Though before I get ahead of myself, out of bad habit I must first dwell on that which is truly awful about music in Mali. And there is quite a lot.
To begin, the very medium of music is quite archaic. In America, we have all but converted the products of the musical recording industry to purely digital form; everybody relies so exclusively on their iTunes and iPod that we have even made the compact disc – the reification of digital music into a tangible thing – obsolete. In Mali, people are still listening to cassette tapes.
In some ways, cassette tapes are an appropriate technology because there is so much sand and dust flowing through the air during dry season and people listen to their music almost exclusively outdoors that a CD collection would inevitably get scratched into oblivion – cassettes are more durable in this climate. They are also a lot cheaper. And a lot of recording companies based out of Accra, Abidjan and Dakar understand their consumer base and continue to manufacture the recordings of local artists in cassette form. This feels so very retro to me, for I can’t even remember listening to a cassette, I haven’t even owned anything that would play a cassette for the past 10 years. The last time I ever bought a cassette was in 1997, the summer after my last year of elementary school when I plopped down my weekly allowance for a single of Puff Daddy’s tribute to the slain Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You".
If you can remember that far back, during the penultimate years of the 20th century CDs had so dominated music sales that cassette tapes were already on their way out; no new cars were being assembled with tape decks, no one but broke 5th-graders were willing to buy such inferior products that couldn’t jump tracks and had to be rewound after listening, anachronistically-titled “record stores” had accumulated so much of this unwanted inventory that they couldn’t sell it at any price.
So naturally, like all of the unsellable surplus American corn and wheat and clothing, all of those cassette tapes somehow made it to Mali. And it’s like someone dropped and shattered a magical Tamagotchi and so the entire country was cursed to be forever stuck in the year 1997. When the teenagers of Sanadougou decide to hold a dance party at the bane-of-my-life dongeyuro the World Vision NGO built across the street from my house, I could almost swear that I’ve unraveled the very fabric of the space-time continuum and found myself at my 6th-grade dance at the John Jay Middle School cafeteria at 4:00 in the afternoon in 1997. Current hits in Sanadougou include “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” by the Backstreet Boys, “You Make Me Wanna” from the new teen-heartthrob Usher, Mariah Carey’s “Honey”, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” from the Space Jam soundtrack, and of course, the song for which you needed to find your own Jack or Rose to awkwardy slow-dance to: Celine Dion’s anthemic “My Heart Will Go On”.
I thought that maybe the locals understood this phenomenon when I waltzed in on a bunch of men sitting around and drinking tea to “A Candle in the Wind”.
“So, I guess you guys are still bummed about Princess Diana – what with everything she did for Africa and all… right?”
“Oh… I guess not…”
What makes it all the more horrendous is that Malians only listen to a certain genre of cassettes from the 1996-1997 era. If you remember, there were some pretty groundbreaking cassettes coming out around that time from Sublime, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Ben Folds Five – but no, no cassette mogul would ever imagine selling such a decidedly non-bootylicious album like OK Computer to the decidedly booty-philic Malian people. When Malians listen to music, they want to put on something they can bump and grind and catch a nice piece of bobaraba to – like Los Del Rio.
A couple of months ago the doctor next-door to me decided to splurge on a big, 7th-hand stereo complete with radio and tape deck, and no tape deck would be complete without a cassette to play upon it – so Dr. Dembele decided to buy his family a stereo and a cassette single of the Macarena. To my knowledge, Los Del Rio was a strictly ad hoc act, so the B-side was of course the Christmas remix of the Macarena. And the Dembele’s next door blared their sole cassette single on repeat for the next five days straight.
To understand just how bizarre this was from my perspective, the only conceivable reason why anyone would listen to such a horrendous track would be so that they could re-enact the equally-horrendous line-dance of the same name. But Dr. Dembele’s wife is a pampered, well, a doctor’s wife who never has to do a day of physical labor for the rest of her life – they have a servant girl who draws all the water and does all the cooking and cleaning. So Mrs. Dembele is a very rotund woman of about 500 pounds whom after 18 months of living next door I cannot recall a single instance that I have seen her standing up. And they have a 28-year-old daughter who also does not cook, does not clean – which in this country means she’s an unmarriageable old maid – and weighs in at a slightly lesser 380 pounds or so. And these two portly women just sit on their stools all day drinking milk and fanning themselves – and blasting the Macarena over and over and over and over and over again. Of course, they are never doing the Macarena - for that would require standing up. To my good fortune, however, the actually tape within a cassette degrades after 14 years, so by the morning of the fifth day it was revolving at about 6 times the normal speed like Alvin & the Chipmunks singing the Macarena – until eventually the darn thing finally snapped beyond repair, Hamd’allah.
Malians with any sort of money available tend to splurge on more modern technologies – I specifically do not refer to those Malians who can afford modern technologies, but those who have the mathematically necessary sum of money to their person. As I often rant, it is perfectly common for a Malian man who would never shell out 2,500 CFA to buy a mosquito net for his 16 malnourished, barefoot children to go to the city for a dry season to find money and blow 500,000 (more than twice the average annual income) on an iPhone. An iPhone is not used for making calls or looking up stock quotes – Malian men blow all of the money that they have to their name for these devices so they can watch bootylicious pornography and the crassest of hip hop music videos; Akon is a favorite because he is Senegalese and legally polygamous, while American rappers Jay-Z, Nelly, Lil Wayne and “Cinquant Cent” not far behind. It makes perfect sense that this hyper-macho culture where men are men and women are chattel property is still drawn to those songs with the very most misogynist rhymes; for example, men in my town are really into the DMX hit “What These Bitches Want”:
Aiyyo!! Dog, I meet bitches, discrete bitches
Street bitches, slash, Cocoa Puff sweet bitches
Make you wanna eat bitches, but not me
Y'all niggaz eat off the plate all you want but not D
I fuck with these hoes from a distance
The instant they start to catch feelings
I start to stealin they shit
then I'm out just like a thief in the night
I sink my teeth in to bite
You thinkin life, I'm thinkin more like - whassup tonight?
Come on ma, you know I got a wife
and even though that pussy tight I'm not gon' jeapordize my life
So what is it you want from a nigga?
I gave you, you gave me - BITCH, I blazed you, you blazed me
Nothin more, nothin less, but you at my door
willin to confess that it's the best you ever tested
Better than all the rest, I'm like - Aight girlfriend, hold up
I gave you, what you gave me Boo, a nut"
Of course, no one in this town knows enough English to make sense of these lyrics – I can only surmise that the sheer chauvinism and misogyny of tracks like are just so overwhelming that they can transcend all language barriers and make male listeners of all cultures feel that their penis is nine feet longer by Tralfamadorian telekinetic brain wave communication. How else can one make sense of the popularity of English lyrical recordings with little to no musical content whatsoever in decidedly non-Anglophone Africa?
This influx of American rappers is completely understandable in this rapidly globalizing hip hop culture, but it is kind of funny how much of a following more teeny-bopper acts like Lil Bow Wow and Usher have among grown adults. This phenomenon is not confined to strictly African-American teeny-boppers; many-a-time I have stifled laughter as I witnessed big, macho Crip wannabes at the bus station grooving to a Hannah Montana music video. Or this one time I was in a café in Ouagadougou and at the next table over was a guy dressed like an American “gangsta” - part South Central gang member, part Prohibition-era bootlegger with a fedora hat, saddle shoes and spats, rolling like a mean badass. This macho gangsta hustla hunched over his beer to hypnotized by his iPhone production of S Club 7. Of course, this only testifies to the isolation and gross lack of education in this culture, for only to the completely illiterate and ignorant can Disney Channel fare be considered such a fascinating spectacle of moving shapes and colors – but the sad truth of social injustice does not in any way detract from the humor of grown adult men being enthralled with bubblegum manufactured for the exclusive consumption of 10-year-old girls… from 1997.
What is so difficult for me to comprehend is that - belying the fact that younger crowds prefer sleazy American hip hop and cheesy Radio Disney pop - Mali does in fact have a long and proud musical tradition. When I say this, I do not mean that I cannot understand that Mali can produce good music; in fact, I mean quite the opposite - traditional Malian music is so good that I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would prefer Lil Bow Wow and Aaron Carter.
The Bambara, Minianka, Malinke, Dogon, Senaful, Songraï, etc. never developed their own tongues as written languages, so for the millennia before Arab and French expansion the histories of West African kings and nobles were recounted exclusively through the oral tradition of the griot. A griot is a musical storyteller who recounted history through song, and what differentiates a true griot from any mere singer is that to be a griot one must be descended from a caste of griots – kind of like how Woody Guthrie transmitted his canon of songs chronicling the struggles of the American people to his son Arlo Guthrie who then transmitted them to his own son Krishna Guthrie, ad infinitum… Accompanied with a djembé drum, a lute, xylophone or a goni – this primordial stringed instrument with 6 strings though no frets – the oral history of the griot is really the basis of Malian music. What began as mere oral historiography evolved donné donné into what would eventually be known as the Malian blues.
The Malian blues is exactly what it sounds like; it is composed of tales of the pain of daily life – illness, death, drought and famine, unrequited love, jilted lovers, etc. Like the Bambara language itself, the lyrics to Malian blues are usually painfully literal – imagine if Robert Johnson were a subsistence farmer living off of a drought-plauged patch of sandy soil. And a lot of it is quite decent. However, I am really frustrated by goni-derived Malian blues. There is a butigitigi in town who plays the goni and he always invites me bring my guitar and jam with him – but it is sometimes tiring always playing in the same one key because my accompaniment is limited to repetitive permutations of the same 6 notes. Malian blues started getting really good when gonis developed frets and became guitars as we now know them. And that is why music critics credit the Malian blues tradition as a direct progenitor of the African-American blues – and by extension, soul, funk, rock and roll and its infinite derivative genres.
If you want to hear some classic Malian blues, I would suggest downloading anything by the late Ali Farka Touré – who is considered the godfather of the guitar-driven line of this genre. Touré was a Songraï from the small village of Niafunké in Timbouctou province who started with the goni but eventually started playing a modern guitar mixing the traditional style of the griots with what a listener like you should recognize as the blues; as Martin Scorsese describes his sound in a recent documentary, when listening to Touré one can hear “the DNA of the blues”. Ali Farka Touré garnered the moniker as the “John Lee Hooker of Africa”, and was truly the first Malian musician to develop a sense of crossover appeal with Western audiences, even winning Grammy awards in the World Music category. In 1994 Touré collaborated with American roots guitarist Ry Cooder on a duet album Talking Timbuktu and with African-American blues singer Corey Harris in 2002’s Mississippi to Mali. Anyone interested in Malian blues must start with a survey of Ali Farka Touré’s solo and duet albums.
If you like what you hear in Ali Farka’s blues, the next logical step would be to check out the works of his son 29-year-old son Vieux Farka Touré. Vieux Farka Touré is no nepotistic hack like Lisa Marie Presley; I would compare him more to a Ziggy or Damian Marley who does a fairly decent job of continuing the sound of his legendary father – especially because some of his more upbeat tracks are distinguishably influenced by reggae. And Vieux is already making inroads with American audiences – he recently played a tour of U.S. college campuses, even made it onto the Bonnaroo 2009 lineup.
Other, more traditional griot-like Malian bluesmen include Afel Bocoum, Habib Koité and Toumani Diabeté. I am told that the latter played a duet set at the last Bonnaroo with the innovative classical banjoist Béla Fleck - if anyone can help me track down a bootleg of this set, I would greatly appreciate it.
Though he is sometimes lumped in the same category as the aforementioned artists, I would like to set Salif Keïta apart. First of all, his biography is all the more fascinating; Salif Keïta is the direct descendent of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keïta - thereby making him royalty. However, this young prince was born an albino - making him not only royalty but a social outcast in this superstitious culture that sees the pigmentally-challenged as sources of bad luck and macabre fetishry. So Salif Keïta - turned out by his royal family, violated the traditional Malian caste system and became a singer - a profession designated solely for the lower caste which exists but to record the Keïtas' history. After directly rebuking the existing social order, Salif Keïta's choice has been clearly vindicated by the people as he has taken the Malian blues, electrified it, added a backup band and produces a stage show that is unequivocally glam rock. If Ali Farka Touré is the "John Lee Hooker of Africa", then Keïta's unique sound and stage presence makes him more like the African David Bowie.
Perhaps the most universally-appealing crossover act from Mali would be the married couple Amadou et Mariam. They met at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind where the bonded over a common interest in music - decades later, they are performing their fusion of Malian blues, soul, reggae and funk playing at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza and becoming perhaps the most commercially successful act to ever hail from this country. Rolling Stone recently pegged Amadou et Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako at #90 of their top 100 albums of the past decade - albeit, not a Grammy like père Farka Touré, but for a blind man and a blind woman from Mali that is quite an achievement. Even if you haven't the slightest interest in traditional Malian blues, you will probably enjoy the spaghetti and butter of this country's musical fare.
As the role of the griot has been almost exclusively held by men, very few women have burst out onto this specific genre of Malian blues per se. Though a number of female singers such as Nahawa Doumbia and Oumou Sangaré have gained popularity playing more modern pop acts. I'm somewhat indifferent to their music, but I really admire Sangaré's social activism and outspokenness on women's rights - and a number of her songs directly protests topical oppression in the form of polygamy and genital mutilation.
I feel that I owe a shout-out to the Gaoan Songraï guitarist Baba Salah, because I was totally blown away by his psychedelic Slash-like shredding at le Festival de la Niger. However, I would hold out on buying any of his recordings. Salah has two, and this awed fanboy made the mistake of blowing two weeks of food money on them. Apparently Baba Salah is taking the analogy of Mali's very own Cheap Trick - an act that puts on an astounding stage show, but records albums so tame, watered-down and saccharine bland that they are absolutely unlistenable. Until he puts out a concert bootleg, I would wait to see him shred in the flesh.
And last but not least, I must extol the killer Tamashek group Tinariwen. If there is one group in this country that I would recommend spending your unemployment insurance check on at at the iTunes music store, it is this troup of self-described "poet guitarists and soul rebels from the southern Sahara Desert". The only reason I didn't put them on the top of the list of Malian musicians to hear is that, well, the members of Tinariwen would be loathe to hear anyone refer to them as "Malian". They are Tamashek rebels who think of their nomadic people as a state unto itself, the Bambara-dominated state in Bamako as alien a regime as the French colonialists, and yearn to estabish an "Islamic Republic of Azawad" out of the Sahara frontiers of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Their collective biography is just as captivating as their music. Ringleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib originally hailed from a small village in the Tamashek northern frontier, but when the Malian Army clamped down on the Tuareg uprising in 1963, executing Alhabib's father and destroying almost the entirety of his family herd, young Alhabib began a multidecade exodus from refugee camps, nomad trains across the Sahara, training with formal militant insurrectionists and even the Libyan Army. But Ibrahim Ag Alhabib preferred to use a more peaceful weapon of revolution - making his own guitars from scraps and bicycle break wires and gradually accumulating a troupe of like-minded freedom fighters. Today, the group known as Tinariwen travels the Sahara heartland and the world singing of Tamashek nationalist consciousness, a life of exile and exodus, freedom, homesickness and all but calling for the militant secession of the historical Tamashek homeland. Get your hands on the albums Imidiwan, Aman Iman and Amassakoul as soon as possible.
And if its still in stock, the cassette single of the Christmas Macarena remix.