The Music of Mali is dominated by forms derived from the ancient Mande Empire. The Mande people make up most of the country's population, and their musicians, professional performers called jeliw (sing. jeli, French griot), have produced a vibrant popular music scene alongside traditional folk music. Influences also come from the hundreds of ethnic groups surrounding Mali, as well as Moorish and European musical forms.
The Mande people are divided into various groups based on language. They all claim descent from the legendary warrior Sunjata Keita, who founded the Mande Empire. The Mandeka kan, language of the people of Mande is spoken with different dialects in Mali and in parts of surrounding Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal and The Gambia. The most common dialects of Mandeka kan are Bamanan kan and Djoula kan. Djoula kan, a sub-dialect of Bamanan kan, is spoken by descendants of Bamanan people who settled mainly in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso through trade or the expansion of the Mande Empire and the Bamanan and Kenedougou kingdoms. Djoula which means trader in Bamanan, and kan means language. The Djoula kan dialect was born from the influence of local languages on Bamanankan, which is itself a Mandekan dialect. As local people in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso called the travelling traders by their trade name (Djoula), they also used the same name to identify the language they spoke (Djoula kan). Mande music remains a very important aspect of Malian culture. One confusing aspect of the Mande groups is the integration of Fula people (French: Peuls; Fula: Fulɓe; Bambara: Fulaw) into Mande culture. The Mansa Sunjata forced some of these pastoral herders to settle in various regions where the dominant ethnic groups were Maninka or Bamana. Thus, today, we see a number of people with Fula names (Diallo, Diakite, Sangare, Sidibe) who display Fula cultural characteristics, but only speak the language of the Maninka or Bamana.
Maninka music traces its roots back more than eight centuries to a folkloric epoch at the time of the great Mansa Sunjata during the great Mande-centered Mali Empire, and his semi-mythic rivallry with ruler Soumaoro Kante. Mansa Sunjata sent his jeli (modern day historian/musician/orator), or advisor, Diakouma Doua, to learn the secrets of his rival Soumaoro of the Susu people. During this encounter he finds an instrument now known as the "Soso Bala" (believed to be the semi-magical first Balafon). In jeli folklore this instrument is said to have been the source of the great sorcerer Soumaoro's power. When Soumaoro heard the beautiful music that Diakouma played on the bala (currently referred to as a balafon, fon was added by Occidentals) Soumaoro named him Bala Fasseke Kwate (Master of the bala). The Soso Bala still rests with the descendents of the Kouyate lineage in Niaggasola, Guinea, just across the modern border from Mali.
Maninka music is often mistakenly labeled diatonic. Actually, Maninka uses multiple tunings, both major and minor, as well as some "semi-tone" scales. Adherence to note relationships (not writing), decades of ear training and transpositions, that enables the Maninka musician to easily adjust to other styles, tunings, and repertoires of music. Maninka music is a major part of the African roots of American blues music.
The common instruments of the Maninka jeli ensemble are the kora (21-24 string lute-harp, classified by the manner of playing as well as the bridge structure), the bala (a slat idiophone constructed of wood with small gourd resonators, similar to a xylophone), the n'goni (a 4-7 string lute), the jeli dununba (a large mallet drum hung from one shoulder and played with a curved stick, accompanied by a bell played with the opposite hand), the n'taman (an hourglass shaped tension drum, both large and small variations, often called the talking drum), and the tabale (a tall conga-shaped drum played with long, thin flexible sticks). Since the 1950s the jeli have also added the guitar to their repertoire which now plays a significant role in much of jeli music. Most modern touring musicians mix traditional instruments with guitar, electric bass, keyboards, and drum set. As Jeli Lamine Soumano states: "If you want to learn the bala go to Guinea or Mali. If you want to learn the kora go to Gambia or Mali. If you want to learn the n'goni you have only to go to Mali." Each area has developed a specialty instrument, while still recognizing that the roots of the related forms come from Mali.
Most vocalists are female in everyday Mande culture, partially due to the fact that many traditional celebrations revolve around weddings and baptisms, mostly attended by women. Several male and female singers are world renowned. Although it once was rare for women to play certain instruments, in the 21st century women have broadened their range.
The traditional form of the jenbe ensemble is most commonly attributed to the Maninka and Maraka ethnic groups. In its most basic arrangement there is one small dunun (konkoni) and one jenbe soloist. A jenbe accompanist who carries a steady pattern throughout the piece has since been added, as well as the addition of the jeli dununba (also referred to as the Kassonke dunun, names derived from the style of playing and not distinctions of the physical instruments), and the n'tamani (small taliking drum). Many ethnic groups, including the Kassonke, the Djokarame, the Kakalo, the Bobo, the Djoula, the Susu, and others, have historical connections to the jenbe as well.
Maninka music is the most complex of the three Mande cultures. It is highly ornamented and heptatonic, dominated by female vocalists and dance-oriented rhythms. The ngoni lute is the most popular traditional instrument. Most of the best-known Maninka musicians are from eastern Guinea and play a type of guitar music that adapts balafon-playing (traditional xylophone) to the imported instrument.
The traditional music of the Bamana is dominated by the percussion instruments fileh (one-half calabash hand drum), gita (calabash bowl with seeds or cowrie shells attached to give a "clack" sound when rotated),the karignyen (metal scraper), the bonkolo drum (played with one open hand and a thin bamboo stick), the kunanfa (large bowl drum covered by a cowhide and played with the open hands, often referred to as "barra", or "chun"), the gangan (Bamana name for a small, mallet-struck dunun, essentially the same instrument as the konkoni, or kenkeni, played with the jenbe ensemble). The melodic instruments of the Bamana are typically built around a pentatonic structure. The slat idiophone bala, the 6-string doson n'goni (hunter's lute-harp) and its popular version the 6-12 string kamel n'goni, the soku (gourd/lizard skin/horse hair violin adopted from the Songhai, soku literally means "horse tail"), and the modern guitar are all instruments commonly found in the Bamana repertoire. Bamana culture is centered around Segou, Sikasso, the Wassalou region, and in eastern Senegal near the border of Mali's Kayes region. Bamana music is also a major factor in American Blues.
Bamana-speaking peoples live in central Mali; the language is the most common in Mali. Music is simple and unadorned, and pentatonic. Well-known Bamana performers include Mali's first female musical celebrity, Fanta Damba. Damba and other Bamana (and Maninka) musicians in cities like Bamako are known throughout the country for a style of guitar music called Bajourou (named after an 18th century song glorifying ancient king Tutu Jara). Bamana djembe ("djembe" is a French approximation of the Maninka word, with correct English phonetic approximation: jenbe) drumming has become popular since the mid-1990s throughout the world. It is a traditional instrument of the Bamana people from Mali (This is incorrect, the instrument is a Maninka/Maraka instrument adopted by the Bamana).
The Mandinka live in Mali, The Gambia and Senegal and their music is influenced by their neighbors, especially the Wolof and Jola, two of the largest ethnic groups in the Senegambian region. The kora is the most popular instrument.
The jeliw (sing. jeli, fem. jelimusow, French griot) are a caste of professional musicians and orators, sponsored by noble patrons of the horon class and part of the same caste as craftsmen (nyamakala) like blacksmiths Kante, Soumaoro, Fane, Doumbia... Because the jeli class is endogamous, surnames are caste-based; thus, certain names are held only by jeliw. Common jeli surnames include Kouyaté, Kamissoko, Sissokho, Soumano, Diabaté and Koné.
Jeliw are supported by their noble sponsors. Their job is complex. They recount genealogical information and family events. They also laud the deeds of their patron's ancestors and praise their patrons themselves, as well as exhort them to behave morally to ensure the honour of the family name. They also act as dispute mediators. The position is highly respected, and jeliw are often trusted by their patrons with privileged information because the caste system does not allow the jeliw to rival the nobleman.
Few non-jeliw have taken music as a profession, though Salif Keita remains an extremely prominent example of a noble-born Malian who became a singer, adopting traditional garb and styles. He has, however, argued that he sings as an artist, in order to personally express himself, and not as a jeli; however, when he sings the praises of people using a jeli style, the true jeliw argue that he is treading on their territory.
The jeli repertoire includes several ancient songs; the oldest may be "Lambang", which praises music. Other songs praise ancient kings and heroes, especially Sunjata Keita ("Sunjata") and Tutu Jara ("Tut Jara"). Music is typically accompanied by a full dance band, often using electric instruments in recent years. Songs are composed of a scripted refrain (donkili) and an improvised section. Improvised lyrics praise ancestors, and are usually based around a surname. Each surname has an epithet used to glorify its ancient holders, and singers also praise recent and still-living family members. Proverbs are another major component of traditional songs.
The political and historical aspects of the jeli's task fall largely, but not exclusively, within the male jeli's realm, as does the playing of most instruments. The only instrument played by jelimusow traditionally was the karinya, though now some have taken up playing drums, kora, and even ngoni.
The kora is by far the most popular traditional instrument. It is similar to both a harp and a lute and can have between 21 and 25 strings. Ngoni (lutes) and balafon (xylophones) are also common.
The kora is believed to have come from what is now Guinea-Bissau, and is known to have existed by 1796, when Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, reported seeing one. There are two styles of playing the kora. The western style is found mostly in Senegal and The Gambia, and is more rhythmically complex than the eastern tradition. The best known player of the western style is Gambian Jaliba Kuyateh. Eastern kora-playing is more vocally dominated, and is found throughout Mali and Guinea. Respected players of the kora include Sidiki Diabaté, Toumani Diabaté, Djeli Moussa Sissoko and Batourou Sekou Kouyaté.
The ngoni is known to have existed since 1352, when Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveller reported seeing one in the court of Mansa Musa. It is believed to have evolved into the banjo in North America after Mande slaves were exported there en masse. Battuta also reported the existence of a balafon, which is a complex xylophone popular especially among the Susu of western Guinea.
Mande percussion instruments include the tama, djembe and dunun drums.
After World War 2 the guitar became common throughout Africa, partially resulting from the mixing of African, American and British soldiers. Dance bands were popular in Mali, especially the town of Kita's orchestra led by Boureima Keita and Afro-Jazz de Ségou. Imported dances were popular, especially rumbas, waltzes and Argentine-derived tangos. By the 1960s, however, the influence of Cuban music began to rise.
After independence in 1960, Malians saw new opportunities for cultural expression in radio, television and recordings. Under President Modibo Keita, orchestras were state-sponsored and the government created regional orchestras for all seven of the regions, Gao, Kayes, Koulikoro, Mopti, Ségou, Sikasso, Tombouctou and Bamako (the eighth region, Kidal, was created in 1991). From 1962, the orchestras competed in the annual "Semaines Nationale de la Jeunesse" ("National Youth Weeks") held in Bamako. After Keita was ousted by a coup d'état in 1968 organized by General Moussa Traoré, most of Keita's support for the arts was cancelled, but the "Semaines Nationale de la Jeunesse" festival was retained and renamed to "Biennale Artistique et Culturelle de la Jeunesse". It was held every 2 years starting in 1970. Notable and influential bands from the period included the first electric dance band, Orchestre Nationale A, as well as the Ensemble Instrumental National, comprising 40 traditional musicians from around the country and still in operation today, the Rail Band and Pioneer Jazz. Cuban music remained popular in Mali throughout the 1960s, and remains popular today.
Mali's second president, Moussa Traoré, discouraged Cuban music in favor of Malian traditional music. The annual arts festivals were held biannually and were known as the Biennales. Old dance bands reformed under new names, as part of this roots revival. Especially influential bands included Tidiane Koné's Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare, which launched the careers of future stars Salif Keita and Mory Kanté, and Super Biton de Ségou.
Bajourou also became popular, beginning with Fanta Sacko's Fanta Sacko, the first bajourou LP. Fanta Sacko's success set the stage for future jelimusow stars which have been consistently popular in Mali; the mainstream acceptance of female singers is unusual in West Africa, and marks Malian music as unique.
Not all bands took part in Traoré's roots revival. Les Ambassadeurs du Motel formed in 1971, playing popular songs imported from Senegal, Cuba and France. Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band were the two biggest bands in the country, and a fierce rivalry developed. Salif Keita, perhaps the most popular singer of the time, defected in 1972 to Les Ambassadeurs. This was followed by a major concert at which both bands performed as part of the Kibaru (literacy) program. The audience fell into a frenzy of excitement and unity, and the concert is still remembered as one of the defining moments in 1970s Malian music.
The mid-70s also saw the formation of National Badema, a band that played Cuban music and soon added Kasse Mady Diabaté, who led a movement to incorporate Maninka praise-singing into Cuban-style music.
In 1975, Fanta Damba became the first jelimuso to tour Europe, as bajourou continued to become mainstream throughout Mali.
Both the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs left for Abidjan at the end of the 1970s due to a poor economic climate in Mali. There, Les Ambassadeurs recorded Mandjou, an album which featured their most popular song, "Mandjou". The song helped make Salif Keita a solo star. Many of the biggest musicians of the period also emigrated—to Abidjan, Dakar, Paris (Salif Keita, Mory Kanté), London, New York or Chicago. Their recordings remained widely available, and these exiles helped bring international attention to Mande music.
Internationally, Malian popular music has been known more for its male artists. Domestically, Malian music has been completely dominated by female singers such as Kandia Kouyaté since at least the 1980s. Their music is ubiquitous on radio and television and at markets and street-corner stalls. Fans follow them for the moralizing nature of their lyrics, the perception that they embody tradition and their role as fashion trend-setters.
Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band continued recording and performing under a variety of names. In 1982, Salif Keita, who had spent time recording with Les Ambassadeurs' Kanté Manfila, left the band and recorded an influential fusion album, Soro, with Ibrahima Sylla and French keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel. The album revolutionized Malian pop, eliminating all Cuban traces and incorporating influences from rock and pop. By the middle of the decade, Paris had become the new capital of Mande dance music. Mory Kanté saw major mainstream success with techno-influenced Mande music, becoming a #1 hit on several European charts.
In addition the Keita's modernization and the numerous artists who followed in his wake, another roots revival began in the mid-1980s. Guinean singer and kora player Jali Musa Jawara's 1983 Yasimika is said to have begun this trend, followed by a series of acoustic releases from Kanté Manfila and Kasse Mady.
Ali Farka Touré also gained international popularity during this period; his music is less in the jeli tradition and resembles American blues.
At the end of the 1980s, public support for the Malian government declined and praise-singing, with its assumption of support for the status quo and for political leaders, became unfashionable. The region of Wassoulou, south of Bamako, became the center for a new wave of danceable music also referred to as wassoulou.
Wassoulou had been developing since at least the mid-70s. Jeliw had never played a large part in the music scene there, and music was more democratic. The modern form of wassoulou is a combination of hunter's songs with sogoninkun, a type of elaborate masked dance, and the music is largely based on the kamalengoni harp invented in the late 1950s by Allata Brulaye Sidibí. Most singers are women. Oumou Sangaré was the first major wassoulou star; she achieved fame suddenly in 1989 with the release of Moussoulou, both within Mali and internationally.
1990s to present
Since the 1990s, although the majority of Malian popular singers are still jelimusow, wassoulou's popularity has continued to grow. Wassoulou music is especially popular among youth. Although western audiences categorise wassoulou performers like Oumou Sangaré as feminists for criticizing practices like polygamy and arranged marriage, within Mali they are not viewed in that light because their messages, when they do not support the status quo of gender roles, are subtly expressed and ambiguously worded, thus keeping them open to a variety of interpretations and avoiding direct censure from Malian society. Vieux Farka Toure, son of Ali Farka Toure, has gained popularity after playing in front of an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He has also been called, "the Hendrix of the Sahara".
Tinariwen is thought to be the first Tuareg electric band, active since 1982.5 They played at the Eden project stage of the Live8 concert in July 2005.