The Music of Mali

As TIMBUKTU starts it’s run at the Picture House, projectionist and music aficionado Mike Shapowitz , gives us a brief overview of the music of Mali.

The music of Mali is as rich and varied as the country itself. Consisting of eight regions and a number of ethnic groups, local languages and cultures supersede colonial borders which preserves a distinct regionalism. Much of the cultural heritage can be traced back to the West African empires that controlled vast areas of the region for several hundred years in the early to mid 1000’s. Musical tastes also transcend some expected divisions both ethnic and political; songs of Tuareg rebellion alongside Bambara hip hop.

Many cultures in the region are traditionally attached to a birth caste system. The Griot caste was a repository for oral tradition and they were expected to be historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets and/or musicians. Griots would also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment. Most villages had their own Griot, who told tales of births, deaths, marriages, battles, hunts, affairs, and hundreds of other things. There are many great Griot families that trace their ancestry back for many generations. The Kouyaté line of Griots that exists to this day has its roots in the Mali Empire.

Traditional instruments used by the musicians of the region include

Ngoni – 4-7 String Lute a precursor to the banjo
Balafon – Xylophone with gourd resonators
Kora – 21-24 string lute-harp
And several different types of drum.

The 6 string guitar was brought to Africa by traders and missionaries. The introduction of the guitar made it socially acceptable for non Griots to play, nurturing a new genre of music – modern, but linked to traditional roots. Drum kits and synthesizers have also made their way into the music and these days the DIY revolution of cheap technology, pirated PC based beat making programs and music recorded on mobile phones produces an abundance of self produced local creations.

After independence in 1960, state sponsored orchestras were created to help restore a national identity by playing traditional music interpreted using modern instruments containing influences from Folklore, American R & B, Congolese rumba, French pop and hints of calypso. The Board of Youth and Sports, for example decided to form a national orchestra appealing to musicians’ sense of patriotism and national pride to join. These orchestras would play for state visits and pushed for the revitalisation of Malian music which ushered in a golden decade  from 1970 to the early 80’s.

Music still plays a huge role in Malian society today. Most towns will proudly have their own bands which play all events, celebratory or political using hand-me-down instruments and second hand amps and generators.

Islamic religion and French language are ubiquitous as are cheap Chinese motorcycles and knock off mobile phones.  Mobile phones play a huge role in spreading the music in the region and as the country opens up and communications become easier, other influences flood into the area and create change and evolution of the sound.

The French have a long history of releasing folk recordings from their former colonies and over the last 20 years or so other western labels have released music both traditional and modern making it even easier to get hold of.  The current troubles can’t extinguish such a rich and engrained musical tradition, it is something that just runs too deep.

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