Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 4, 2006

Miracle in Mali

With the release of Ali Farka Toure’s last studio album before his demise, Salif Keita’s latest and a few fragments of the Amadou et Mariam’s Summerstage performance that I did catch still fresh in my mind, I started contemplating why Mali produces such a phenomenal volume of world class musicians. It certainly can’t be explained in terms of relative affluence — the country is among the poorest in Africa. Perusing the always excellent Arts & Letters Daily, I came across this article in the Wilson Quarterly by Robert Pringle a former US ambassador to Mali that while a tad meandering is fascinating reading. His conclusion on why a country that has all the elements for instability – poverty, a vastly diverse population, religious tensions and a history of dictatorship – is that Malians draw on a history of multiethinic states and emphasize decentralization.

The most striking thing about Malian democracy is its success in drawing intellectual and spiritual sustenance from an epic past, and actively incorporating homegrown elements, such as decentralization.

If there is occasional fiddling with historical truth, the past provides plenty of room for differing viewpoints and for shaping tradition to meet modern needs. It is this aspect of the Malian experience that is least appreciated, and it deserves more attention from policymakers, both African and foreign, who have a tendency to assume that “tradition” equates with “bad.”

The degree cultural distance that Malians feel from each other was brought home to me when I read the liner notes for “In the Heart of the Moon”, which is essentially an extended jam session between Farka Toure and kora player Toumani Diabate. Naively, I supposed that the two drew on a shared cultural heritage, but apparently not. This is Ali Farka’s Toure view of the recording session:

“I am Arma and Toumani is a griot. I am from the Songrai/Peul culture in the north and he is a Mande from the south. It’s rare that musicians meet like this from different musical traditions. But there is something that unites us and that is art and culture. Which have no borders. We both work toward the same goal. For the same things. Therefore color is not an issue, and musical differences are not an issue. This did not start yesterday. Whether you are Tamaschek, Peul, Hassania, Songhai or Sonrai you are Malian. Wherever you make your bed you are Malian.”

And here is Diabate’s (in part):

“People will be very suprised when they hear Ali play Manding music, which is the music of the Griot people.”

Expressed in other terms, what is remarkable about Mali is not only the depth of its cultural heritage, but the emphasis on the harmonious interplay of cultures.

Here’s a list of a few world-class Mali musicians:

Salif Keita

Rokia Traore

Ali Farka Toure (and interview with World Circuits Record founder Nick Gold on recording Ali)

Habib Koite

Toumani Diabate

Super Rail Band


And lest we lose sight of important matters – the lost Jews of Timbuktu.


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