In the world music scene, there are few countries that can match the musical output -- in terms of both quality and quantity -- of Mali. With its rich history, cultural variety, large area (nearly twice the size of Texas), and financial and practical support of the arts both by the central government (a relatively stable one until it fell in spring of 2012) and the population at large, it's no wonder that Mali is a musical leader both in Africa and internationally. If your CD collection is sadly lacking in Malian music, here are some essential CDs to get you started.
Habib Koite is well-versed in the wide variety of regional sounds that make up Mali's vast musical landscape, and he blends them with a modern sophistication that makes his music accessible to audiences around the globe. Afriki is sleek, modern, and sexy, but wisely so, with an unabashed nod to traditions.
Oumou Sangare is a singer who comes from the Wassoulou region, of which Southern Mali is a part. Seya, which means "joy," is indeed just that -- it's a deeply joyful look at love and life and even death, from the perspective of a strong and uncompromising African woman, one with a voice of gold, no less.
Salif Keita, known as "The Golden Voice of Africa," is a musician and activist who is a direct descendant of Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Malian Empire. Born with albinism, Keita was ostracized from his royal-caste family and eventually joined up with the Super Rail Band, with whom he launched his career. La Difference explores the issues faced by societal outcasts of all kinds, and this deeply personal album should resonate with anyone who's ever felt that way.
A good portion of the country of Mali falls in the Sahara Desert, home of the nomadic Tuareg people, a Berber people who are neither fully accepted as citizens of any African country, nor do they have independence. The latter was promised to them at one point by Moammar Gadhafi, and many Tuareg youth joined up in his forces. The members of Tinariwen were among those, and they met each other in Gadhafi's training camps. They formed a band, pioneered the genre of desert blues, and the rest is history. Their CDs are consistently solid, with this 2007 offering being a personal favorite.
Bassekou Kouyate is a master of the ngoni, a lute-like instrument that is an ancestor of the banjo. He's shared the stage and collaborated with an international Who's Who, but he's really at his best when he's playing his music, which is the case here. Warm and resonous, the ngoni is the acoustic star here, bolstered by a fantastic electric band. Ngoni Ba is old and new, in perfect balance.
Rokia Traore was born in a town called Kolokani, in Southwest Mali, but as the daughter of a diplomat, traveled throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, taking in influences everywhere she went. Though her music is influenced by that of her people, the Bambara, and her band performs with traditional instrumentation, she writes her own songs which deal with the struggles of modern Africans, both internal and external. One of my favorite live performers in the world, Traore is also a remarkable recording artist, and the stunning Bowmboi is one of her best CDs.
The Super Rail Band (or, more officially, "The Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, Bamako") was originally formed by the Malian government in 1970 as part of a large cultural economic initiative. As a comparatively well-funded project, it attracted excellent players from the get-go. Though the lineup is perpetually in flux, the Super Rail Band has given a start to a number of Mali's finest musicians, including the aforementioned Salif Keita, and continues to be a relevant, popular, and deeply influential force in Mali's music scene.
Boubacar Traore, called "Kar Kar" by his legions of fans, is one of Mali's most enduring musical legends. Blending traditional Malian sounds with American acoustic blues sounds into his own unique and addictive blend of pan-African guitar music, Kar Kar never fails to deliver outstanding recordings, or live sets, for that matter -- if you ever get a chance to see him live, don't miss it.