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Friday, 27 May 2011

‘In Mali, the Kora is no one-night stand, it requires commitment’

... the soul-consuming sound of this 21-stringed instrument is sensual and not cerebral

Pictures and story by Andrew Mulenga

Djelimadi Diabaté intimately closes
his eyes as he strums on the Kora
during a performance at the San Toro
restaurant in Bamako
BLISTERING heat, beverages, women and music may provide a short list of memories for the multi-sensory experience that is the capital city of Mali, Bamako, and for this article alone, these items will be ticked off in that particular order of importance.
First, the heat. Visiting from the far much cooler city of Lusaka, you realise how hot it is the minute your plane touches down. When sweat starts trickling down the groove of your back, you realise wearing black high-top basketball sneakers, a pair of jeans and a leather jacket was a grave mistake. You are in the Sahel, the place where the Sahara Desert in the north meets the northern most savannahs.
The beverages; luckily as hot as it is, almost at every stall or turn you find huge bottles of fresh, home-made gem-gem ginger juice and hibiscus, to cool you off. And there is just something about this non-alcoholic beverage that gives you a feeling that it has medicinal properties. Besides ginger and hibiscus is tea, which on the one hand is served scorchingly hot in small glasses. As it turns out, the people of this ancient land with a supreme cultural history have been drinking this beverage long before the Englishman embraced it in the 1600s as a symbol of refinement, to be sipped with cucumber sandwiches at four o’clock. Nevertheless, before we sidetrack, let us tick the next item off our short list.
The women; make of it what you will, but it truly is a spectacle that needs some getting used to, to see the women of Bamako pull up their long boubou [chitenge] robes to spread their legs across tiny motorcycles on which they zip through the chaotic traffic at mind-numbing speeds worthy of BBC Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson himself. And they do it without the protection of a helmet. Instead, they wear matching headscarves that despite the speed, do not fall off. It is only our next item that can rival the spectacle of these fascinating women.
Igo Diarra a Malian music producer, radio personality,
author and all round cultural operator introduces
members of the 
Ensemble Instrumentale
Nationale Du Mali
 playing the Ingoni (l)
and the 
Kora at the Palais de la culture in Bamako

The music; Mali has some of the most diverse and internationally recognised music cultures in the world. It dates back hundreds of years to the early ‘griots’ who served as royal praise singers, political advisors, historians, and storytellers that used it as a medium. Luckily, while there, yours truly managed to interview Igo Diarra a local music producer, radio personality, author and all round cultural operator who was kind enough to give more insight into the music of his country. Although he did it in an incongruous French accent, when it came to talking about the music and its instruments, his English was loud and clear and you would not imagine he spoke any other tongue.
“There are many types of instruments in our music, although the Kora has been the most popular for a long time. Another popular one is a smaller guitar-like instrument called the ingoni and they are usually played side by side,” explains Igo. “But the Kora is like a wife, that's why after many years of experience there is even a real marriage ceremony between the player and his instrument, especially when you attain a certain level. This is because it is the only instrument in the world that is held directly in front of you and caressed like a woman.”
To back Igo’s zany revelation of the matrimonial attachment between the instrument and its player, you have to hear and see the instrument being played live to appreciate and understand why for an artiste, the Kora is not a one night-stand partner. It is one that requires commitment. The soul-consuming sound of this 21-stringed instrument is sensual and not cerebral.
Ladies with a bit more money can afford
motorcycles and can be seen cruising on
the streets of Bamako at high speeds
with no helmets 
 "But like I said, the instruments are many," he says. "There is also the balaphon [called marimba in southern Africa or xylophone in the global West]. So basically it is the kora, the ngoni and the balaphone that are the three indispensable melody instruments of the 'Manding griot'. For instance, [the late] Ali Fakar Touré played guitar, as does Habib Koite. Toumani Diabaté is the king of kora, Bassekou Kouyaté is the king of ingoni and all these are well known international artistes.”
 Igo further explains that Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté’s 2005 album In the Heart of the Moon with Farka Touré on guitar and Diabaté on kora was nominated for the Album of the Year Award in the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music the following year, but lost out to Dimanche à Bamako by another Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. However the album won the Best Traditional World Album at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards in the same year.
“Nick Gold from World Circuit signed the contract with Toumani right here in my office. This too helped open up the rest of the world to the music of Mali. As you might know, Nick was the producer for The Buenna Vista Social Club from Cuba. He helped bring them to the world stage as well,” adds Igo.
He continues to highlight how diverse the music is, where it is coming from and how seamlessly it blends with 21st Century music styles and trends.
“Mali music is very diverse, it has so many different sounds. If you go to the north, there is Toureg music, like Tinariwen a desert blues band in Segou. There is a different style.”
Women in a Bamako minibus that has
no windowpanes owing to the heat,
a form of modified air-conditioning
He explains that the skill of playing music is handed down from older to younger people, and in many cases it is taught in high schools, but more serious teaching is done in the homes.
“We are a very old culture. Preserving heritage is a way of life. Mali music is traditional but it's very international. People come from all over the world to sample our music and also to collaborate," adds the part-time open air concert organiser who also runs a library for underprivileged children.
Speaking of which, Igo's passion for collecting children's books to create a library should not come as a surprise. For the people of Mali, as much as they had the griots to disseminate oral tradition, close to one million ancient documents known as the Timbuktu Manuscripts, ranging from scholarly works to short letters have been preserved by private households in Timbuktu, north of Bamako with the earliest dating back to the 13th Century. Which is somewhat ironic seeing in the past Africa carried the insulting accolade of “the dark continent”, owing to a supposed ignorance.
Igo talks of the collaborations with foreign artistes. “At Balanise my production company, I am doing this project called Roots To Roots where we are collaborating with hip-hop and ragga artistes from the UK. We mix rap with the Kora.”
Igo insists that although Malian musicians make it big globally, they never leave their country to settle in Europe. He believes this too has helped the sound maintain a certain richness through a sort of incubative process.
“If you leave Mali and settle in Europe you lose the vibe. Some say the music of Mali is inspired by the flow of the Niger. Right now with the technology you don't have to go to Europe - maybe just for some last minute mixing, that's all. But it can be done here. Be reminded, however, that Igo is also a radio presenter who is more used to interviewing than being interviewed so it is perfectly reasonable that at the close of the interview, he turned the tables and asked a question.
Homemade hybiscus (l) and ginger juice
served with cakes made from rice
flour are popular
¨Tell me about Zambian music; did you bring any with you? I would like to hear the Zambian sound."
Zambian music? Zambian sound? Is there even such a thing as a Zambian sound? How does one answer such a question? This is the stuff of fierce pub debate.
Of course, Zambian music today is enjoying an unprecedented vibrancy, which is at an all time high. In backyard studios, a new digitally enhanced song is released every hour and is well received and consumed by a voracious audience, which cannot seem to get enough.
But as for a “sound”, there really is no “Zambian sound”. All of it is hip-hop, Jamaican-influenced dancehall, reggae, R&B and [like it or not] Congolese Rhumba. The only thing Zambian about it are the languages in which it is sang. Much of it is produced fast and cheap at the expense of quality. To be realistic, even a lot of what passes for contemporary Zambian music contains explicit lyrics that seem to focus on sex and the demeaning of women, albeit with such an ingenious use of innuendo and metaphor that you will find yourself singing along before you realise how nonsensical they are. In this regard, the artistes are outdoing themselves and becoming better at it by the day.
OiLibya petrol stations and Libya Hotels
are well distributed across the
city of Bamako, suggesting a strong
presence of Libyan economic
muscle in that country.
OiLibya is managed by the
Libyan Investment Authority,
and manages Libya’s assets
in 21 countries across Africa
Nevertheless, Zambia is long bereft of a "sound". Yet who is to account for it; the sultans of 70s Zamrock or the kings of 80s Kalindula? Could the guitars of Zamrock and Kalindula have evolved into something that would have been accepted into the elite club that the global West calls "world music"? Looking at our current crop, a handover of skills never occurred so it is hard to find the live music element that may transcend us into this exclusive club. So until further notice, Zambia will remain a playback paradise.
If you have ever wondered, although most will be shy to admit, there is an entire generation of Zambian musicians that was consumed in the rapture of the first wave of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 80s and early 90s which leaves your average Zambian musician [or should we say singer] aged between 18 and 35. Not to say there are no artistes older than this, but there are too few, and too retired for lack of a better term to be of much significance.
 But for all that, this is not an article on Zambian music, a subject that deserves a dissertation of academic proportions. Returning to Mali, of course there is much more to the city of Bamako than our short list of blistering heat, beverages, women and music.
Often a traveller only sees what he or she wants to see. For what one writes too, the same argument holds. Even for Mali you could write about your experience in a luxurious, air conditioned hotel room with a scenic view of the unadulterated Niger River or how you washed down a plate of Poissons de Capitain [tilapia kebabs] with a bone-dry bottle of imported Sauvignon Blanc. Or you could write about rundown buses on the roads of Bamako. But aren't there such buses all over the African continent? You could write about how the locals appear sympathetic towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and how half the city seems to be made of the Libya hotels and OiLibya franchises. Indeed you can write about how the country is 90 percent Muslim or how according to the World Health Organisation in 2001 an estimated 91.6 percent of Mali's girls and women had some form of female genital mutilation performed on them.
Mali is ranked in the top half of the Mo Ibrahim Index on Governance in Africa and shares second spot for the best media freedom in Africa. But for yours truly, writing on the blistering heat, beverages, women and music will suffice.


  1. Andrew,I totally agree with you that there is no such thing as a 'Zambian Sound' and for that reason it will take a very long time for this kind of music to have international appeal. Ofcourse it is being played in other countries,but it has no sound of its own most people mistake it for these common genres like Hip Hop,Dancehall and R&B.

  2. deejaywolf! thanks for that extremely valuable comment. We all seem to be in a state of denial on what can be termed as a Zambian sound. Especially one that would be accepted in the WORLD MUSIC genre, as much as some international activity has been going on, my friend C.R.I.$I.$ won a Befta in the states but his beats as we all know are cross between heavy Brooklyn beats and lazy West Coast synths but their is nothing truly Zambian apart from the artiste himself, Lubuto's (Ndola) favourite son featured on an Airtel commercial with R&B superstar R Kelly but there is nothing Zambian, let alone African about the track

  3. In muy quest for music to promote,I came across these songs I want you to check out that could as well be termed Zambian even though they are have are titled in English and have some English lyrics mixed with vernacular. i woudl describe these two songs by quoting a certain saying 'The one eyed man is king among the blind' Check out the two songs below

  4. Thank you for this interesting report on Bamako life. Theo.

  5. Fascinating article. Insightful, funny and riveting! Just a small comment on Zambian music, namely it does still have a long way to go to have its own identity. I do however believe that there are several musicians in this country trying to spread the rich diversity of music that is found here. The likes of Maureen Lilanda, The Sakala brother, Brian Chilala and others like them will surely help push our frontier. It took a few years of criticism by the public for the "modern" Zambian music to get to its level, suddenly their music sounded a bit more complete in harmony, tonality, melodic interest, etc but perhaps that is just it, the public needs to demand this of them. The only question is how much education is there about music and culture in our society? It has been said that an education without art and culture is not complete, but may be that is a whole topic for another day. Not such a small comment after all...
    All this to say congrats on your award! You too, are pushing the frontier of Zambian journalism.

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    1. Luxury Minibus, thank you for the kind words and encouragement. Do keep reading and tell a friend

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