I recently read The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that some artists that I’ve featured on The Fortnightly Playlist made some appearances in the book, and some of the musicians were even interviewed for it. The story is of archivist Abdel Kader Haidara. First his journeys to gather ancient manuscripts from around the Niger River, then his efforts to construct libraries and museums to house the beautiful ancient texts, then, as jihadi extremists stormed in from the North, there was the desperate smuggling missions to save the priceless historical texts to safety in Southern Mali. The author describes how, before the invasion by Al Queda and the subsequent war, Mali was going through a stage of massive cultural growth. Reading this book, and seeing some of these artists included, I decided that I would put together this little collection.
Often mentioned by Hammer, is a figure of massive influence for modern music in the area: Ali Farka Toure. He pioneered the electric guitar stylings that became signatures of Malian music in the decades since. Ali Farka Toure passed away in 2006, but not before grooming many students to become significant artists as well. It seemed fitting to bookend this collection.
Next is a band that sprang from the upheaval and civil war that took hold of Northern Mali in 2012-13. Some extremist groups were particularly threatening to musicians, and claimed that innovation itself was a form of heresy. Musicians caught playing in cities held by groups like Ansar Dine could have their hands chopped off. Songhoy Blues formed in Bamako, by musicians who had fled from the North. Their music was embraced by other displaced Songhoy and Tuareg people, and has garnered international acclaim as well.
Hailing from Niger, Bombino has worked with some modern blues-rock and indie musicians from North America on his more recent albums. Nomad was produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and 2016’s Azel was produced by David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors. It is artists like Bombino that reinvigorated my love for the guitar.
Tinariwen is a very famous group in Mali. The band’s roots are intertwined with an earlier conflict in the country’s history. The revolt in 1990 saw future members of the band participating as rebels fighting for Tuareg independence. After the peace agreement in January of 1991, the band left the military and devoted themselves to music. They first garnered international attention playing The Festival in the Desert, and later headlined the festival multiple times. They played the festival in 2012 just a matter of days before war broke out. In 2013, Tinariwen were part of a tour in North America called The Festival au Desert – Caravan For Peace.
The Tuareg push for autonomy has had many different incarnations. The nomadic Tuaregs find their home throughout the Saharan region of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria. During riots in 2006, the members of Tamikrest decided not to take up arms, but instead to call attention to the Tuareg cause through music rather than weapons. They mix their traditional music with many modern styles in a similar vein to Tinariwen.
Khaira Arby is a living legend in Mali. Through her music she has made herself an advocate for women, and she has opened the door for many artistic women to follow in her footsteps. In a region that has seen invasion by the strictest and most brutal extremism, her voice could not be more important. Powerful vocals, a tight electric-guitar-driven groove, and a voice of social justice… that’s Khaira Arby.
Rokia Traore traveled widely in her youth owing to her father being a Malian diplomat. Rokia started perfoming publicly as a student in Bamako, and her influences from other parts of the world get blended in with traditional Malian styles. It is often noted that she incorporated vocal harmonies that are rarely used in other Malian music.
Mariem Hassan was born in what is today known as Western Sahara. The Sahrawi singer was often seen as an advocate for her people, but also was someone who had her own health issues to contend with. When her first solo album was being made, she was fighting breast cancer. Additionally, Baba Salema, the producer and lead guitarist on the record died from leukemia before the record was released. Mariem would beat breast cancer, but was lost to bone cancer in 2015.
Terakaft are fronted by a former member of Tinariwen and his two nephews. They were formed amid the tumult of the jihadi invasion of 2012. As with Songhoy Blues, members fled the region, and their music is heavily influenced by the upheaval that they and their people have suffered through.
Following in the footsteps of his grammy-winning father, Vieux Farka Toure took up the guitar and attended Institut National des Arts in Bamako. His debut album was released in 2007, and featured guest spots by his father who had passed away the year before. Vieux has developed his fingerstyle guitar techniques, and at times melded them with other styles as well.
Finally, we close with a beautiful duet. The song Ai Du is from a collection of duets called Talking Timbuktu by Ali Farka Toure and one of my favorite American musicians of all time… Ry Cooder. Cooder and Toure made an amazing pairing that bridged American and African guitar styles so perfectly. The entire record is well worth the time.
Next week is back to The Fortnightly Playlist. Enjoy!