Round the World in 80 Sounds: Blues, Bamako & beats in Mali

Welcome back to Gadling’s new series on music around the world, Round the World in 80 Sounds. Blues. Rock ‘n Roll. Two distinctly American styles of music, right? That’s only half true, actually. In fact, some might say you also need to head to the West African nation of Mali to find the answer. For many years, travelers had little reason to investigate this barren desert country, home to the ancient complex of Timbuktu. But these day’s Mali’s stock as one of the world’s most influential musical destinations is on the rise, thanks to the growing fame of its talented musicians and increasingly popular musical festivals.

Mali’s recent ascent to musical stardom isn’t by accident. The country’s borders have long been traversed by various African, European, Islamic and even Cuban (?!) cultural influences. It has created a country that moves to the rhythm of any number of different drummers. From traditional Malian Mande Music to the proto-blues of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, to the bouncy joyous pop of international stars Amadou & Mariam, Mali music has been earning new fans and gaining attention worldwide. Enough attention, in fact, that Mali hosts its own internationally renowned music festival each year in the tiny town of Essakane.

Wondering which Mali musicians are worth your time? Want to visit one of the world’s most remarkable African music festivals? Stick around as Round the World in 80 Sounds takes a closer look at the influential music of Mali. Keep reading below for our favorite Mali artists and festivals.The Festival of the Desert

The most obvious symbol of Mali’s thriving music culture is the country’s annual Festival au Desert, an international gathering of musicians from across Europe, Africa and beyond celebrating Mali’s unique sonic heritage. The event first got its start back in 1996 as a celebration of a new peace treaty between warring local tribes. Quite naturally, the local Tuareg community moved to commemorate the event with a traditional celebration of song, dance and games.

What began as a local event quickly blossomed into an internationally-recognized festival, with performers as diverse as Robert Plant, Gang Gang Dance, and Malian musicians like Oumou Sangare and the late Ali Farka Toure. Today, visitors are likely to hear the diverse sounds that have come to represent Mail’s unique musical heritage – everything from Tuareg-style music to Western Pop to homegrown Malian artists. Though the 2010 event was this past January, you can check out travel logistics on the Festival au Desert website. Music lovers who have visited confirm the journey is well worth it.

Ali Farka Toure

Often called the “John Lee Hooker of Africa,” the late Ali Farka Toure is among Mali’s most famous musicians. Born in 1939 in a small town in Northwest Mali, Toure took an early interest in the musical instruments of his native land, blossoming into one of the country’s foremost musical acts. His style, on display in the track Amandrai above is at once instantly familiar to blues fans, resonating with the familiar melancholy of a good blues riff, and yet strangely exotic, touched by the ghostly fingerprint of African folk and nomadic Tuareg musical traditions.

It’s clear that West African musicians like Toure have strongly influenced many American Bluesmen and vice versa. Influential director Martin Scorcese explored the relationship between West African musicians like Toure and America’s Blues culture in his series Feel Like Going Home. Though Toure passed away in 2006, his son Vieux Farka Toure carries on the family tradition. Check out Toure’s 2005 album Savane if you’re interested in hearing more.

Amadou & Mariam

This blind husband and wife duo from Mali have been making musical waves worldwide. Though the couple have been playing together since back in 1980, they have become one of the most familiar faces of Malian Music on the international music circuit. In 2003 they were approached by music star Manu Chao, who produced their breakout album Dimanche a Bamako. As is evident from the video clip above, Amadou & Mariam’s music is filled with jaunty melodies and diverse instruments from around the world. The pair are increasingly invited to play at concerts around the world, from Lollapalooza in Chicago to opening for Coldplay’s Viva la Vida Tour.

Like much of Mali’s musical culture, Amadou & Mariam are highly influential and continually evolving. Steeped in a rich tradition of local musical culture yet open to the sounds of the world. It’s time we recognized Mali for the miraculous contribution the country has made to our favorite music.

Curious about the sounds of the world? Read previous Round the World in 80 Sounds posts