Travelling through a country’s music – Mali

It all started with two groups and neither of them were Malian.

Ofo The Black Company was the first and I discovered them in the Botswana special of Top Gear: James May was overtaking, in a old and battered beige Merc, an equally old and battered (albeit not beige) lorry, and that scene was made epic by a wall of sound of a guitar riff. It was, indeed, Ofo The Black Company’s Love is You. They were Nigerians and featured in a record that I subsequently bought, Nigeria 70 – The definitive story of 1970’s funky Lagos (go check out the outfit of the fella on the disc’s cover). Nigeria is quite far off from Mali but, anyway, the seed of modern African music had been planted in my ears.

The second group was my old friend Left Lane Cruiser. I came to know them one night, driving home from the airport in my rental car, when a radio station had a moment of sanity and played Hillgrass Bluebilly, before quickly returning to the usual U2 and Jamiroquai as if nothing had happened. Fort Wayne, Indiana, is even further off from Mali but, anyway, it taught me that something called ‘bluegrass’ existed.

Then, the floodgates opened. One day in France, a casual glance at the Tv screen in a Quick fast food joint introduced me to Amadou et Mariam. Then Tinariwen, the Touareg superstars. Then Tamikrest, their rightful successors. Then Ali Farka Touré, Samba Touré, Sidi Touré, Boubacar Traore, Songhoy Blues, Toumast, Rokia Traore… Besides a little lack of inspiration as far as surnames were concerned, they all had three things in common: being Malian, being bluesy, being great musicians.

Now, how the hell did blues get to Mali?

Well, a short way of telling the story is that blues came from Mali and then, after a while, returned there. Bluegrass, Wikipedia will tell you, is a form of music born out of the backwater world of the Appalachian mountains, where groups of Ulster Scottish and Irish pioneers were starting to settle, bringing with them their usual baggage of customs: booze, weapons, more booze and, yeah, music. Their ballads soon reached the ears of the black slaves labouring the fields immediately to the south of the Appalachian: they found those syncopated rhythms similar to their ancestral tunes and, from there, blues was born.

Said slaves came mostly from Western Africa, sold by other tribes to white merchants and dispatched from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivorie to the Americas. Many came from the areas that used to form part of the Mandinkan Mali Empire; they were from a bewildering bundle of different ethnic groups – Mande, Gur, Songhai, Fula and many more – but had in common one main thing, the kora.

Take any kora, and you’ll be staring at the great-grand-uncle of the banjo. Traditional Malian music, which has the kora as the centerpiece, is highly harmonic and almost ethereal but listen to Toumani Diabaté and tell me if, hidden between the harp-like pirouettes, you won’t hear the rolling dum-du-du-dum, dum-du-du-dum, of a blues tune.

Blues evolved in many different streams, trickling towards like branches in the Mississippi delta and reaching global fame. In Mali, traditional music was going to get a shock when a young Ali Farka Touré attended a gig by Guinean Fodéba Keita, remained duly impressed and started playing his traditional instruments in a slightly different way, following the style he had heard from Keita and that he was beginning to hear from the radio, coming from the other side of the Atlantic. He inadvertently contributed to create southern Mali’s modern folk blues, and it spread like wildfire.

Meanwhile, to the North, a drama unfolded. Mali is a strangely shaped country, with straight-line borders that scream “colonisation” and indeed they were drawn by the French at some conference in Europe, with little if any consideration given to the existing ethnic pattern. Friendly clans found themselves divided by borders they didn’t understand, whilst mortal enemies ended up living shoulder to shoulder. Others, finally, found out that they didn’t have a country to be called their own at all.

This was the not enviable position of the Touaregs, the fierce people living in the Sahara desert, wedged between Algeria, Lybia, Niger, Burkina Faso and, indeed, Mali. Different in history, ethnicity, language and customs from the sub-Saharan people inhabiting the Niger river valley, the Touaregs started voicing the desire for a free Azawad, as they called the northern part of Mali they inhabited. Then they took to the arms.

In this scenario of war and forced displacement, afflicted by draught, the Touareg ended up in squalor in refugee camps in Algeria, not far from the border. In this drab situation young Touareg wound up in the rebel army and, at the same time, started picking up musical instruments. Thousands of kilometers away from the Niger river, Ibrahim ag Alhabib and others discovered blues and created that splendid variety of the genre that we now call desert blues.

It really speaks volumes about the universality of music that two different ethnic groups, far away from one another and often in conflict with each other, developed such an incredibly rich and powerful music scene. However, in 2012, this wealth of culture was at risk of being wiped out from the country.

In January of that year, war between the Malian state and Touareg rebels caught pace once again. This time, though, the largely secular MNLA was backed up by a new group; called Ansar Dine, the new unit of Toureg fighters managed to rout the Malian army and advanced at breakneck speed towards the Niger river and towards Bamako itself, the capital. Ansar Dine’s success was due to weapons seized from the dying Libyan army, and spurred by a fanatical commitment to the cause; this time, though, the cause wasn’t only the liberation of the Touareg homeland, but also the creation of a religious state inspired by strict Islamist principles. Wherever Ansar Dine went, wahhabism – the deviant version of Islam exported by Saudi Arabia and liked by terrorists worldwide – followed in its track.

Ansar Dine routed the MNLA as well and proceeded to establish its state, based on a reading of the Qur’an that only an illiterate could have: music was prohibited. Women right where binned. Timbuktu’s shrines, UNESCO World’s Heritage, were attacked by axe-toting lunatics who believed all historic symbols, even those of their own religion, to be haram, sinful. The blues community had to go into hiding, or fled.

Luckily their permanence was short-lived and their destructive plans didn’t last long. The French army, perpetuating a tradition of colonial intervention lasting centuries, rolled in and routed them. It was a neo-colonial action, but it was needed; without it it’s undeniable that northern Mali, perhaps the whole country, would’ve remained firmly in the zealots’ iron fist. And the world would’ve lost an enormous wealth of history, art and culture…including some damn fine blues.

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