Nick Bollinger surveys a new compilation mapping the musical geography of Mali.
As you’d expect from a continent of more than a billion people, Africa is the source of many and varied types of music. In recent years the most roadworthy has come from the West African nation of Mali: the music that’s been dubbed the desert blues.
Though desert bluesmen like Ali Farka Toure, bands like Tinariwen and guitar heroes like Bombino have become internationally renowned, Lost In Mali presents a selection of Malian performers previously unheard outside their country. And it demolishes any notion that Malian music is nothing but the desert blues.
The collection covers a lot of territory, both geographically and musically, from the urban sounds of the capital Bamako to the more rural and traditional music of the south and far north.
There’s Bwazan from Segou in south-central Mali on the River Niger, with their rich, polyrhythmic dance music centred on the balafon - a large wooden xylophone. There’s an ancient hunting song sung to a plucked, percussive accompaniment by a group called Barou Drame. At the more contemporary end of things, there’s one from Kas 2 Kastro, with more than a tinge of reggae.
And what of the so-called ‘music ban’ imposed in the north of Mali in 2012 by occupying religious extremists? Technically it was lifted in early 2013 after the region was ‘liberated’ by the French army. And though the terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako last November resulted in the cancellation of a number of musical events around the capital, there’s a sense that the oppression has only served to radicalise the culture. A direct response to the religious and political unrest is the beautiful call for peace by the Niafunke-based Alkibar Jr.
As a survey of styles currently found in West Africa, Lost In Mali may be incomplete; even so, listening to this album must be one of the most enjoyable ways to get lost.
Songs played: Yawoye, An Ka Foli Ke, Diagatoula, Lousane, Kaya, La Paix