From Bassekou Kouyaté to Songhoy Blues: The Evolution of the Malian Troubadour

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In the West Africa of the 13th and 14th centuries, the reigning Malinke Empire gave rise to a unique societal group called griots. Originating from a handful of families, griots served as storytellers, musicians, and poets to the courts. Essentially, griots acted as troubadours for their societies, passing down collective history, memory, and values to their societies long before the Western world could soak in the wisdom of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Steve Earle. And with a history that includes a rich mixture of indigenous and Islamic belief systems, repeated conflicts with the neighbouring Fula people, as well as capture and enslavement by American merchants, the troubadours of this region have a deep (and often troubled) well of material to pull from.

Griots continue to be prominent members of West African society today, found in modern-day countries such as Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. In addition to passing on historical memory and wisdom from generation to generation, griots also must master the unique and complicated instruments of the region, such as the 21-stringed kora, the xylophone-like balafon, and the ngoni, which is similar to a lute. This tradition has spawned several of West Africa’s most well-known musicians to the western world, including Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Mali’s Toumani Diabaté. More recently, two Malian groups have released albums this year that update the griot tradition through their attempts to bridge musical and political divides.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba: Ba Power

Ba PowerAdd to the list of virtuosic griots (if you haven’t already) Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté and his family band Ngoni Ba, who released the album Ba Power earlier this year. On this, the group’s fourth album, Kouyaté brings the sound of the ngoni front and centre, while melding it with elements of modern rock, including distorted guitars, drums, and funk. Ba Power is an eminently danceable album that feels like it can fit into the modern Afrobeat genre, while still retaining a sense of “purity” in the beautiful sounds of the ngoni.

The opening track, “Siran Fen” (Beware), announces this bridge of old and new traditions, with some serious fuzzed-out guitar rock, interspersed with the light plucking of the ngoni – almost like a West African version of banjo plucking melding with lo-fi garage rock. (The song’s lyrics also allude to the griot’s role in passing down memory and lessons learned, warning the listener to “beware of people who split a community” and “separate true friends”.) The next few tracks broadly show off the intricacy of the ngoni, which often takes a back seat to the more well-known kora in the griot tradition. But by the halfway point of the album, the track “Waati” brings the old-new bridge full circle by laying down a funky beat almost exclusively with the ngoni. It’s a delightful reinvention of how this centuries-old instrument can be used to tell stories in the 21st century:

Another highlight is the penultimate track “Te Dunian Laban (Not Forever)”, which returns sonically to the more stripped-down classical sounds of the ngoni, but allows Kouyaté and his band to show off their musicality. Layered on top of the melody is what could be considered a modern griot parable of power on the African continent:

He who has gold or money only reigns for a time and not forever.

Modibo Keita was in power for a time in Mali but not forever.

Just like Houphouet Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire, Sékou Toure in Guniea, Maurice Yameogo in Burkina, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Kwami Nkroumah in Ghana, Léopold Sédar Senghour in Senegal, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa:

Each leader reigned, but not forever.”

Songhoy Blues: Music in Exile

music in exileAnother recent band in the griot tradition to emerge on the world music scene is Songhoy Blues, named after the Songhoy people of Mali. The four band members, all in their 20s, come from the northern part of the country, near Timbuktu. In the spring of 2012, the region descended into a complex civil war, with a rebel group of the neighbouring Touareg people launching a military campaign to wrest control of the region away from the Malian government. Soon after, a more militant Islamic group called Ansar al-Dine took over many of the towns, including Timbuktu and Gao, and were followed by the transnational Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As they moved into towns and villages, Islamic militants imposed a harsh version of sharia law, including forbidding the playing of secular music – particularly impactful in a region with such rich musical heritage. As a result, many musicians from northern Mali joined others in migrating south to safer cities, including the captial, Bamako, and neighbouring countries.

The members of Songhoy Blues met after arriving in Bamako, and bonded over their love of the blues and desire to do something for their homeland. Music in Exile, their first full-length release, is infused with youthful exuberance. Through 11 mostly up-tempo tracks, Music in Exile continues the tradition of melding griot story-telling with Western rock and guitar riffs, and represents perhaps one of the most seamless fusions of these traditions yet. The music seems to flow effortlessly between Sahel desert beats, fuzzy guitar riffs, and local stories, as in the opening track, “Soubour (Patience)”, which exhorts fellow Malian refugees to be patient and hold faith that they’ll be able to return home one day.

In this respect, the music of Songhoy Blues signals a new direction in the melding of traditional griot music with world influences. Whereas previous generations of artists were discovered by Western listeners well into their careers, and sometimes adapted their established sound to a Western audience, Songhoy Blues is working with Western producers at the beginning of their professional career. (Within the first couple years of forming, the band had already worked with British artist Damon Albarn and Nick Zinner, from the American group Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) The result is a musical genre that more seamlessly melds different world sounds, and is consciously marketed towards a global audience.

Sadly, the number of musicians in exile seems to be only going up in recent years, whether from Mali, the Middle East, or elsewhere in the world. Yet, these patterns of migration also present interesting musical possibilities, by facilitating the exchange of musical and lyrical stories across cultures. Ultimately, this may come to define the purpose of the 21st century griot – not necessarily to advise kings and queens, but to connect their people’s collective memory and struggles with a wider global movement, and thereby help preserve their history for future generations.

Further Resources

  • For a powerful documentary on the plight of northern Malian and its musicians in exile, I highly recommend They Will Have to Kill Us First. Released at film festivals this fall, the documentary details the civil conflict that took hold in 2012, and the different journeys of four musicians and bands in exile (including Songhoy Blues) as they seek to reconcile their life in exile with their deep attachment to their homeland.
  • For a good blog on daily life in Mali, including the music scene in Bamako, check out fellow WordPress site Suitcases and Heart Swells. In addition to providing keen insights on life as a development worker this part of the world, the blog’s author is pursuing an interesting project to “Googlefy” Bamako by providing a mapped inventory of the cultural and food scene in the capital city.

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