Album: ″Lost in Mali″
Celebrating a musical landscape

Showcasing a rich diversity of West African music traditions, ″Lost in Mali″ plunges the listener into a world apart. Incidental audio footage of street sounds and children playing enhances the ″on-location″ feel. Richard Marcus reviews the album

Mali has long been called the cradle of what we refer to as popular music. However, while there is a lot of truth to this argument, it also seems somewhat disparaging as it implies a lack of refinement and sophistication. As if the music needed to be filtered through our environment to fulfil its potential. Yet when you listen to the diversity of sound created by the country's amazing array of musicians, you can't help but realise there's far more to Mali's music than it just being a jumping off point for the rest of the world.

The new release from Riverboat Records, ″Lost In Mali, Off The Beaten Track From Bamako to Timbuktu″, not only makes this clear, but shows how Malians have incorporated sounds from the rest of the world to help their own music evolve.

The first thing you realise listening to this release is there's no such thing as a "Malian sound". Like any country there are a variety of different musicians playing a dizzying array of music. Secondly, Mali, like any country, is not made up of a single homogeneous population. Not only are its people culturally diverse, but their music draws upon traditions which are in some cases centuries old. From Griots, who are the repositories of a people's oral history, to the nomadic Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), songs are a key to connect the past with the present. 

″Lost In Mali″ is a travelogue which carries us through the regions of the country, giving us the chance to sample regional musical differences and introduce us to artists not previously recorded. While they might play different types of music, and some might play traditional instruments like the balafone and ngoni and others electric guitar and modern keyboards, they share a passion and concern for their people.

Roadside in Mali (photo: Karim Diarra)
Children at play, adults talking or the hum of traffic: each of the 13 tracks emerges from and subsides back into a live background recording, drawing the listener in with its unique sense of immediacy

Tight studio sound

What makes this album different from other compilations of this type is that instead of being put together by someone sitting in an office thousands of miles away, each band was selected and recorded by two people heavily involved in the Malian music industry. Philippe Sanmiguel manages and produces local musicians, while Paul Chandler runs Studio Mali, a production company, recording studio and record label based in the country's capital Bamako.

This disc has both the feel of a field recording – where engineers go to the musicians and record them with portable equipment – and the quality of an album recorded in a professional studio, giving us the best of both worlds. For while it recreates the intimacy and the atmosphere of the former, we still have the great sound we've come to associate with the latter. This seamless marriage of the two worlds is testament to the great job Chandler and Sanmiguel have done.

Streetside feel

Emphasising this on-location feel is the fact the disc's 13 tracks are bracketed by recordings of street scenes. We hear the sound of children at play, adults talking and the background hum of traffic. This is modern Mali, as vibrant and alive as any country in the world, not a stagnant trip into the past nor an ethnomusicologist study.

Our journey through the musical landscape of Mali opens with the song "Ne Sabou" by Nainy Kone. Tamba (talking drum) interweaves with strings and percussion to create the texture against which Kone's voice is highlighted. The vocals and percussion combine to create the feeling that the listener is being carried away upon a wave of music, and is an ideal opening to our trip. Ali Baba Cisse's "Kaya", track two, contrasts sharply with its almost spoken word vocals from Cisse and the very bluesy sounding rhythm of the ngoni, acoustic guitar and drum. This is our first inkling of how much the music of this country can vary from region to region and artist to artist.


Coming hard on their heels, the modern funk sound of Miria-Union Malian des Aveugles' song "Farinjya Manji" is almost shocking. From the opening keyboard runs and the very familiar bass and drum sound, you'd think you were in any city in the world – until the vocals kick in. Aside from the language difference, there's a distinct nasal quality to the voices which gives what was a familiar sound a whole new flavour.

As we move further into our travels, we come across other signs of how the cross-pollination between contemporary sounds from beyond Mali's borders have influenced musicians. The most obvious being Kas 2 Kastro's "Adjobawla" (track 6) with its clear reggae influence. However, the next song, Bwazan's "An Ka Foli Ke", quickly brings us back to more traditional sounds with multiple layers of rhythm laid down by the balafone and drums (doundoun, djembe, yabarra and barra). It’s an intricate and beautiful piece which shows how much can be accomplished with just percussion and voice.

"Lost in Mali" album cover (Riverboat Records/World Music Network)
According to Richard Marcus, Malian "music is alive and well in the hands of a new generation. Not only do they honour the past, but they embrace the future by incorporating sounds from around the world"

Message of peace

While the lyrics for most of the songs are either in French or in one of the many local dialects, the liner notes to the CD, while not providing translations, supply sufficient information for us to understand their general meaning. Not surprisingly, those most affected by the occupation of northern Mali by extremists in 2012 focus on the themes of reconciliation and peace. "La Paix" by the band Alkibar Junior has the sound of the desert blues we've come to associate with northern Mali, with its compelling rhythm and driving guitar pushing forward its message of peace.

Bocar Sangare's "Diaru" is a far more traditional piece. Sangare usually plays at local weddings and celebrations and has never been recorded before. The song's refrain reflects traditional themes of peace and joyful reunions, ideas appropriate to both the times and the audience he usually performs for.

″Lost In Mali″ is a compelling and timely look at the music of this incredibly diverse and culturally rich nation. While recent history has seen musicians being forced into exile through attempts to ban music and intimidate musicians, this album shows the rest of the world that music is alive and well in the hands of a new generation. Not only do they honour the past, but they embrace the future by incorporating sounds from around the world. For those interested in Mali and its music, this is a great introduction to the sounds of this country.

Richard Marcus

© 2015


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