What is "Malian music"?

Assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University

For many, to think of a place called “Mali” is to hear, first and foremost, its music. Mali may be a poor, landlocked, and sunbaked country in the West African Sahel, but its widely acclaimed music culture—with its bluesy resonances, danceable rhythms, and haunting melodies—has a way of mitigating, even beautifying such realities.

For this reason, when things fell apart in March 2012—when a subaltern mutiny became a full-blown coup d’état, and a secessionist movement in the North added an Islamist insurgency to its ranks—many in the media spoke of “the death of music in Mali.” The fate of Mali and its music, it seemed, went hand in hand.

These reports tended to assume an uncomplicated relationship between a country, its people, and music, threatened in the present by bad politics, domestic disputes, and foreign threats.

Such problems are, of course, real (and ongoing), but what makes the music we hear (and hear about) “Malian” is, in fact, a significantly complicated affair.

So, what is Malian music?

What follows is a set of provisional answers from my experiences as an observer of Mali and student of its music over the past two decades. These answers are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but they do give a sense of the crucial complexity that Malian artists playfully, critically, and artfully negotiate when they make (and we hear) their music—what I call in my new book, Bamako Sounds, “the Afropolitan ethics of Malian music.”

Malian music is…

Mande music.

I first encountered the music of Mali through the modern echoes of its imperial past. In this sense, the word “Mali” refers to the eponymous Empire, which reigned over vast swathes of western Africa from the 13th to 16th centuries. Living and studying with a family of kora (21-stringed harp) players in Bamako, the Malian capital, I heard the praise songs, instrumental melodies, and characteristic rhythms of a medieval court music repurposed for the life and times of a postcolonial city.

World music.

Before traveling to Mali, its music came to me in small-town Minnesota, on a compact disc that a friend had purchased after a semester abroad in Madagascar. Malian music moves, through the commercial circuits of the global culture industry and within the communities of a Malian diaspora with roots on every continent. Some of its itinerant purveyors are well-known worldwide: Ali Farka Touré, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, and Rokia Traoré. Still others are on the rise: Fatoumata Diawara, Sidiki Diabaté, Amkoullel, and Vieux Farka Touré. Just to name a few.

National music.

When I began my doctoral research on the postcolonial music culture of Mali, I found an archive rich with the sounds of nation building and statecraft. In this sense, “Mali” refers to the contemporary West African nation-state, which will celebrate 55 years of independence from colonial rule in September (2015). In the early 1960s, the newly minted Republic of Mali created a national ensemble, made up of traditional instrumentalists and vocalists from throughout the country, and an orchestra, a dance band with a drum kit, congas, electric guitars, and horns. Their job was simple, if abstract: to perform the nation, through the country’s varied traditions and nascent modernity.

Pirated music.

I arrived in Mali ten years ago to begin long-term fieldwork on Bamako’s urban music culture. I quickly encountered two things: a thriving informal marketplace, full of copied and counterfeit goods; and a diverse cohort of artists, who regularly bought and sold in this market but were adamant in protesting what they called “the scourge of music piracy.” One thing was clear: Malian music maintained an active and ambivalent relationship to intellectual property.

Urban youth music.

From the bals poussières (dust parties) of the 1950s and 60s to the balanin dance parties of the present, the music of a demographically young Malian populace has frequently taken to the streets. There, you will find posses huddled around stereos, discussing the nuanced history of global hip-hop over afternoon tea. And there you will find vendors, crouched in front of laptops, filling old cellphones with the latest hits from Bamako, New York, and Paris.

Islamic music.

I wrote a dissertation about the politics and economy of an apparently secular urban music culture. While most of my musician friends and interlocutors were Muslim, Islam did not substantively factor into my analysis of their work. Then, four years ago, when I was asked to contribute a paper to a conference on Qur’anic knowledge in sub-Saharan Africa, I listened again to my field recordings with ears tuned for religion. In this Malian music, I heard the vocal melismas of prayer calls, the precise diction of sacred recitation, benedictions, praises to the Prophet, and citations from the Qur’an, woven into the fabric of an apparently secular urban music culture.

Not Malian music.

In April 2012, when the Malian state had all but collapsed and a motley crew of Tuareg separatists declared an independent homeland (Azawad) in the North, the idea of “Malian music” became the object of an increasingly urgent ethnic identity politics. Some globetrotting groups, like the Saharan blues troupe Tinariwen, used their international profile to contest the Malian state and what they viewed as a long history of military aggression against a sovereign people in the North. Later, others came together to affirm Malian solidarity across ethnic boundaries, though the lines dividing what was and was not “Malian music” had now been drawn, quite literally, in the sand.

An Afropolitan ethics.

What is Malian music? It is the sonic convergence of these (and many other) social positions—ethnic, religious, urban, economic, political, transnational, and historical—within a rooted and routed African world.

And it is the existential art of working with and through such multiple modes of being to claim a personal stake in what is (and is not) “Malian music.”

It is this artful process of social articulation and cultural experimentation in contemporary Africa that I call an “Afropolitan ethics.”


Ryan Thomas Skinner is author of Bamako Sounds: The Afropolitan Ethics of Malian Music. He is also the author and illustrator of a children’s book, Sidikiba’s Kora Lesson. He is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at The Ohio State University, and an accomplished kora player.

“Accessible and heartfelt, Bamako Sounds is itself largely musical in its interweaving of inventive musical criticism, scholarly analysis, and the author’s work as a musician.”
-AbdouMaliq Simone, Goldsmiths, University of London

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