Africa is a continent of wonders. If there is any other continent that is culturally akin to Asia, it is Africa. There are more than 40 countries in Africa with different languages, cultures, and heritages, which arguably makes it the second most diverse continent in the world.
Africa’s rich culture includes a wealth of breathtaking music that’s been a hallmark for centuries. The roots of African music can be traced back to Ibn Battuta, the great Moroccan explorer and scholar who penned one of the most important travel journals in history, the Riḥlah.
Each of Africa’s 5 regions have contributed to the continent’s extensive musical history; however, the West African region tops the list as the home to the crème de la crème of African music; notably Mali who have led the way in driving its centuries-old musical traditions to the contemporary world.
We present five Malian musicians who have inspired millions and worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet while making African music richer than ever.
ALI FARKA TOURÉ
Often regarded as the pioneer of modern West African music, Ali Farka Touré was born in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. Blending traditional Malian instruments like the Jeliya, Ngoni and Kora, with Jazz and Blues music, he gave birth to Tishoumaren or African Desert Blues, a style of music that is now used in the Saharan region of North and West Africa.
He was also one of the earliest African musicians to gain international recognition and was at the forefront of the ‘World Music’ movement of the late 1970s and 1980s.
For his contribution to African music, he was ranked number 76 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Touré died in 2006 and his album ‘Savane’ was posthumously released by World Circuit Records; it was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the category “Best Contemporary World Music Album”. In the wake of his passing, government radio stations in Mali suspended their regular programs to play his music.
Bèrèbèrè, a song by Idrissa Soumaoro Featuring Ali Farka Touré, was used in Marvel’s Black Panther in 2018.
When Blues legend Claire Fredericks, Jr. famously known as Taj Mahal uses the word “genius” to describe an artist, it has to be someone incredibly special; and that is how Bamako based Bassekou Kouyate was addressed. A true master of the Malian musical instrument Ngoni – virtuoso, innovator or legend would be the adjectives used while talking about Bassekou Kouyate’s music.
In addition to his contribution for Ali Farka Toure’s posthumous album, Savane, he worked with Taj Mahal on his ‘Kulanjan’ project; and along with sharing stages with artists like Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, and Bono, he has won several BBC Awards for his first album, ‘Segu Blue’, and his second, ‘I Speak Fula’, was nominated for a Grammy.
He is widely known in Mali and other parts of Africa for his song ‘Jama Ko’, which spoke about unity and respect when Mali was on the brink of war.
AMADOU & MARIAM
Amadou Bagayoko, born in Bamako and blinded by cataracts when he was a teenager and Mariam Doumbia, too born in Bamako and blinded through measles as a young child, met in 1975 where they were both students and music teachers at Mali’s Institute for Young Blind People; and when they met, little did they know that they would go on to become one of the faces of contemporary African music.
Amadou & Mariam had become popular across West Africa in the late ‘90s, which prompted them to make a move to France where they were signed an exclusive deal with Emarcy Records. It was in 2005 when “Dimanche à Bamako,” their collaborative project with French-Spanish sensation Manu Chao hit gold record in Europe and catapulted them to global fame.
Since then, they have released three studio albums featuring the likes of K’Naan, Keziah Jones, -M- and Damon Albarn alongside numerous singles and shared stages with some monumental names like U2, Coldplay, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Shakira and many more. They have also been festival regulars after consistent appearances at festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Glastonbury.
They are known for their song “Sabali” which became the most played French single worldwide of 2009 and ‘Filaou Bessame’, a track that was composed to highlight the discrimination against the Fula Tribe in Mali.
‘Filaou Bessame’ also received an exotic flip from Influential French producer, Cerrone.
Like Ali Farka Touré, Issa Bagayogo was a hero to the people of Mali. Issa came from Korin, a small village that was known for blacksmithing and fishing; however, he found his interest in Kamale n’Koni, a type of local guitar and spent most of his time playing the instrument.
As a musician, he was already well known in the region for singing and playing local songs before he decided in 1991 to make his first cassette in Bamako, which was not well received. 1993 saw the release of his second cassette, which didn’t do well either.
Failures with his releases plunged him into depression and addiction for more than 5 years. His will to resurrect his life made him quit drugs and Issa Bagayogo moved to Bamako with his mother and hit the studio again and went on to change the landscape of African music forever.
He released his first album ‘Sya’ on Six Degrees Records in 1999, an album which was a culmination of his homeland’s traditional sounds mingled with Rock, Funk, Electronica, And Dub. ‘Sya’ was followed by Timbuktu; an album that addressed several issues in Mali, such as racial toleration, regional pride, and drug abuse among Mali’s youth.
His subsequent releases made him one of the most notable musicians to come out of Africa and because of his style of mixing Mali’s folkloric sounds with electronic elements, he was dubbed as ‘Techno Issa’.
Issa Bagayogo was suffering from an illness which he sadly succumbed to in 2016. For his creative and sympathetic music that touched people around the globe, his name will always be remembered as one of Africa’s favourite musical sons.
Modern-day African music is all about experimenting boldly with contemporary elements while staying true to its roots, and Ivory Coast-born, Malian actress, singer-songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara, converges the two immaculately.
Fondly called as the Pop Princess of Mali, and the first Malian female to play the electric guitar, Fatoumata Diawara began writing music that brought the Wassoulou traditions of Mali and global elements together.
She uses her intense voice to compose music by singing in Bambará, Mali’s national language and her lyrics are usually about her motherland and young African womanhood. She has also worked as a social activist and campaigned against the trafficking and sale of black migrants in Libyan slave markets through her song “Djonya” (‘slavery’ in Bambará).
For its rich cultural heritage, Mali continues to be ravaged by wars and conflicts to this day, and Malian musicians do their best to address these issues through their art. Fatoumata Diawara follows the same path and bases her music around migration, mutual respect, struggles of African women, and the cruel practice of female circumcision.
“Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)” is a song that exemplifies her emotions towards these issues where she called the people of Mali to be united and said, “I needed to scream with this song, ‘Wake up! We are losing Mali! We are losing our culture, our tradition, our origins, our roots”.
Following numerous performances across the globe, her breakthrough moment as an artist came in 2020 when she collaborated with English electronic music duo, Disclosure for ‘Douha (Mali Mali)’ with the lyrics of the song being “When you go to my home country/There is unity in my home-country/There is harmony and love in my home-country/There is brotherhood in my home country.”
There are many honourable mentions like Salif Keita, Habib Koité, and Mamadou Diabaté; and we could go on about our passion for Malian and African music as a whole, but we hope you have enjoyed diving deep into the colourful heritage of Mali as much as we did.