The musicians of Mali have a prominent place within contemporary “World Music.”
Two notes before I proceed: 1. It could be further said that Mali and the surrounding region in general have a high profile within the contemporary music scene, with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour probably the most high profile West African musician internationally. Much (though not all) of what I’ll say about Malian musicians could be said of those of Senegal or Guinea as well, but more so than any other country in West Africa, the musicians of Mali seem to have as a group caught the eyes and ears of the world and the world music audience. (See, for example, the Putumayo music label’s compilation album “Mali.” Putumayo’s compilations tend to focus on themes and/or broad regions, e.g. “Women of Africa” or “Global Lounge.” Mali is one of the few countries to have been the focus for a compilation on this prominent label which serves as the entry point to world music for many casual listeners.) 2. I plan to address in a future post the reality of “World Music” – whether the label corresponds to anything real beyond a catch-all label for non-Western (and some Western) musical traditions that serves as a convenience for shopkeepers and customers. I’ll just say here that contemporary Malian music is “World Music” in the sense that in its commodified form, it does tend to be marketed under that label and in the sense that much of it is very much of the world, drawing not only on Malian traditions, but on American blues (itself a genre with West African roots – more on that below), Cuban music (a set of genres like blues in being partly derived from West Africa but with new innovations added in the Americas), techno-dance genres, and rock.
Musicians such as (recently deceased) Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou and Mariam, Boubacar Traoré, Issa Bagayogo, Rokia Traoré, and Tinariwen all have established international reputations. For readers unfamiliar with World Music, these may be unfamiliar names, but that would probably also go for any other World Music performers save Ravi Shankar and Bob Marley. Most of these names would be familiar to followers of World Music, and I have specifically restricted the named list to artists whose recorded work would probably be available in any half decent record store’s world music section (all are available in at least one record store where I live in Pensacola, Florida – not exactly a hot bed of World Music listening).
Overall, the world’s music scene and industry is dominated by heavily promoted acts from the U.S. and the U.K. and to a somewhat lesser extent acts from Northern and Western Europe, Latin America, India, China, and Japan. Compared to the U.S. pop music industry, or even the Indian or Canto-pop industries, Mali’s music scene is quite small, but in relation to Mali’s economic and political place in the world, it is proportionately quite large in profile.
Mali’s profile is surprising, on the surface at least, given its small size (in terms of population, not in terms of physical space) and extreme poverty. A few other small, relatively poor countries with prominent positions in world music come to mind, e.g. Cuba and Jamaica, though both of those countries have much more concentrated populations, are much less poor than Mali, and have (or at least had in the case of Cuba) much more systematic economic and social ties to North America and Europe.
Mali’s music scene is a good example of what Arjun Appadurai discusses as a global disjuncture of global politics, economics, and the flows of people, ideas, and cultural products. World System models such as those associated with Immanuel Wallerstein or Fernand Braudel have presented the world as a system with a few cores areas dominating global politics and economics and by extension the flow of people, ideas, and culture, with these areas surrounded by other areas as peripheral or semi-peripheral economies. The world was never that simple (and neither Wallerstein nor Braudel claimed that – one purpose of models is to simplify the world to make it easier to deal with), but as Appadurai’s arguments make clear, such models don’t so much simplify current realities as distort them. It is still the case that places with high concentrations of wealth tend to be associated with significant political influence, and shape in important ways the global movement of people and the production and distribution of ideas and culture products. But we also find places, such as Mali, that have far greater global influence in terms of cultural production than we would predict on the basis of any model that sees overall cultural influence as stemming from economic weight alone.
But what about Mali makes it a World Music powerhouse? There are a variety of factors, some stemming from Malian culture and history, and some associated with Western capital and consumers, that help to explain the situation.
In parts of Mali, especially Sub-Saharan southern Mali, as well as in neighboring territories of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau (a region roughly coterminous with the old Mande Empire) there is a long tradition of musical specialists. Specialization in music as a trade long predates the modern recording industry in the region, associated with endogamous caste groups – the jelis or djelis, a.k.a. griots.
There is also a long-standing tradition of serious patronage of musicians by the state prior to French colonization, as well as by wealthy individuals. Patronage of orchestras of traditional instruments became important again throughout the region after independence, contributing to a flourishing music scene.
Something making Mali somewhat unique within the larger region is the presence of several distinct musical traditions associated with different regions within the country, perhaps making the country more attractive to the marketers of world music. The music of djelis, with its emphasis on the 21 string harp-like kora, the banjo-lute-like n’goni, and balafon (resembling a marimba or xylophone), is associated especially with the central and southern portion of the country. The specific southern region of Wassoulou is associated with a distinct musical tradition, not associated with specific caste groups, that emphasizes more the kamele n’goni, a sort of cross between the kora and n’goni. Finally, the nomadic and semi-nomadic Touareg of the northern, Saharan portion of the country have their own distinct traditions. (See Chris Nickson’s book The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to World Music for a good short overview of Malian music and other world musics.)
In marketing, nothing draws further attention like success, and the Malian music scene has benefited over the years from the international success of a few projects that helped draw attention of world music labels to the area. One of the earliest projects to draw attention to Malian music, and one of the earlier internationally successful world music albums, was Cordes Anciennes or Ancient Strings, a 1970 recording of two kora players, Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko. (This album became a musical symbol of Malian independence and national pride, and on Independence Day [September 22], 1997, their sons Toumani Diabaté and Ballake Sissoko recorded a kora-duo album, New Ancient Strings, inspired by it which has been quite successful in its own right.) Like Olatunji’s Drums of Passion and Nigerian music, this recording helped put Mali on the world music map as a significant place. More recently, just as Paul Simon’s Graceland album raised the profile of South African music in North America and Ry Cooder’s collaboration with Cuban musicians on Buena Vista Social Club set off a mini-industry of Cuban music in the U.S., Cooder’s mid-1990s collaboration with Ali Farka Touré on Talking Timuktu did much the same for Malian music (if you listen to NPR’s All Things Considered program much at all, you’ve heard music from this album – an excerpt from the song “Diaraby” is used as a filler track quite frequently).
Finally, part of the attraction of Malian music to a western audience (and thus to world music marketers) is that Malian music is simultaneously familiar and exotic to a western ear. Much Malian music sounds much like the blues – the sonorities of the n’goni and kamele n’goni are somewhat like that of banjo and guitar, and some Malian music has in common with the blues the pentatonic scale.
There’s an obvious reason for this similarity: while the blues doesn’t derive from Mali per se, the basic musical elements of the blues and the specific instrument of the banjo do derive from West Africa.
Some Malian musicians have brought the blues full circle. Ali Farka Touré (until his recent death), Issa Bagayogo, and the Touareg band Tinariwen do not just play Malian musics with similarities to the blues and blue-derived western musics, they have also incorporated the sounds and instruments of American blues and rock back into Malian music (and especially in the case of Issa Bagayogo, other non-Malian musics as well). In each case, the result is a music that is of a specific place – they are each in their own way distinctly Malian or West African – while at the same time music that is very much of the world.
The result for an average Western listener used to listening to blues, rock, and/or jazz is music that, unlike some world musics that have quite distinct features from western popular genres, takes very little getting used to – but which at the same time feels exotic. Sonorities and timbres are different, given the different instrumentation, and while Ali Farka Touré’s guitar playing or Issa Bagayogo’s kamele n’goni playing might sound similar to American blues or rock guitar, there is really very little like the kora playing of djelis in western music, with the distinctive sheets of sound of players like Toumani Diabaté – the only thing I can think of that sounds at all close to me is John Coltrane’s saxophone work during his “Sheets of Sound” period, e.g. his Giant Steps album.