Our personal preferences for music are deeply entwined with our upbringing and the culture we were raised in. Music is a form of communication that bonds communities together; anthropological evidence points to music as an ancestor to language. Research found that the music from your early teenage years remains the most important to you throughout life. As Spotify data show, most people stop looking for new music after age 33.
While that last data point is tragic—I cannot imagine no longer looking for new music—certain styles become part of the soundtrack of your life. Though I didn’t discover the sounds of Mali until my 20s, it has become my favorite musical nation on the planet. Even if you don’t have a history with Malian music, it is impossible to deny the country’s influence on the global stage.
Part of it, for Westerners at least, is thanks to the pentatonic scale. Malian music is blues music. As banjo player Béla Fleck (featured on this playlist) showed a decade ago in a wonderful documentary, the relationship between African and American blues dates back centuries—and, more recently, goes both ways. The Tuareg group, Tinariwen (also featured), found a kindred spirit in Jimi Hendrix, for example.
Tinariwen isn’t the only Tuareg group on this playlist, though they are the only one from Mali specifically. The Tuaregs are historically nomadic, so I took a slight liberty as this blues-rock musical style crosses national boundaries, linked by the vast Sahara Desert. The world’s largest desert is larger than America or China. While Tamikrest is from Algeria and Bombino from Niger, you’ll notice all three bands are sonic brethren.
The most influential Malian musical family is the Farka Touré’s, with father Ali being the man who introduced this genre to the world thanks to this collaboration with Ry Cooder. His epic track “Ai Du” is featured here, as is his collaboration with longtime friend Toumani Diabaté. Ali passed in 2006, but his legacy continues with his son, Vieux, whom I had the pleasure of producing an album for in 2007 (as well as a remix two years later). “Homafu Wawa” is one of his most intense and driving tracks to date.
The women of Mali are all over the playlist. I don’t believe I ever watched a goddess perform until witnessing Oumou Sangaré onstage in Manhattan nearly 15 years ago, sharing a headlining gig with fellow countryman Habib Koité. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Rokia Traoré twice; she is equally deserving of diva status. A newer addition to the international stage, Fatoumata Diawara, has released two incredible albums, as well as a stunning collaboration with Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca. The “Nightingale of Timbuktu,” Khaira Arby, who died last year in Bamako, appears with an especially upbeat number.
Two other women of note are Mariam Doumbia, wife of Amadou Bagayoko. The two musicians met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, performing together in the school’s orchestra as they fell in love. While their entire catalog is fantastic, I had to include their collaboration with Manu Chao, “Senegal Fast Food,” as it’s the song that broke the band on the international stage.
Finally, the supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique includes top Malian singers, including Mariam Doumbia, Kandia Kouyaté and, on “Doona,” Mamani Keita, a former backup singer for Salif Keita (who is featured on the playlist with “Laban”). It is only one of two electronic tracks here, the other being a remix of Issa Bagayogo’s “Ciew Mawale” by Canadian producer Adham Shaikh.
This playlist could have been a week long. Deciding not only which artists to include but also what tracks of theirs to use was a challenge. I could have used any song by Bassekou Kouyate, an incredible n’goni player from Garana. I settled on one of his deepest grooves, “Jonkoloni.”
Kouyate also played with the Malian-Cuban supergroup AfroCubism (along with Toumani Diabaté and Djelimady Tounkara, both also on this playlist). Listening to Eliades Ochoa’s epic song “Ai Vaiven de Mi Carreta” with a Malian flair is too good to miss (as is the video of the recording session).
Mali has long been a country, sadly, in political turmoil. When Israeli singer and pianist Idan Raichel was asked to program a season at the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Jewish musician recalled a Muslim artist he happened to meet in a Berlin airport. He invited Vieux Farka Touré to join him, which turned into a recording session and two subsequent albums. I close the set with “Alem” from their debut album (also featuring one of my favorite instruments, the Persian kamancheh).
Malian music has always been about storytelling—many artists here come from griot families—specifically telling the stories of the culture that they arrive from and dream forward. Many musical projects promote peace in the region. This playlist closes with one of the most beautiful, a fitting tribute to one of the world’s great musical nations.
Photo credit: patrisyu, Adobe Stock