Malian Music Prevails in Troubled Times: Rap/Hip Hop Music and Festivals Rally to Rebuild the Nation

Posted August 30th, 2012 at 5:47 pm (UTC-4)

Mali Without Music?

The African nation of Mali is often described as one of the most culturally diverse, tolerant, and musical places on the continent. Since the coup d’etat on 22 March 2012, however, when a faction of the military seized power from the government, it sent the country into a tailspin of unanticipated consequences. I learned last week that the Islamicists holding the northern part of the country–the regions of Timbuctou, Gao, and Kidal–have banned all secular music and music videos. . . in Mali, of all places on earth! I decided to talk to a few friends about this most recent of events taking place in northern Mali to find out how it happened, and what its implications are for the whole nation. I spoke with three people who each have their own interpretations of the consequences of this ban on secular music–two of whom are Malians currently living in Mali, and one an American anthropologist who just returned in June. You can listen to my interviews with them below, but first I want to give a brief summary of Malian music and why it is so extraordinary, and a basic rundown on the Mali crisis for those who are not up to speed on one or the other (or both) to help contextualize the music ban and why it is such a shock, specifically to this African nation.

                                                             Above is a bare-bones map of Mali divided into its eight regions, plus the capital district of Bamako.  The coup d’etat of March 22nd happened in the capital city, Bamako. The map to the right shows Mali’s major cities, the Niger River, and Mali’s surrounding countries. As you can see, Mali is landlocked, and the southern edge of the Sahara Desert envelops the regions of Mopti up to Gao, Tombouctou, and Kidal. The country is extremely large–478,767 square miles to be exact–and if one superimposed Mali onto the eastern part of the U.S., it would include eight states plus part of Toronto. Alternatively, Mali is a little less than twice the size of Texas.

Why is Malian music so remarkable in relation to other African countries? Mali is famous worldwide for its music because of its tremendous multi-ethnic diversity and the prevalence of music in everyday life. Unlike the people of many other African countries, where people listen to and emulate American hip-hop/rap music and music videos more commonly than local folk and traditional music, Malians listen to and emulate the musics of their past. Hip-hop and rap is popular, especially among the youth in Mali, but even still,  it — and reggae too — typically features traditional instruments and local languages such as Bambara, Songhai or Senufo, in addition to French, Mali’s official language.  In a taxicab ride, on a shopping trip in local shops and restaurants, or on national television, Malian music prevails — old and new, traditional and modern — in a seemingly endless array of regional and ethnic varieties.

From the Kayes, Koulikoro, and Segou regions hails the majestic music of the wordsmith/musician caste known as the jeli [Bambara] or griot [French]). Jeli music (jeliya) includes praise-singing and storytelling accompanied by the 21-stringed harp-lute (kora),  heptatonic (seven-tone) xylophone (balafon), or five-to-seven-stringed spiked lute (ngoni). . . or a combination of one or all of these with other instruments like the electric bass, guitar, keyboard or flute. Some of sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest bands originated from these regions of Mali, such as the Rail Band, Les Ambassadeurs, Super Djata, Super Biton, and Bembeya Jazz, as well as world music giants Salif Keita, Amadou and Miriam, and Habib Koite. Bamako is Mali’s music capital as well, with dozens of nightclubs, marquees, recording studios, private dance companies, and national and district orchestras, including the prestigious National Instrumental Ensemble and National Dance Ensemble.

The Region of Sikasso is home to a totally different sound and culture in which Senufo, Minyanka, Bobo, Bambara and Wassoulou ethnic groups make music with pentatonic xylophones (balafon), six-stringed harp-lutes of sacred hunters’ associations (donson n’goni) and of secular youth associations (kamalen n’goni). This region rejoices in non-jeli music and is appreciated for its danceable rhythms, beautiful folk melodies, and ritual and sacred music related to the arcane knowledge of exclusive associations and secret societies such as the hunters (donso), warriors (sofa), and male and female initiation societies (komo and poro). Some of Mali’s greatest female singers hail from the Sikasso region, including Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia, and Coumba Sidibe. Much of the music from Sikasso is built on pentatonic tuning and short, repetitive melodies, in contrast to the heptatonic tuning and long, melismatic-style singing that characterizes the other regions.

One similarity in music from all four of the regions mentioned thus far is in percussion. The jembe, talking drum (tama), calabash drum (bara) and family of dunun drums, with their percussive metal scraper (karinya) and bell companions, are common throughout the regions, with the exception of the Senufo calabash drum that is predominant only in the Sikasso region.

As the Niger River flows north past Segou and toward Mopti, the musical soundscape begins to change as dramatically as does the physical landscape. Where sand begins to replace soil, and where people greet in Fulfude (also called Pheul) or Dogon instead of Bambara or Senufo, the balafons and koras fade away and give way to the sound of single-chord fiddles, flutes, bullroarers, acoustic guitars and overturned gourds placed in the sand.  Rhythms move away from the deep, reverberating syncopated rhythms of 6/8 and 12/8 patterns to unsyncopated 4/4 rhythms that thud, clack, and boom in dry sharp timbres that result from the open hand on overturned hollowed gourds. The great masked dances of the Dogon are as unique to the country as are as their animist religion and physical habitat nestled in and around the Bandiagara escarpment.

The regions of Tombouctou, Gao and Kidal constitute yet another cluster of culture and music completely unique, and distinctive from the other five regions. In the North, the most common forms of music are performed on the overturned calabash on sand and in water and on the three-stringed, plucked lute called tehardent in Tamashek (the language of the Tuaregs); on the one-stringed fiddle played by Tuareg women (imzad) and Songhai women (njarka); the tende drum, also played by women; the alguarita oboe and the tisinsec and tazammart flutes; and the guitar. The northern regions of Timbuctou and Gao are the home of the desert blues, that world music genre that blossomed with the emergence of the great Songhai guitarist and Grammy-Award-Winner Ali Farka Toure in his first collaboration with American blues guitarist Ry Cooder.

What is the crisis? The entire northern part of the country has fallen under the control of a handful of shadowy, militant groups including Tuareg separatists, Islamist militia (Ansar Dine), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).  Many northerners have fled in response. According to a UNHCR, (The UN refugee agency) report from early August, there are at least 256,000 Malian refugees now living in camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, and another 174,000 are internally displaced within Mali.  But many citizens who remain in the northern regions of Timbuctou, Gao, and Kidal are witnessing dramatic changes that offer less and less freedom. I was living in Bamako at the time of the coup, and forced to stay in my apartment for three days and nights as blasts of rapid gunfire, war cries from power-intoxicated soldiers, and sounds of the looting neighborhood shops kept me alert and nervous.  But the military seizure of power that happened in Bamako pales in comparison to what followed in the North. A little over one month after the initial coup, the North had declared itself an independent state. The major cities in the three northern regions were under the control of militant groups. Human Rights Watch reported numerous war crimes in the North, including rape; recruiting child soldiers; the pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings; public executions; floggings; and threats to women and Christians. It is now August and things in the North are only worse, while Bamako still struggles to establish an effective interim government that can actually do something about the crisis. In July, Timbuctou’s ancient Sufi shrines were destroyed because they are deemed idolatrous, and Shariya law was put into effect with the same tactics as before, forcing unwilling citizens to obey. Malians have always believed in the freedom to interpret Islam in their own way, which has generally been manifest as a blend of Islam with traditional religions and practices of varying degrees. The large majority of Malian women did not wear the traditional full head scarves that cover the entire head and face, but now they are being forced to do so.

Why has secular music been banned in the North? All forms of secular music was banned last week because, the Islamists currently in control of that area say, it is satanic.  What this means for northerners is clear: listen to, watch, or make music at your peril. With conditions like this, who knows what the future might hold? But this ban has implications for the entire country.  I interviewed people to get an idea about what those implications are as well as to get a current consensus on what role music is playing in Mali’s crisis.


Rap music plays a leading role in moving  Mali  forward.

The biggest discovery I made during my conversations with three people from Mali–Moussa Remi Mariko, Bruce Whitehouse, and Mamou Daffe–is that Malian rap artists have taken the lead in messaging to the population through music. Where are the griots and popular music vocalists who have historically been the voices of the people? On the one hand, Oumou Sangare and Jenneba Diakite dropped bringing out new singles promoting unity and peace. But the rappers are offering dialogue in their music, explaining the problems in detail, and offering road maps to solutions. It might just be that rap and hip-hop music has become the new ‘music with a message’ in 21st-century Mali.

First, let’s hear from Moussa “Remi” Mariko, Malian musician and Director of the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali (l’Ensemble Nationale Instrumental du Mali) based in Bamako. I have known and worked with Remi in Mali since 1989, and the last time I saw him in Bamako in early March, we were talking about collaborating on some compositions and recordings for one of the Presidential Candidates in the upcoming elections that were to be held in May 2012. My phone conversation with him yesterday made it clear that not only has the ban been a shock and an affront to Malian culture, but that the whole political upset since the March 22nd coup has crippled the music community.

For French speakers, click here to listen to the interview

  • [audio:] Interview with Moussa Mariko Pt.2

Heather: What changes have you seen in music since the March 22nd coup d’etat?

Remi: Well since the coup d’etat, things haven’t worked well at all in general. But in the music domain it’s worse. Because to listen to music you have to be relaxed, happy, joyful for things to work. But now since March 22nd 2012 everything is upside down. We don’t have gigs, the festivals have stopped because of the lack of security, you see? But what has angered me the most, we the artists, we make our living from art, we have our producers who make their living from art, we have editors who make their living from art, our painters make their living from art; there is an entire structure built around art and especially around music; but if they come and tell us now that we are not free to make our music but religious music – me, I don’t understand.

H: No.

R: I don’t understand.

H: But they say that uniquely for people who are in the North, right?

R: Yes, they say that uniquely for people who are in the North. Okay. But what is sure is that it will affect us here because as long as we cannot go freely and make music throughout all of Mali, there’s something wrong. For example there is the Essakane Festival which is in the North. There is the Gao Festival. That too is in the North. But if we don’t play our music there, we can’t stay clustered in our own little zone. Voila!  And then there are Songhai musicians, for example, Baba Salah.  You know Baba Salah?

H: Yes, of course.

R: Well he’s from Gao. But if they ban music making – It’s not about whether or not we are located in Gao – it is catastrophic for Mali.

H: But Baba Salla can still make music or is he afraid for his security?

R:  He continues to make music but he criticized the ban on the radio.  Now me, I can permit myself to speak my mind because I’m here [in Bamako] I don’t have my mother or father there.  But Baba Salla has his parents up there. Maybe they can even attack his folks. Voila.

H: Do you think that there were signs in music before the coup that it was going to happen?

R: I think that we, the artists, felt the situation coming on.

H: How?

R: Because even when the rappers began to sing “Mere Zoun” (“Mother Thief”). Right after that song, they sang another piece where they said “Fato ce dun durun be Koulouba” “A crazy man is on Koulouba [the hill on which sits the Presidential Palace]”. That was ATT [Amadou Toumani Touré – the ousted president of Mali].

H: Who was that?

R: …they even censored them, les Tata Pound, they censored their album.

H: Really?

R: But even still the population listened to it. But that [song] was to criticize the situation that prevailed.

H: The corruption, you mean, of the democracy as it was?

R: Yes, exactly. The corruption, the laissez-allez approach, the irresponsibility of power, you know?

H: So that song was censored in Bamako?

R: Everywhere! It was censored everywhere. Because, don’t you  know, when a song is censored it excites everybody and they all want to hear it. So everybody got it on their telephones.

H: Where you surprised that the coup occurred?

R: No, not at all. It just shocked me right at first because everything was upside down. But once it was consecrated, we understood the falsehood of the President. . . and we understood that even if the elections had taken place the politicians would have killed each other because they were stockpiling guns in their homes. So even if the elections had taken place, there would have been wars … it would have been even worse than what happened.

H: Now that things have changed, do you still have work?

R: The National Instrumental Ensemble does not belong to a president or a minister. It’s the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. The reason for which I work in such a way is to have one piece for every region that I play during my performances. Even recently, when the CDAO military came here. Did you hear about that? The CDAO military came here. Okay, so it was the 15 countries of the CDAO. They called on me and we played 15 pieces for them – one representing each country. Even a piece in English for Nigeria! “Welcome in the Land of Mali, Nigerian People.”  That pleased the Nigerian General who had come so much. The Ensemble did that. All of that is to say that it is not an ensemble of one personality or a president or minister, it is the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali.

H: That is excellent. So you continue to work, despite everything?

R: Yes, we are giving concerts. But it is a little slow because of the current situation.  Because before there wouldn’t be one conference goes by when they wouldn’t call on us. There were lots of inaugurations and public events for which we were invited to play. And they invited us not because one president or minister liked us. No! No! It was because were the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. We make our nation of Mali proud.  It’s a National Instrumental Ensemble that was created in 1962 during the time of Modibo Keita [Mali’s first President].

H: Do you still play music from the North? Music of the Tuareg?

R: Yes. We play “Sundiata.” “Sundiata” is not a praise song about someone, it’s a praise song about the descendents of Sundiata Keita. We play “Touramagan“. That’s a praise song about the descendents of the Traore. We play “Da Monzon Diarra” [for] the descendents of Da Monzon and of Biton Coulibaly. Do you see?

H: What do you hope for the future of Mali?

R: Well, what is sure is that I have hope because it’s starting to get better. We created a unified government. Even though the government is criticized by certain groups, but I think there are all kinds of possibilities in this government . . . that can recuperate the North. I think that Mali is not Mali without the North because it’s the ethnic brassage that gives Mali its color- its trademark. Now I think that with the new government, if they call forth to really work, if they avoid selfish quarrels, if they say “we are all Malians, let’s keep our sights on Mali’s best interests”, we can recuperate the North and I think it will work out. I have hope. Voila. And Anna [my Malian name] will come and we’ll sing.

H: I  sure will.

R: No, I know it will all work out. Mali is a big country and there is a Bambara proverb that says “Mali  be lombo lamba. Ng’a t’i fili.” That means, “a strong wind can rock a canoe on the river, but it won’t capsize.” That’s Mali!  And one more thing. You know the actual President now, well people were annoyed with him because they thought he was not on their side. They attacked him at the palace, and he spent two months or so in France for treatment — Dioncunda. But when he came back he pardoned his aggressors . . . can you imagine? And to think that when someone threw a pair of shoes at George Bush, they put him in prison [he laughs teasingly]. But our President, he pardoned his aggressors. That act there really touched me… as an artist it really touched me.


I also had a conversation with Professor Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist who teaches at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.  Bruce was a fellow Fulbright Scholar with me last year in Mali. He lived in Bamako with his family, and rode out the coup d’etat until June when he returned to the US. During this time, he kept his own deeply insightful blog on current events in Mali called Bridges from Bamako

Bruce’s insights into the recent banning on secular music by the extremists currently controlling Mali’s North helped clarify the political situation in the North and in Bamako, and the role of rap artists Amkoullel, Mylmo, and Les Sofas de la Republique in guiding the youth toward a solution to Mali’s problems. Listen to our interview here:


Finally I was able to speak with Mamaou Daffe, the founder and director of the Festival sur le Niger, considered one of Africa’s finest music festivals for several years running.  Mamou is highly optimistic for Mali and for the role that his music festival will play in Malian reconstruction.

Heather: How has life changed in Segou since the events in Mali since March 22nd?

Mamou: Segou remained very calm. When you are in Segou, you don’t feel that there is a crisis. Our daily activities continue on uninterrupted because all of the major talks happen in Bamako and we don’t really understand the details of the problems in the North. I dare to say that Segou is Mali’s zone of confidence; its artistic and creative zone. Since the coup d’etat all of the artists have come to Segou and almost every month the Festival sur le Niger Foundation continues its programs and projects.  Just last week we finished a program on basket weaving produced by local weavers, cotton producers and others to promote local cotton.  So really Segou profits from the situation to strengthen its reputation as the cultural capitol of West Africa.

H: How has Segou reacted to the most recent ban on all secular music on radio in the North?

M: Like I already mentioned, people here were surprised and shocked by the situation especially Shariya. But very quickly we realized that we needed to start working within the logic of reconstruction. And that has translated into the theme of Timbuctou for our next festival here in 2013.  The Festival of the Desert will take place here in Segou with us, as our invited guest.  We will feature cultural caravans that will come from Morocco and northern Mali to encourage dialogue and harmonious cultural diversity. There are many structures that revolve around the Festival sur le Niger such as the Kore Cultural Center, the council for local economy, SMART Segou- an English program based in Segou. All of these programs are working together in the spirit of reconstruction because we understand that Mali has taken a big hit. We can’t do much in the way of national or international systems but we believe that in Segou we can work to reach the summit of our own art and to contribute hope morally and mentally. Now that we have a new government and talks have begun, we hope that the problems in Mali will get resolved quickly. . . maybe by the end of this year.

H: So you still plan on holding the Festival sur le Niger in February 2013?

M: Absolutely! Absolutely! More than ever. We think that it will even be the biggest edition ever. We think that in fact, this is the most important time to hold the festival because we can organize resistance through culture.

H: This is the ninth edition right? Can you explain the theme for this edition more specificially?

M: Yes the theme is about “Cultural Governance.” This is a timely theme because we experienced our own democracy at a crisis – it was totally blocked up. So this year we want to explore new ways toward a legitimate African – Malian democracy. The main question we pose now is the fragility of the nation which is broken because of problems in governance, justice, and equality.  So we are going to work very hard toward this central theme through a variety of angles, such as culture and citizenship, governance and citizenship, and art and democracy – and make connections between all of these. We are inviting Timbouctou because it is our universal heritage and we’re going to work toward a Timbouctou reconstruction and renaissance. We’re inviting cultural actors and artists from Timbouctou who will come in a caravan from the Festival in the Desert.

H: So the Festival in the Desert is also going to take place in 2013?

M: No it will happen in Segou because there are still some problems in the North.  So in the name of fraternity – because we are brothers, Heather – we are brothers and we do things together. It’s true that we don’t understand each other in some areas, but for the most part we have done things together, we have gone to school together, the director of the Festival in the Desert is a good friend, so I want to receive him and his delegation with a strong cultural caravan. Also we have Moroccan friends that want to bring a caravan. They are coming from Taragalt in the Sahara. The third caravan will come from southern Bamako. So there will be a wonderful moment where the North and the south will converge. It will be a moment of artistic and culture fusion. We’ll have Tiken Jah Fakoly from Mali, Alou Mbaye N’Der from Senegal, Burkina Electric from Burkina Faso,  Bara Bara Kandam from Ivory Coast and Congo. We’re going to release this artist roster next week so you are the first to have this roster actually.

H: You are not concerned about security?

M: No, not at all. As you well know, we always have a professional security force. Also the Festival takes place right next to the military base. And in all truth, security issues in Mali have calmed down a lot. It is very calm in Bamako now. The only security problem now is in the North. But even there, with our brothers there, very important discussions are happening so even up there, we are hoping that within a few months things will be calm too. Furthermore we have a global security program that, like last year, is in partnership with the state. Since the Festival is a national festival – it’s private because we own it but public also because we’ve been in partnership with the state since we started nine years ago, so we help each other to make it safe. We hope that it will be an very important moment for national conciliation and construction.   

H: You have a recording studio at your foundation there in Segou called Kore Records, right?

M: Yes.

H: How is that going? Do you have musicians from the North coming in to record?

M: YES! But I am happy to announce that we just started a new recording project yesterday that is called the “Sahel Blues” with artists from the Sahel. Mama Sissoko, Bouraga Diabate… you know, the part of Mali we call Western Sahel near the First Region in Mali.  So we started this creation of artists from this region and they will begin recording in the studio next week. They will perform at the Festival and in other parts of Mali and abroad. Again you are the first to know about this group! We also have our local artists that we support, which is in line with our mission to develop jobs in the cultural domain. So yes, the studio is busy.  In sum we are taking advantage of the calm and tranquility of Segou so that by December, certainly, we will have a sufficient amount of products and we will be very happy to have our artists interviewed by the Voice of America.

In light of these conversations, it seems the ban on secular music in the North is doing less to silence Mali than to fan the flames of music’s power to rally and rebuild the nation.







Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

11 responses to “Malian Music Prevails in Troubled Times: Rap/Hip Hop Music and Festivals Rally to Rebuild the Nation”

  1. Didi says:

    Hello Heather,

    This is a question that is, I’m afraid, irrelevant to the disturbing things going on politically in the north of Mali presently, but as I was reading about that situation here and there online I came upon your interesting blog and thought you might have an answer.

    I’ve just for the first time seen the film Moolaade from Ousmane Sembène in Senegal and loved the song that is repeated throughout as background. I couldn’t find any reference to it anywhere except from someone in a thesis who said it was a female Wassoulou singer from Mali. It’s none of those I know. Do you know her name?

    Thanks for your help if possible,

    Didi, San Francisco, USA

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Hello Didi,
      This is an interesting question. I will investigate and get back to you. Stay blessed.

      • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

        Didi, the singer you asked about is Fatoumata Diawara. She was born in Ivory Coast and then raised in Mali in her teens. She has a brand new release out called Fatou, on World Circuit. I will play one of her songs this Sunday.


        • Didi says:

          Bless you! I’ve been over to ITunes and been enjoying her voice. However you managed to find out so quickly in your “network”–it’s much appreciated. (Now I can stop looking too…)


  2. […] an independent state in the contested area which will be called Azawad. There are those, such as Mamaou Daffe – the founder and director of the famous Festival sur le Niger – that believe music can […]

  3. A really nice overview and set of interviews, Heather. It is really depressing to think of the clamps being put on music in Mali. Mali has been a beacon of African music, with musicians mixing traditional with modern musical influences. This was all possible because of a basically tolerant cultural environment. Your overview and interviews provide a nice depiction of the complexity of these concerning trends.

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Stephen, thank you for your comments. My apologies for responding back sooo late. I don’t know how I overlooked it but I appreciate your comments and am happy to hear from you. The downward spiraling trend of music life in Mali is depressing indeed. Artists are carrying on as best they can, I’m told, but it’s taken a huge hit for most. There’s always hope, though. It is great to hear from you.

  4. […] Back on August 30th, 2012, I posted an extensive blog post on the reaction to the shocking “ban on music” declared by the Islamists militants in the north. The director of the Niger River Festival, Mr. […]

  5. Tarah Sood says:

    very good put up, i definitely love this website, keep on it

  6. Great blog right here! Additionally your web site lots up very fast! What web host are you the use of? Can I am getting your affiliate link for your host? I want my website loaded up as fast as yours lol



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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