The Irresistible Malian Modal Groove

Written by

I have lately been listening to Kassé Mady Diabaté, a titan of Malian music who was the lead singer of Badema National in the 1970’s and 80’s. The irresistible modal grooves on the 1999 Syllart reissue called Original Kasse Mady inspired the idea of this post and playlist. These selections reflect my long-time love of Malian music, especially those earlier recordings from when African music was just becoming popular in Europe and the U.S. At KCRW, we started seeing new stars like Salif KeitaOumou Sangaré, Mory Kanté, and others in the early 1980’s. For this playlist, I focus more on the modern modal style and unique sound of the artists above, as well as the Wassoulou style of female vocalists from Southern Mali. We’ll save the Tuareg groups from Northern Mali and the blues music of Ali Farka Touré and Boubacar Traoré for another time.

Let’s start with the song “Nama” by Kassé Mady Diabaté and Badema National from 1983:

We then move into the Spotify playlist with Salif Keita from his early period in the mid-1970’s. The Keita track “Seydou Bathily” and the Kassé Mady Diabaté song share a common theme—countering superstition and the ostracism of people with medical conditions or birth anomalies, in these cases whooping cough and albinism.

We turn after that to two magnificent Malian singers, Oumou Sangaré and Rokia Traoré. Traoré traveled widely with her diplomat father in her youth, which exposed her to different musical styles. She has cited jazz, classical, and rock artists as influences, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, and Joe Zawinul. We then hear one of my favorite traditional groups, Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba. The ngoni is a small stringed instrument with a body made from a gourd covered with animal skin. It’s similar to and a possible ancestor of the banjo, early forms of which were made by African slaves in the Caribbean and the U.S.

The playlist also features two other powerful Malian divas Coumba Sidibé and Nahawa Doumbia. Many Wassoulou female vocalists of this Southern Mali style can be found on two fine Stern’s Africa releases called Women of Mali: The Wassoulou Sound Volume 1 and Volume 2. Another great compilation, Divas of Mali, comes from Shanachie Records.

I wanted to feature a beautiful Salif Keita song about people like him who are born with albinism, called “La Différence.” Albinos in Africa have been persecuted due to superstitious belief that albinism is connected with supernatural powers or conversely that it brings bad luck. Keita was rejected because of this and would sing to the birds in the countryside. Somebody overheard him and suggested that he join a group in Bamako. In 1967, Keita went to the Bamako Rail Station Buffet Restaurant and thus began a long association with the Rail Band. A later iteration of the group, renamed The Super Rail Band, comes next on the playlist, now with Damory Kouyaté, Samba Sissoko, and Adama Fomba on vocals.

Mory Kanté, a Guinean artist of mixed Malian and Guinean background, recorded the traditional harvest song called “Yéké Yéké” that is filled with joy.  This is a later recording done in Paris. The original scored a big hit in Africa and Europe in 1987. Another strong singer in the Wassoulu style comes next, Kandia Kouyaté, also from the same terrific album Women of Mali: The Wassoulou Sound.

The final song from Las Maravillas de Mali is recorded in a Cuban style. Just as African nations were becoming independent from their European colonizers, Castro had overthrown Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Many African nations were watching. The post-independence socialist government of Mali forged a strong relationship with the Caribbean island. Many Malians went to Cuba to study, including Las Maravilas de Mali, which recorded in the charanga style. The group initially moved to Havana to study engineering, but wound up becoming an Afro-Cuban band instead. This track was recorded at Havana’s famous Egrem studios in 1968. Also, the famous Cuban charanga group Orquesta Aragón toured Mali in the 1960’s. When I asked Salif Keita who his biggest influence was, he cited not African music but Orquesta Aragón!

Mali presents us with a huge trove of music in myriad styles, and I will be sure to feature other styles in an upcoming show. In the meantime, here are more videos to whet your appetite for more Malian grooves.

Salif Keita with the late great Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, in a beautiful love song called “Yamore”:

Finally, Oumou Sangare arriving in Bamako, Mali, and being greeted by her fans.  At 6’1”, Sangare stands taller than many of the folks who surround her. The video also paints a nice portrait of the vibrant city. One of Mali’s biggest stars, Sangare hit big in Europe and the west with her 1989 album Moussoulou.

Rokia Traoré Groupe photo c/o DANNY WILLEMS