Mali: The Live Music Capital of Africa

Some people claim that Mali has the best music in Africa. Not to mince words, but those people are crazy. Much of Africa embraces its musical heritage. Almost every West African country I’ve been to has provided a unique, omnipresent soundtrack. One only needs to take a ride in a taxi or find the capital’s thriving mp3 market (generally doubles as the used and knockoff cell phone market) to discover how vibrant and often insular the music scene is.

What Mali does have is diversity and exposure. In a region where countries typically have tens of languages, Mali is particularly culturally diverse. One can easily trace its musical heritage from at least a dozen different sources, from Mande griots from the southwest, Berber and Arab migrants from the north, and Jeliw praise singers from the west to name a few. These influences have given birth to a variety of homegrown music like Wassoulou and Tuareg blues. Chances are, if you’ve heard of any African musicians, at least some of them are from this sahelian nation. Some of the continent’s most internationally recognizable artists, such as Amadou et Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, and Salif Keita all hail from Mali. For tourists and African music aficionados, this country is clearly a hotspot.

Like much of Africa, these musical styles can also be regionally specific. Outside of major festivals, one would probably not hear Oumou Sangare in Timbuktu or Tinariwen in Sikasso.

That is where Bamako comes in. Bamako is a melting pot. It is also a city that supports live music better than perhaps any other city in West Africa. On any given night, one can easily find a bar, restaurant, club, backyard, or block party with a live group. If it’s a weekend, the number of performers goes up exponentially.

Most of these performances are by and for Malians. Even at clubs that attract a sizeable ex-pat crowd, such as Toumani Diabete’s “Le Diplomate,” the cover is cheap and the majority of patrons are African. For my money, when it comes to music, there’s really no place like Bamako.

During my time in Mali, I tried to take advantage of as many opportunities to see as much live music as I could. Here are a few of my favorite highlights:

A Wedding in Bamako

Outside of major cities, perhaps the best place to find musicians in West Africa is a wedding. If a town lacks any live music venue, weddings are almost always where the best musicians play, and where they make the majority of their income (in Mauritania, wedding patrons will literally “make it rain” Ougiyas on players as a sign of respect. Kind of like a stripper? Anyway another story). Of course, even in a city like Bamako, which has ample venues for live music, the wedding scene is active.

On any given Sunday, walk through any of Bamako’s commercial neighborhoods, and chances are you’ll find a celebration. A tent covering several well-dressed women with ornate headwear is typical, as children dance and men walk by. Here’s a good example:

Amadou et Mariam at Le Pyramide

Amadou et Mariam is one of the most popular and internationally recognizable Malian groups around today. They have an appealing backstory (a married couple, both are blind and met in a school for the blind) and sing in both French and Bambara, which makes them more internationally viable. A show in the U.S. would probably sell out, and certainly run you around 30-40 dollars.

Of course, Bamako is not the U.S. I was surprised to find out that they were playing at a small venue near one of the Libyan-owned hotels. Once I got there I was even more surprised at the cover: 2000 CFA, or about 4 dollars. The venue was about half full too, both a reflection of the fact that the event was hardly promoted, and that the group plays in Bamako all the time. Regardless, I was happy. We had the group’s Malian pop practically to ourselves.

When the clock struck midnight on Sunday morning, they busted out perhaps their most recognizable anthem, Dimanche a Bamako. It was cute:

Toumani Diabete’s Orchestre at Le Diplomate

As I mentioned earlier, Le Diplomate is one of the most popular venues for tourists seeking Malian music. That’s due in no small part to its owner and frequent performer, Toumani Diabete, probably the most famous kora player alive today. Despite my trepidations about it being a tourist venue, I had a great time. Even though Toumani didn’t show up (he was playing at the festival in Ali Farka Toure’s hometown of Niafunke at the time), his band, along with Habib Koite’s group, was probably the most talented group of musicians I saw in Mali.

Le Diplomate’s Flag beer is affordable, and the dance floor really got going around 1:30.

This is a short clip. You’ll have to excuse me, I was busy dancing.

Noura Mint Seymali at The Festival Au Desert

You’ll have to excuse this one. I sort of cheated. Those of you that speak Hasseniyah (I know you’re out there) will recognize that Noura Mint Seymali is a Mauritanian name. Well, you’re right. She’s Mauritanian. But I saw her perform in Mali, which makes her a viable candidate for this list. Add the fact that, along with Habib Koite, she was easily my favorite performer at the Festival Au Desert (by a mile), and I think she merits inclusion.

Accompanied only by a Ngoni, a drummer, and her own kamelngoni (I think?) she was able to create some of the most interesting music I heard in Mali. As you can tell, her voice is incredible. She has one of the most unique vibratos I’ve ever heard. She (or whoever’s writing her songs) also managed to combine arabic scales with almost Wassoulou-like melodies. Definitely, unique, definitely interesting, definitely beautiful.

In this video, you can see a few interesting things. As far as I can tell, she’s about as close as Mauritania comes to mustering up a sex symbol. Young, turban-ed adolescents crowdsurfed while making heart symbols with their hands. She would occasionally acknowledge their gestures with a wry smile. Also, as I mentioned earlier, men will often publicly shower performers with money. You can… uh… see that too.

Tartit at the Festival Au Desert

Finally we have Tartit. They were a highly-anticipated act at the Festival Au Desert because they’re local: most of their members hail from Timbuktu (though they met in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso). They’re a group of Tuareg females that sing these long, droning, minimalistic songs that rely mostly on chanting and call and response. Their stage setup is just as simple: each woman sits in front of a tisde drum, which they continuously plod as a few men accompany on ngoni or electric guitar.

I picked this as a highlight for a few reasons. For one, though I don’t normally enjoy the droning minimalism of some of Mali’s music, (I thought Tinariwen’s set was boring… sue me) I found their set mostly captivating. Subtle changes in rhythm and melody (either improvised or composed, I couldn’t tell) kept things interesting, and their melodies were genuinly pleasant.

They also had one of the more exciting and hilarious moments of the Festival. Their set was initially delayed for about an hour due to sound issues, so about 45 minutes in, they had already run significantly over their allotted time. The generally dim-witted and obnoxious MCees (The English translator would regularly speak in French and not realize it) attempted to cut their set short in order to keep the performance schedule (don’t they know this is Africa?). This led the six, timid-looking women of Tartit to jump up, grab the mic, and start loudly protesting (and I can only assume swearing) in Tamasheq. Another kept repeating “On n’est pas d’accord” (we are not ok!) in French. All this elicited a huge reaction from the mostly Tuareg audience in favor of Tartit. In short: it was awesome.

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