Oumou Sangare is a grand woman. The tips of her fingers are colored in black and red dye. She wears those boubou gowns with the wide necklines that fall over and down her shoulders. I met the Grammy-award winning diva in August 2013 in the hotel she owns in Bamako, Mali.
But let me admit that, when I was an adolescent – that’s when I really started exploring African music – I didn’t particularly care for Malian music. I could not relate to it. It sounded so different from Nigerian music. In my research of African music, the names of Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Amadou & Miriam always popped up. They seemed to be the most famous. But, I wasn’t moved by the music. In my head, I was like, “what’s the big deal?”
But, it was Oumou Sangare who helped me to see the magic of Mali’s music.
She was the first Malian musician I truly admired. (She and Alicia Keys performed together in 2002.) I’ve been listening to her since my teenage years and I’m still discovering how brilliant she is. She is an ambassador of the music of her people.
Oumou celebrates the culture of southern Mali in this music video for the song, Donso.
Read: Mali’s Magical Music
In my early 20s, I watched on television a 2008 documentary from the American banjo player, Bela Fleck, where he travels to Africa to explore the roots of popular American music traditions like blues and jazz and bluegrass. That documentary, Throw Down Your Heart, pushed me deeper into Malian music. Bela and Oumou perform a beautiful collaboration for the song Djorolen.
Later on, I got into the Azawadien band, Tinariwen, and Nahawa Doumbia (whom Fatoumata Diawara told me is her aunty. She was so surprised when I mentioned Nahawa’s name because Nahawa is celebrated more in Mali and few foreigners know of her…Fatoumata, Nahawa and Oumou are all from Wassoulou in southern Mali).
Tinariwen represents all the other musicians of the Sahara who are keeping alive the desert blues. My favorite songs from Tinariwen are Mataraden Anexan, Lulla and Cler Achel. The music can put you into a trance. (The Red Hot Chili Peppers members are also fans of Tinariwen.) And yeah, if you fancy yourself as a fan of “world music” (such a funny term, but it’s actually a genre that you’ll see listed in online radio playlists and on airplanes) you must know Salif Keita, Amadou & Miriam, and Ali Farka Toure.
What I’ve noticed about Malian pop singers is that not only do they sing, but many of them also master at least one instrument. For example, Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba. I’ve been all over this group recently. You can see and hear Bassekou’s mastery of the ngoni in the song, Siran Fen.
The ngoni was pasted down throughout the generations in Bassekou’s family.
All this music is an anthropologist’s delight. I cannot explain it really. I’m just glad I’ve learned to appreciate the music. Look at Nahawa Doumbia here:
Nahawa’s Didadi Kana goes on my list of Top 100 Best Songs Ever. The music video is a gem. I first saw it about a couple years ago and I stayed up all night replaying it. In the video, Nahawa leads a troupe of dancers into a village and together, everyone is dancing in the dust, under trees, around mud clay structures. Nahawa looks so elegant and gracious, flipping her palms up and prancing around in her flat sandals. From this video, you can clearly see that music is not a hobby. It’s not a pastime or something you go to listen to. Everyone is a musical instrument. The body is an instrument and when everyone comes together to offer themselves, you get a glorious sound that transcends. The sound becomes like air. You breathe it in because it’s everywhere. I love this video.
Malians don’t play with their music. Music infiltrates every part of their lives. And Malian musicians show great respect for the music of their ancestry and at the same time, they’re not only preserving that music, they’re bringing it into the now with trending hits and hot videos and introducing it to generations of people around the world. I’ve never seen such a people who have found a way to share their musical traditions to the world. There are two common scenarios that you typically find in many other African countries when it comes to traditional music. (let’s not get started on the argument of what “traditional” means…)
- It’s only old people who still listen to the traditional music so it’s not trendy and it’s nearly dead and young people roll their eyes when they hear it
- Young musicians may enjoy “traditional” music, but they won’t produce such a track and even if they did, it may not get played on the radio because the young musicians focus on music that has more a Western sound, like “house” or “rap.” Yeah, they’ll incorporate elements of the “traditional” music and/or they may even sing in their native language, but it still sounds very Western because that what they think will sell. In this scenario, the singer gets a huge social boost for featuring an American singer/rapper in their song. In this scenario, the singer/rapper wants to be able to not just imitate a Western singer/rapper, but the singer/rapper wants their sound to be totally indistinguishable from a Western singer/rapper…but they want to eat their cake and have it too by representing their country because no ones wants to be a complete sellout. However, notice in the video with Alicia Keys and Oumou Sangare…Oumou did not try to sound like Alicia at all. She stayed true to her Wassoulou vocal style. You can clearly hear Alicia’s neb-soul, R&B American sound and you can hear Oumou’s. Two distinct sounds.
In Mali, you’ll see a young rapper bust out with a kora or an ngoni and take it when them into the studio for a recording. I know this because I’ve seen it. Just how long this will be the case, who knows, because Westernization knows no boundaries.
Music is life in Mali.
But…it all nearly came to an end. In 2012, Islamist groups banned music in the north of the country forcing musicians to flee the region by moving south to the capital of Bamako or going abroad. Many musicians went into exile in France.
( This documentary called “They Would Have To Kill Us First” tells the story of Malian musicians as they fight for their right to sing)
These musicians talk about how the Islamists broke their instruments.
Apparently, even if your cellphone ringtone played secular music, you could be punished. All of it was called, Satan’s music. The sound of music was replaced with sounds of gunfire shooting across neighborhoods.
But how can Mali exist with music?
“It was truly devastating”, said musician Toumani Diabaté. “I grew up with the Qur’an and the kora [a west African instrument]. To even imagine that I would be in trouble for playing a traditional Malian instrument, a part of our culture, I would have never imagined this in Mali.” An article in the Guardian written by Katarina Höije.
Musicians banned together to keep the music on. And after the intervention of French troops and the UN peacekeeping mission, the Islamists were forced to retreat.
The violence is not yet over, but the music has returned to the north. The Guardian reports that bars in the northern city of Gao have re-opened.
Malians know what they have. They know their music is special. I get a sense that they’re not focusing so much on trying to collaborate with the hottest American or French music idol of the week or scrambling to pose for foreign magazines. Many Malian musicians are just content with the music of their land.
By Chika Oduah