras and djembes in tow, and the room is rising and falling into dance and banter as the group turns long pieces through the evening.

We take our meantime to walk the city’s peaceful, spiraling quarters, and remark on how Bamako and Dakar work as counterpoints and complements to each other, pulling between themselves the diversity of West African cultures as articulated in grand and funky metropoli. Julia takes an extended kora lesson from Boubacar, who has become our cultural guide.

Our second big night out unfolds in the packed-out international hotspot Club Diplomat. Featured tonight is Symmetric Orchestra, a multifaceted project by Mandé jeli Toumani Diabaté that encompasses a series of West African and Diasporic musical styles, from club, Cuban-influenced pop, Soukous, and Big Easy blues (with a visiting American singer). The shifting dance circle manifests a rich interaction between multiethnic West African griots,musicians and dancers and  a far-reaching international crowd. We spot Senegalese singers and sabar players from Dakar-based Kiné Lam’s group, and Sofy Diabate, a woman Mandé praise singer (jelimuso)  marks the evening’s height as she draws women in brilliant traditional wedding clothes to the center of the stage with the thick registers of her Bambara praise song. Into the evening’s mix enter our young griot friends from Titan, who humbly take their places among the brightest veterans of West African pop; Boubacar Cisshoko pulls off his kora solos with aplomb and Zoumana Diabate rips a gorgeous Mandé praise piece through the dancing crowd; afterward, he tells us how exhilarated he is to sing with his idols.

We notice a style of dance in this club one rarely sees in the Dakaroise discos we’re used to. There is a laid-back swing to the hips in the wide grooves between the djembe’s round hits here; the voices of people and instruments wash over the rhythmic registers and suggest counterpoints and polyrhythms where the Senegalese prefer the commanding punctuations of the sabar orchestra.  In Bamako, a rocking two-step is counterweighted by long sweeps of the arms, with lots of room for wiggles in between, gently but wholly rocking. At the very end of the night, the DJ rolls out the biggest new mbalax hits from Dakar and it becomes clear that the crowd loves the dramatic, ever-changing lexicon of mbalax dance, even if they are a few months behind on the latest moves. In the first clip here, get a sense of how the orchestra rotates lyrical and rhythmic duties to fill the club with shifting improvisations:

To the right, above, is a rich clip of Symmetic Orchestra leader and kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate soloing onstage with a nice voiceover, in which he talks about his artistic biography. It’s important to note the complexity and diversity of griot patterns, styles and practices throughout West Africa and globally. These vary between traditional regions, ethnic groups (or mixtures thereof), the venues and resources of urban life, religious practices and family traditions. Many contemporary griots overlay a series of longstanding and contemporary work and creativity patterns, performing innovations on their traditional family practices and infusing global pop with the ways of the griot; Diabate is a prime example of this strategic double-duty.

Below is a collaboration between Toumani and world bluesman Taj Mahal performing the Delta/Hill Country blues classic, “Catfish Blues.” A clear sympathy between kora and resonant delta guitar techniques can be traced in this smart interpretation, illustrating less a specifically Mandé presence in the Delta than the critical musical voraciousness of and conversation between artists of the Black Diaspora.

To the right, Ngoni (a Mandé instumrnt similar to the Fula xalam) maestro Bassekou Kouyaté showcases his dexterity and improvisatory ear, backed by a mix-gender group of praise singers and musicians.  His finger picking technique and pentatonic riffs,in call-and-response with a full orchestra of stringed ngonis, suggests a nuanced series of connections between the Delta Blues and the Mandé strings.

Most of the big stars have their own clubs in Bamako, an the city is rich with easy dance floors and washed with the sounds of amplified koras and sweet djembes. Residence Wassoulou is home to woman singer Oumou Sangare, who has been a force in the creation of Wassoulou, a musical genre invented in the forested southlands of Mali, near the Guinean border. Here, a culture of game hunting has fostered the use of the mobile hunter’s harp; because much of their work unfolds on foot, the regional communities developed secondary musical traditions to the griot’s less-mobile musical ensemble. Non-griot Malian women from this region found in this harp, and in the original song practices of their communities, an artistic resource. They took these mobile instruments and crafted a new musical groove in a Malian musical landscape already crisscrossed with tradition and invention. Lucy Durán has done extensive research on this music.

To the left here is one of Sangare’s decidedly funky pieces, highlighting the inventiveness and dance-floor groove associated with the Waussilou genre.

Oumou Sangare, whose music is not formatted to fit jéli song structures, learned her vocal techniques from a woman griot, or jelimuso, and borrowed instruments from her young male neighbors. Hear in her work the simbi, the hunter’s harp, appropriated by Wassoulou artists from young male hunters-in-training who play a smaller instrument called Kamalingoni. This and the karinyan, a handheld metal scraper, serve as the foundation for songs that meander through a number of topics less favored by the traditional griots, from jealous co-wives and the problem of female genital cutting, to modern love in the city.

Kandia Kouyate is trained familially as a traditional jelimuso who uses hunting imagery in her ballads and draws from the importance of sumu wedding culture to craft contemporary music that reflects ancient ritual creativity–as well as the importance of women listeners and consumers to Malian musical culture.

Ali Farka Toure is a Malian desert bluesman who inflects his global blues with a mixture of Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamasheq and Bambara languages–as well as his loose, waterfalling, kora/xalam-style riffs. He is descended from the Songhay warrior class of semi-nomadic region of Timbouctou; an ethnic group whose musicmanship traditions can be picked up and passed down differently from those of the Mandé griots families. Also below is a piece from Dramane Kone  of Burkina Faso, who illustrates the beauty of regional instrument the balafon, a Malinké instrument that spread throughout the massive Mali Empire and is today used throughout Coastal West Africa.

Super Rail Band of Bamako: this group once featured brilliant koraist and pioneer of West African disco Mory Kante and singer Salif Keita. To the right is a clip from Djelimady Tounkara (see Banning Eyre’s book about the artists here), the band’s guitiarist, and singer Kasse Mady Diabate  who comes from a famous musical family in the Kita region of western Mali, where a Mandé-family ethnic group, the Bambara, maintain thick griot traditions that saturate both inland Bamako and the eastern reaches of Senegal.

Rail Band veteran Salif Keita is a non-griot musician who is celebrated throughout West Africa and the broader diaspora; a descendant of the Keita ruling family, Keita’s route to music is marked by the possibilities and challenges involved with his albinism, which is stigmatized in the region. After some time with the Super Rail Band and decades in the Parisian world music circuit, Keita presents songs such as “Tekere”, delivered with a definitive Mandé style in a world-contemporary song format. Another artist who carefully puts griot practices into conversation with North European cosmopolitanism is Ballake Cissoko, a relative of our griot friend Boubacar, whose work with classical musicians focuses on the delicate, complex interplay of rhythmic string vibrations.

The voices of contemporary Malian music are formed from the materials of native musical creativity in conversation with the global popular: Bambara talking drum and the massive, round Tabala, used for complex sacred rhythms in regional Islam and pre-Islamic ceremonials;  guitars that take their melodic lines from the jaunty balafone, the kora and the xalam alike; Guinean djembes that resonate beautifully with the Malian sonic mix; and the beats of Dakar mbalax sung by Pulaar gawlos (griots) that echo the wedding songs of their Mandé neighbors. The cultural authenticity movement of Guinea, engaged by griot-rich cultures throughout West Africa, called for artists to critically revisit  their uses of transitional instruments such as guitar and horns, and to cultivate self-described “Africanity” for the development of new global genres. This critical African Cosmopolitanism shapes the Bembeya Jazz recordings of Guinea (below) and the dance-floor friendliness of Rail Band’s Guinean Mory Kanté, whose disco work sparked a thousand house remixes in ’90s UK.

An ethnomusiologists’ shout-out to Eric Charry, whose rigorous, career-long engagement with musics of the Black Diaspora has yielded historical and contextual knowledge of the global dimensions of Malian (Mandé) musical practice.

Here, find some examples of Malian hip-hop, washed with the loose tone colors and two-stepping rhythms of Malian music: Tata Pound’s Kolonafili and  Djekafo’s laid back delivery, a sound sympathetic with the griot’s storytelling style.

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I enjoyed browsing through your blog about tupac and some other rap stuff! Keep it up.

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