Music from the West African country of Mali

02 March, 2013

Welcome to As It Is.  I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Today, we are talking about music from the West African country of Mali.  Mali is famous for its music.  But that tradition has been threatened recently. 

The crisis in Mali began last year, when soldiers overthrew the president.  And Islamist militants soon seized control of the north.  The militants put cultural restrictions on the area -- including restrictions on music.

Bassekou Kouyate is a musician from Mali who has won many international awards.  He recently was in London with his band, Ngoni Ba.  Ngoni is the name of a traditional Malian instrument.  It is a six-string instrument that you play with your fingers.  It sounds like this.

Bassekou Kouyate was in London to perform in a concert.  While he was there, he criticized the Islamist militants’ restrictions on music in his country. He says music is a Muslim tradition.

“The prophet Mohammed himself invited an orchestra to his house to perform at a festival for his wife.” 

One of Bassekou Kouyate’s new songs is called “Jama Ko.”  Jama means “country,” and “ko” means about, so the song is about the country.  Bassekou Kouyate says he wrote the song to tell the world what he thinks the true Malian spirit is.

Heather Maxwell hosts VOA’s “Music Time in Africa” program.  She is an American who lived in Mali.  She says, the lyrics of “Jama Ko” mean something like, “If there’s a big party, everybody comes and dresses nicely.  Don’t be shy.  Even if you are not rich, you can come and enjoy yourself.  Do what you feel is in your heart.”

“He’s saying Malians in general are very peaceful people.  And it’s true.  The general attitude and spirit there is one of openness. And no one is really shy about just being human and being who they are.”

Several other Malian musicians performed with Bassekou Kouete in Europe.  One was Sidi Touré. For a while, Islamist militants occupied his hometown, called Gao. 

“The musical instruments that belonged to the city orchestra were burned.  There are no more instruments.”

French and West African forces have pushed the Islamist militants out of Gao as well as from most other towns and cities they controlled.  But international forces are still fighting militants in the far north of Mali, near the Algerian border. 

The rest of the country is facing a humanitarian crisis.  The United Nations reports tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since the fighting began.  Tens of thousands more are without food.  And more than half a million children have not been able to go to school.

Fatoumata Diawara is another Malian musician who is trying to call attention to the suffering in Mali.  She has a new song called “Mali Ko,” or About Mali. The song includes many Malian musicians. 

“What they’re saying is look at what’s happening in Mali.  This is not right.  We want peace.”

VOA’s Heather Maxwell says “Mali Ko” reflects several of the country’s musical traditions.  Listen for the classical stringed kora from western Mali.  The fast tempo and xylophones are from the south.  You can even hear some rap music. 

Heather Maxwell says this kind of musical mix makes sense in Mali.  Even though the country is ethnically diverse, Malians often joke about their differences.  Heather Maxwell says when two people meet, they often ask each other’s last names to find out their family background.

“And you call somebody a ‘bean eater,’ for example.  Or, ‘you used to be my slave.’ Or, ‘you’re a lie and a cheat.  And your whole family are liars and cheaters.’  And everybody laughs and they sort of banter.” 

Heather Maxwell says that same respectful relationship is part of the country’s musical tradition. 

“All the music reflects Mali’s diversity, but everyone likes everyone else’s music.”

We leave you with a Brazilian song played by a French cellist and a Malian guitarist. 

“When I hear that, it puts me at peace. And I feel like Mali is going to be okay because this music is very peaceful.”

“Asa Branca,” from the album “At Peace,” by Balike Sisoukou. 

That’s AS IT IS for today.  I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.