It’s difficult, nee impossible, to review and feature the music emanating from Mali without briefly outlining the country’s past and current difficulties. Such is the devastation and injury caused during years of civil war which began with a rebellion in the north by the Tuareg – for various reasons unhappy at their treatment and alienation from the Malian central government; fighting for an autonomous region, named the Azawad, in the north east -, though the instability caused by the spread of an ever more aggressive hardline form of Islam from outside the country and natural concerns such as drought have conspired to pull Mali apart.
Whilst the Syrian conflict – for good reason – continues to dominate the news feeds internationally, the countless infractions and acts of brutality in North and West Africa struggle to make the headlines. Whether vaporised by western technology or bullying the local populations across the region, ISL, ISIS or whatever the abbreviation is these days, the victims in this bloody battle to establish a tyrannical caliphate are for the most part Muslim. With a zealous taste for punishment and a puritanical mindset that would put Cromwell’s prudish stoicism to shame, they’ve all but condemned any practice, activity and spark of creativity that falls outside their myopic perimeters. And if, like many tribes that make up the fabric of Mali your customs and atavistic roots heavily feature song and music than you’re for the CHOP! After years of civil war between the government and the Bedouin Tuareg people an uneasy but stable truce has returned some kind of normality back to the country. A “rebellion” that was dominated both by hardliner Tuareg groups such as Ansar Dine and insurgents from outside the country, the recent embittered conflict threatened to escalate as fanatical Islamist elements dominated. Invited or not, they saw an opportunity to conquer and spread their Sharia dictate, much to their ill-at-ease comrades in the more moderate National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Far too complicated and nuanced than the space given here for a music review, the eventual outcome was a three-way battle between all parties as the Tuareg fell out with each other. With the capital of Bamako at risk – though the fountain of Mali knowledge and much-venerated ancient seat of learning, Timbuktu was captured by the Tuareg groups and made the state capital of the Azawad region, before being recaptured by government forces – the Malian government were forced to work with their former colonial rulers France to take back control.
It’s hardly a surprise to find countless poignant allusions to these events throughout the Malian music scene, from the Tuareg desert bluesman to the capital’s hallowed-out canoe-shaped ngoni players. Despite this or perhaps because of it, Mali’s adroit musicians have provided some of the most richly rewarding, inventive and evocative music of the past few years. The triumvirate desert caravan of Tamikrest, Tinariwen and Terakaft and leading Malian greats like Samba Touré and Bassekou Kouyaté have taken back the blues and rock’n’roll from the USA and once again imbued it with the ancestral roots of West Africa to inject a much-needed new electrifying jolt of power into a limp genre: in the case of Bassekou, Ba Power. Following in the wake of Songhai bluesman Samba Touré’s nimbly picked Gandadiko LP earlier in the year, comes two more entrancing Mali peregrinations from Terakaft and Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba.