Mali remains a wellspring of great music and culture. After much deliberation, we are proud to present the top 25 albums to come from Mali, reminding us that there is an endless amount to celebrate in its music. By Nigel Williamson, Simon Broughton and Matt Milton. This article originally appeared in Songlines issue No 93 (July 2013)
Habib Koité & Bamada
Afriki (Cumbancha, 2007)
Listening to this album is like having an old friend coming to visit, with plenty of great tales to tell and smiles for all. It brims with all those comforting things that set Habib Koité, the gentle giant of Malian music, apart from most of his contemporaries. The husky voice, catchy choruses, trickling guitar patterns and clever jigsaw of Mali’s myriad musical traditions are all there. There are touches of desert blues, with ngoni lute and even an eerie chorus of hunters’ antelope horns softly caressing the clever arrangement of ‘Nta Dima’, lifting it to a rare level of musical bliss.
Kasse Mady Diabaté
Kassi Kasse (EMI Hemisphere, 2003)
Kasse Mady Diabaté went back to his griot roots on this all-acoustic album, steeped in Mande folklore. Recorded via a mobile studio in his village of Kela, the instrumental backdrop is near perfect, thanks to Bassekou Kouyaté on the ngoni, Daramane Coulibaly on flute and Cuban bassist Orlando ‘Cachaito’ López. Yet they are all really only there to provide a context for Kasse Mady’s extraordinary voice. As far back as his days with National Badema du Mali it was clear he was one of the few Malian singers to rival Salif Keita. But he has never sung as movingly as he does here.
Aratan N Azawad (World Village, 2011)
Guitarists Kedou Ag Ossad and Diara were both original members of the Touareg band Tinariwen, but Terakaft are far more than a mere spin-off. Their two guitars weave in and out of each other, complementing the simple vocals and brisk handclaps, sounding much more ponderous and contemplative than their desert blues brethren. Aratan N Azawad was Terakaft’s second studio album, and it hears the band at their most mellow and relaxed. It has much of the atmosphere of classic country rock, albeit with riffs and vocals that are unmistakably West African in their trance-inducing power.
Mali Denhou (Lusafrica, 2011)
Now in his 70s, Mali’s pre-eminent surviving bluesman is heard here on a superbly atmospheric set. His funky, acoustic guitar picking is backed by calabash and some magnificently intense blues harmonica from Frenchman Vincent Bucher, who plays on all but one of the tracks. Not so much an accompanist as a duetting partner, Bucher’s moodily wailing harmonica echoes Boubacar’s soulful voice in traditional call-andresponse style. But although the blues is the dominant strain, it’s not the only string to Boubacar’s bow and several Mande folk tunes here offer a charmingly playful contrast of styles.
Biriko (Sterns, 2002)
Kandia Kouyaté is one of the great female vocalists of Mali – and it’s a country with no shortage of competition. Hailing from one of the leading Mande griot families, Kandia produced a compelling acoustic work that conjures up images of the mighty Malian empire in its 13th-century prime. Mahamane Diabaté’s balafon ripples through the album like a stream, while the wailing sax of Nicolas Gueret adds a contemporary touch. The closing track, ‘Kadabila’ (Stop Fighting), is an impassioned call for peace. Produced by Ibrahim Sylla, this is West African music at its most sublime.
Vieux Farka Touré
The Secret (Six Degrees, 2011)
On this album, Vieux Farka Touré forges his own identity as both a guitarist and a mature songwriter. The opening number, ‘Sokosondou’, is a swirling mesh of guitars and call-and-response vocals; as confident a statement of intent as you could get. But it’s the title-track that invariably garnered the most attention. Its central motif was recorded by Vieux’s legendary father, Ali Farka, shortly before he died. It has that quintessential desert blues feel, with father and son’s guitars entwining around each other while a flute occasionally breaks the surface. On this album, the guitar is benevolent king rather than repressive dictator.
Mali Music (Honest Jon’s, 2002)
Damon Albarn has long been a champion of Malian music and musicians. On Mali Music he pulled together the singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum, legendary kora player Toumani Diabaté and Ko Kan Ko Sata, one of the few women to play the kamalengoni, among others. The opening track is pure Damon Albarn, presumably to avoid scaring off the indie fans, but the rest of the album expertly combines the traditional instruments, chants and riffs of Mali with electronica and heavy dub. It works a treat. The stylish, highly individual balafon playing of Neba Solo is one particular revelation.
Mali Koura (Six Degrees, 2008)
Having taken a four-year break from recording, it would have been easy for Issa to make a conservative, safe all-acoustic album. Instead he stuck to his guns, mixing traditional Malian instrumentation with electronica. An Issa Bagayogo kamalengoni riff is as instantly recognisable as a Keith Richards guitar lick in the way it motors along like a clockwork toy. There’s a jazzy feel to tracks such as ‘Tcheni Tchemakan’, with layered horns, delicate piano and Issa’s sensitive crooning. It’s the juxtaposition of these ‘sophisticated’ European elements with the buzz and clang of the kamalengoni and the polyrhythmic clatter of percussion that makes this album so compelling.
At Peace (No Format, 2013)
Ballaké Sissoko is kora royalty. The three exquisite solo tracks here have a delicacy and depth that reinforces the idea that solo kora music is one of the classical forms of African music. The percussive balafon, played by Fassery Diabaté, and the long bowed lines of Vincent Segal’s cello really add to the palette on a track like ‘Kalata Diata’. A welcome curiosity is the Brazilian forró song, ‘Asa Branca’ by Luiz Gonzaga, which takes on a whole new life with Ballaké’s kora ornamentations of the melody. This is an album that will delight you with its artistry and integrity.
Abacabok (Crammed Discs, 2008)
Tartit, one of the great desert bands of northern Mali, is dominated by the hypnotic, chanting vocal lines of Fadimata Walett Oumar and her four female companions. They sit down to sing, playing on tinde hand drums backed up by bluesy guitars, the dry tehardent lute or the gently wailing imzad (the one-stringed gourd violin) from the male band members. Passages of call-andresponse singing are urged on by handclapping and bursts of jubilant ululations from the women. Their off-kilter juggernaut rhythms are extraordinarily powerful: this is acoustic desert music that rivals dubstep or even death metal for its heaviness.
Fatou (World Circuit, 2011)
Born in the Ivory Coast but raised in Bamako, Fatoumata Diawara draws on the hunters’ rhythms of her ancestral Wassoulou tradition. There are shades of her mentor Oumou Sangaré, for whom she sang backing vocals, and of her close friend Rokia Traoré. But Fatoumata has a style and feel all her own. The zingingly tuneful ‘Sowa’ threads effortlessly into the slippery, Congolese-guitar-led ‘Bakonoba’. The less-ismore production enhances the sparse, acoustic-guitardriven arrangements with a subtle touch of Fender Rhodes piano here, a plinking ngoni there. The sultry grace with which she stretches out over the Wassoulou-flavoured ‘Kele’ insinuates its way into your heart.
Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey, 2011)
A raw and grainy all-acoustic essay in the Songhai blues, Sahel Folk was recorded in the town of Gao on the River Niger by the desert’s edge. Fourteen years had elapsed between Sidi’s first solo album and this wonderful follow-up. The songs are presented in a live field-recording style, exactly as they should be – the guitars, voices and hand-clapping are unadorned by studio trickery. Several tracks are hewn from the deep seam of desert blues that Ali Farka Touré worked. Elsewhere the loping rhythms evoke an unplugged Tinariwen. But Sidi is his own man, with his own unique take on the traditional folk music of northern Mali.
The Festival in the Desert (Independent Records, 2003)
The Festival in the Desert, organised by the Touareg near Timbuktu, was one of the first casualties of the Islamist intervention in 2012. It had already moved from its remote Essakane site to the outskirts of Timbuktu in 2010 for security reasons. This live recording was made in Essakane in 2003 and the late Charlie Gillett described it as ‘one of the best live albums ever made’. It includes Malian stars Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré, some great lesser-known bands and western artists Robert Plant, Justin Adams, Lo’Jo and pianist Ludovico Einaudi. You can just sense the space and feel the hour-glass sand beneath your feet.
Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music, 2010)
What makes Khaira’s music so exciting is the brilliant mixture of the traditional and the modern. The opening song, ‘Goumou’, about an Islamic festival, is permeated by the soft sounds of ngoni and desert fiddle while ‘Khaira’, about her own mission to spread joy through music, is driven by the electric guitar of Abdramane Touré. His flamboyant, distorted guitar sound is integral to the sound of Khaira’s band. Born to Songhai and Berber parents, Khaira has written several songs on the album about the different ethnic groups of the north of Mali, and ‘Tarab’ is about trying to build a homeland. She is a defining voice of Mali, in complete control.
Toumani Diabaté & Ballaké Sissoko
New Ancient Strings (Hannibal, 1999)
The gentle sound of the kora is one of the great pleasures of life. You can let the intricate plucking and subtly shifting rhythms wash over you, or you can focus in on the complex interlocking patterns. Toumani and Ballaké are Mali’s leading players from two of the most important griot families and this album, produced by Lucy Durán, was an act of homage to the duo album Ancient Strings recorded by their fathers, Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimady Sissoko, in 1970. Most of the pieces on New Ancient Strings are kora evergreens – this is quite simply one of the greatest kora albums there is.
Moffou (Universal, 2002)
Along with Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita was the artist that first brought Malian music to worldwide attention in the late 80s. His Paris-produced Soro (1986) thrilled audiences with its mix of Malian instruments and electronics and Salif’s incantatory vocals. It still stands up well today, but the pick of Salif’s dozen solo albums is surely Moffou, the ‘return to roots’ album he produced when he returned to Bamako around the turn of the millennium. The album includes a couple of beautiful intimate numbers, just Salif and guitar, some Afro-funk with female backing vocals and the delightful ‘Yamore’, a duet with Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora.
Oumou (World Circuit, 2003)
While Oumou contained some previously released material – great in itself – it was the eight new tracks, from an album that was released only in Mali, that made the headlines. These rank among the best she has ever made. The bluesy ‘Ne Bi Fe’, a love song composed on the spot in the studio, is an atmospheric tour de force. ‘Laban’ is equally good, a densely textured mesh of traditional instruments and strings, topped with a mesmerising vocal. The moving ‘Magnoumako’, about Oumou’s mother, is another winner, while ‘Djorolen’ sounds like a slowed-down, heavily Africanised version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’. They proved that West Africa’s number one diva was very much back in business.
Ali Farka Touré
Savane (World Circuit, 2006)
As deep as the unearthly recordings of Robert Johnson or early Muddy Waters, this swansong from Africa’s greatest guitarist was steeped in the purity of the blues. Yet it was also an album of wonderfully contrasting sounds and textures. Somehow Ali made the tenor sax of former James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis and the reggae lilt of the title-track sound like they were coming home to their African source, while his own playing tapped into a rich and unfathomably ancient spirit. Saving the best until last, Ali left us Savane as a fitting finale to his magisterial career.
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni ba
Jama Ko (Out Here, 2012)
This is a thrilling, urgent mix of African blues, rock and funk, with Bassekou’s electrified, banjo-like ngoni cranked up to the max. The pulsating turbulence of Jama Ko reflected the political turmoil in which he recorded his third album, with music banned by the Islamist factions who had taken control of northern Mali. Several songs seethe with anger and frustration at what was happening, tinged with a deep sadness. Others pay tribute to the hard-pressed peoples of the desert and guest vocalists, including Khaira Arby and Kasse Mady Diabaté, lend their support. Out of Mali’s desperate plight, Bassekou created his finest hour.
The Mande Variations (World Circuit, 2008)
If the title was intended to echo Bach’s Goldberg Variations, it was a well-chosen analogy, for a baroque grace and elegance fills these extended instrumental compositions for solo kora. The effect is meditative, and yet there is a subtle rhythmic complexity, too, which underpins the music’s intricate, dignified counterpoint. Instead of sounding austere, the effect is voluptuous as Toumani’s kora weaves endlessly varying contours of melody, harmony and groove. That a solo instrument recorded without overdubs can sound so lush and layered remains miraculous. A heroic record by a maestro musician, who is justifiably dubbed ‘the Ravi Shankar of the kora.’
Aman Iman (Independiente, 2007)
On Tinariwen’s third album, everything comes together with so much more bite and urgency than on their previous recordings. Producer Justin Adams must take a good share of the credit. There’s an epic weight to the sound, the voices sounding commanding as well as spaced out by all that Saharan sun. The powerful opening track, ‘Cler Achel’, is a statement of intent: the song explodes every time the chorus of female vocals kicks in, a joyous response to the more nonchalant but no less potent singing of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s founder member. There’s a decisive thrust to the rhythms and a real dirtiness to those squirming electric guitar lines. The intensity never lets up; on ‘Matadjem Yinmixan’, Alhabib’s chiming lead guitar sounds like a West African counterpart to the exploratory rock soloing of Richard Lloyd of Television or Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Indeed, this album is a real treat for guitar fans: the ghost of Jimi Hendrix is summoned via the wonderfully surly wah-wah-pedal of the brooding ‘Assouf’. The slow-burning ‘Ahimana’ has a wonderfully throaty vocal from long-standing member Japonais, and a groove possessing all the purpose of a ritual. But the album has its tender moments too. The all-acoustic ‘Ikyardagh Dim’ has the feel of a deep-desert nocturnal jams and shows the band at its most bluesy: if you have ever wondered why the words ‘desert blues’ are routinely trotted out to describe the music of the Sahel, this will leave you in no doubt.
Tchamantché (Nonesuch, 2008)
As beautiful, striking and unadorned as the shaven-headed picture on its cover, Rokia’s fourth album confirmed her as Africa’s boldest and most experimental diva. On 2003’s Bowmboï she had collaborated on several tracks with the Kronos Quartet, but the follow-up was different again. Boasting a trembling introspection, masterful understatement and graceful arrangements unlike almost anything else in Malian music, it’s a record built around the resonant but subtle thrum of her Gretsch guitar, her bluesy lines underpinned by classical western harp and African ngoni to create an elegantly baroque and sculpted setting, hauntingly spare and with the scrape of every string heard in pin-dropping clarity. Yet for all the instrumental deftness, Tchamantché is primarily a showcase for Rokia’s quietly compelling voice, an instrument that on stage can wail with the best but here is used with a more personal and nuanced sensibility. That said, the emotional range of her singing is impressive. From yearning vibrato to smouldering solemnity, sometimes feathered and breathy and sometimes more rousing and assertive, there’s an intensity and genuine sense of gravitas as she sings in Bamana, French and, in one conspicuous case, accented English on a gorgeous version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’. Rokia’s cosmopolitan upbringing (her father was a diplomat so she spent much of her childhood travelling outside Mali) has gifted her a perspective that combines both African tradition and Western modernity, and nowhere is the duality more potently realised than on Tchamantché, which won her the Best Artist category in the first Songlines Music Awards in 2009.
Amadou & Mariam
Dimanche à Bamako (Because, 2004)
By the time Dimanche à Bamako was released in 2004, the blind Malian couple Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia had been playing together for 20 years. International success came after they moved to Paris in the late 90s, and three fine albums of distinctive Afro-blues followed to establish them as one of West Africa’s best-selling acts. But what made Dimanche à Bamako a career highlight was the presence of the mercurial Manu Chao as producer. The result was the duo’s most diverse and joyous album, a thrilling mix of Amadou’s deep blues guitar, Mariam’s wailing vocals and Chao’s unique global Gypsy touches. Chao contributed several tunes, including the effervescent ‘Taxi Bamako’ and the global mash of ‘Sénégal Fast Food’. His trademark kinetic energy is in ample evidence and the cop-car sirens, the seamless segues, the ambient street sounds and the eclectic instrumentation could all have come from a Manu Chao record. But this was no takeover bid – Dimanche à Bamako is very much an Amadou & Mariam record, which Chao merely enhanced by sprinkling over it a little of his technicolor magic dust. ‘Coulibaly’ layers African harmonies and bluesy guitar over a swirling rhythm of clattering percussion, Amadou’s magisterial ‘La Réalité’ drives relentlessly and on ‘Camions Sauvages’ Mariam even flirts deliciously with rap. The duo has since collaborated with numerous other Western musicians from Damon Albarn to the Scissor Sisters. But none has matched the joie de vivre that Chao brought to this set.
Belle Epoque Vol 2: Mansa (Sterns, 2008)
Listening to this overview of their early years, from 1970 to 1983, it’s amazing how the Rail Band seemed to stand at the crossroads of so much African music from the whole continent. Perhaps it was because they were very much a blue-collar band who had to entertain many different audiences: they were railway employees, based for years at the station hotel in Bamako. On the one hand there are lilting, tropical influences, with audible elements of calypso and Latin mambo: the warm, generous harmonies of the Mory Kanté-led ‘Balakononifing’ are like immersing yourself into a warm sea. But then ‘Dugu Kamaleba’ and ‘Finza’ are both rolling quasi-Afro-beat, with a nod to Fela Kuti in the soulful organ work. ‘Dioula’ has shades of the music of Ethiopia’s golden age, while the later ‘Konowale’ showcases the Congolese influences of the band’s guitar genius Djelimady Tounkara. The compilation’s title-track is like some lost roots reggae classic, with its irresistible groove, Jamaican-sounding horns and intense guitar playing. The unusual plinks and plonks in the background clearly had an influence on Manu Chao. The Rail Band was an instrumental powerhouse, but it’s also fascinating to hear the contrast between the group’s successive lead vocalists, several of whom would go on to become legends with international careers. So we can compare the tones of the young Salif Keita with the wailing, often androgynous vocals of Mory Kanté, the more piercing-sounding Djelimady Sissoko and the Rail Band’s other vocalist, Magan Ganessy, who has a more conversational and relaxed style of delivery. This is a snapshot of one band but it could almost be the musical map of a country.
Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté
Ali and Toumani (World Circuit, 2010)
It should come as little surprise that our list is topped by the sublime collaboration between the two most significant names in Malian music over the past quarter of a century. The individual recordings of both Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré feature high in the upper echelons of our list. But together they proved to be an unbeatable combination at number one. Had they not made this second recording together, the accolade might easily have gone to their first collaboration, 2005’s Grammy-winning collaboration In the Heart of the Moon. Toumani himself hesitates to claim that the second album is a better record than its predecessor. Instead he describes it as ‘stronger and wiser,’ so let us settle for that. By the time the album was recorded in 2005, Ali was already ill with cancer and knew that he was dying. In the Heart of the Moon had been recorded the previous year at Bamako’s Hotel Mande, a romantic location on the banks of the Niger River. The follow-up was recorded over the course of three afternoons in the somewhat more prosaic surroundings of a North London studio and proved that their stringed magic transcended location and required no special circumstances beyond their own mutual inspiration. The diversity and intensity of the musical fantasia the two maestros fashioned together is breathtaking, with Toumani playing in seemingly bolder fashion than on their previous collaboration, as if he knew it was his final opportunity to work with one of Africa’s musical giants. Ali’s playing, too, is imbued with a profound soulfulness, as if he was determined to pour all the sagacity of a lifetime into what he knew would be his final recording. The intuitive understanding between them dips deep into the well of Mali’s rich and vibrant musical history. The elegant ‘Ruby’ opens the album, Toumani’s fluid kora arpeggios spilling rapturously over Ali’s pulse-like guitar. ‘Sabu Yerkoy’ is sprightlier, with a gentle vocal from Ali underpinned by a simple, joyous bass line from Cuba’s Cachaito López, who also passed away not long after these recordings. ‘Warbé’, ‘Samba Geladio’ and ‘Machengoidi’ are deep excursions into the desert blues. ‘Bé Mankan’ is full of classical grace and poise, while ‘Doudou’ is more playful. ‘Fantasy’ is a lullaby of exquisite sweetness, while the closer ‘Kala Djula’ is perhaps the album’s most enchanting tune. At the very end of the record, Ali’s voice says simply ‘Eh, voilà.’ It’s a poignant farewell, as if he’s telling us that he’s done his utmost and there’s nothing left to say. He lost his battle against cancer nine months after the recording and the album was not released until 2010, three years after his death in March 2007. As a summit meeting between West Africa’s two mightiest musical masters, it’s a collaboration of virtuosic perfection and understanding, a master class in which the two friends spur, inspire and encourage each other to a creative pinnacle of monumental elevation. ‘Eh, voilà’ indeed.