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Music in West Africa: Mali Part I

This is the first part of a series that will highlight some of my favorite genres and artists in West Africa. On my past trip, I collected tapes and CDs, met musicians, and drank raw milk that was poured into my mouth out of a Calabash by Mamou Sidibe at a concert in Bamako. I will organize the posts in whichever way makes the most sense to me. This one is all about Mali.

I have already dedicated one post on this site to Malian music. Check it out if you haven’t. Consider this a massive expansion.

Malian music is special. It seems Western audiences, labels, and artists are starting to take note. From a recent New York Times article titled “Indie Rock Embraces an African Invasion:

But the focal point of the labels’ interest is clearly Mali, a landlocked nation in sub-Saharan West Africa with a population of only 14.5 million, less than one-10th that of Nigeria.

Both Bassekou Kouyate and Sidi Touré come from Mali, as do Tinariwen, the blind Francophone pop duo known as Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabaté, Afel Bocoum and older performers who first became known on the world-music circuit, like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Oumou Sangaré. The country’s reputation as a musical powerhouse has become so strong that Blk Jks is contemplating crossing the continent from Johannesburg to record its next CD there; Jon Kertzer, an ethnomusicologist who oversees Sub Pop’s Next Ambiance label, even wrote a paper titled “Good Golly, Why Mali?

This attention is understandable. Here’s why:

Amadou & Mariam

From the original Mali post: “Mariam lost her vision when she was five years old because of untreated measles. Amadou went blind when he was 16. After meeting at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, they got married and began making some of the most beautiful music in the world.”

For the past thirty years, they have been writing love songs to each other. I’ll let you take a moment to think about that.


A comment on the youtube page: “it turns out that a middle aged couple from mali can make better and more “now” music than all the hipsters in brooklyn. go figure.”

“Sabali” means patience in Bambara. “Sabali sabali sabali yonkontê” – patience, patience is worth everything


A remix from Vitalic. Sooo good. This is part of an Amadou & Mariam remix album that came out earlier this month. Check it out on Itunes (it’s exclusive there for now).


Like ‘Sabali,’ this is on the Welcome to Mali album. Slammin’ song.

Souley Kante

An auto-mechanic, traditional healer, blacksmith, and one of the best male vocalists to ever come out of Mali. He has not received international acclaim, but he is well known in Mali, especially in the Wassoulou region.


I love everything about this song and video. You can download the entire album at awesome tapes from africa, a website that you should be subscribed to if you are interested in African music. Unfortunately, his music is not available for purchase through any online format. Go to Mali or check out a record store.

Ramata Diakite (RIP)

A great tragedy for the Malian music scene, Ramata died from Hepatitis A when she was just 35 years old. A gorgeous Wassoulou songstress with a stunning voice. Get lost in it with these songs.


Couldn’t find a video for “Nana,” the song below, so I uploaded it to soundcloud. You can download it by clicking on the down arrow. One of my favorites.

Ramata Diakite – Nana by lionsinthetiles

Habib Koité

A gifted guitarist and vocalist, Habib also has one of the most talented bands in Mali, Bamada. On this song, a live version of “I Mada,” Habib and the band take their time and craft some true magic. Kélétigui Diabaté, one of the most renowned balafon players in Mali, takes off towards the end of the song.


From the same album, “Wari.” Could listen to this song all day. You should by this album by the way: Habib Koite Foly – Live Around the World

Coumba Sidibe (RIP)

One of the old-school, legendary Wassoulou singers, Coumba’s voice is straight power. Booming pipes. This song starts a bit mellow and then around 20 seconds, she blows the doors off. Holy shit. Video is crazy too.


This is truly special, and one of the reasons YouTube is a treasure trove. From a comment on the page: “Its a clip from 1985 with Coumba Sidibé (the singer), Mamadou Sidibé (the Kamale ngoni player) and Zoumana Yoro (the journalist).”


I guess those are bombs exploding in the beginning of this one? I love the combined instrumentation of cheesy synths and Gnoni. Coumba makes her presence felt when she jumps in.


From a tribute to Coumba Sidibe:

We report with tremendous sadness that Coumba Sidibe, pioneering Wassoulou singer of Mali, and grand woman of West African song, died on Saturday, May 10, 2009, at her home in Brooklyn, NY. With her deep, earthy voice, commanding stage presence, profound knowledge of tradition, and composing prowess, Coumba was the real thing. She took what was deepest and strongest in her culture and made it vividly real and relevant to listeners in her modern times. She was a trailblazer for women in West African music and a mother figure for one of Mali’s most successful musical genres, Wassoulou. To underscore the point, the world’s best known Wassoulou diva, Oumou Sangare, was once a chorus singer in Coumba’s group.

Read more here

Part II of Mali next. This post mainly featured Wassoulou music (named after the region of the same name), which is characterized by the kamelen’goni, a traditional six string harp, call and response vocals, and usually, a commanding female presence at the front. I have more Wassoulou to share and a whole lot more from of everything else from Mali before we move on to Senegal and then elsewhere in the region.

Have any favorites from Mali? Let me know in the comments.

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Erica January 31, 2011, 6:18 am

    I am totally in love with Amadou & Mariam! Great post – I’m always looking for new things to listen to. 🙂

  • phil January 31, 2011, 12:42 pm

    Hey Erica,
    Thanks for the comment 🙂 Glad you like Amadou et Mariam, they are one of my faves! B well, Phil

  • Michael Hodson January 31, 2011, 12:54 pm

    Wow, Phil, almost too much information here. Music and video overload!! I shall have to take my time and absorb.

    • phil February 1, 2011, 4:22 pm

      yeah, it’s a lot. But definitely worth your time. Powerful stuff.

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures January 31, 2011, 7:19 pm

    Love love love this music!

    • phil February 1, 2011, 4:23 pm

      Andi, I knew you were down with Malian music already, but hopefully you will see something new in this series!

  • Christian July 11, 2011, 5:13 am

    I love Mali music. Since I listened to Salif Keita for the first time I’ve been on a quest for Mali songs and allover Africa, to love.
    And then I met Habib Koite, my favourite! But I’m still looking..
    Great post.

    • phil July 11, 2011, 8:27 am

      Habib is great! You should check out a few of my other posts on music in Mali,I think there are 4 or so now. Thanks for the comment 🙂

      • Christian July 11, 2011, 9:38 am

        Yes I noticed that this is just a piece of it.. I’ll go trough all the posts one by one 😉

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