by Zoë Gorman
Before extremists began taking over the north of the African nation of Mali and proclaimed a jihadist state, Mali granted more record-label contracts than any country in Africa. Famed for an Afro-fusion that mixes traditional instruments and styles with modern ones, northern and central Malians suffered a ban on all music, in addition to beatings, amputations, and stonings at the hands of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine. But judging from Friday’s attentive, cheering crowd at Celebrate Brooklyn, music might be Mali’s greatest weapon yet.
The blind husband-wife duo Amadou and Mariam geared their set list towards raising awareness about Mali’s corrupt political system and ethnic woes, featuring simple, catchy vocal melodies, bluesy guitar riffs, and two superb drummers—one playing by hand, the other jamming on a rock kit that substituted traditional drums for toms.
Mixing French, local Bambara, and the occasional English, Amadou and Mariam sang stories about life in Mali with call-and-response vocals interspersed with upbeat, rhythmic riffs. The band is not new to advocating for peace—they played at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert—but since the Mali crisis, their songs are striking closer to home.
While the duo has earned spots on world music charts and a Grammy nomination, most of its fan base resides in Africa and Europe. In an effort to cultivate a larger audience in the U.S., the band spent much of last year collaborating with New York guest artists such as Santigold on its most recent album, Folila, while maintaining traditional strengths by swapping out a Western drum kit for djembe and doumdoum drums and adding Malian string instruments such as the n’goni and kora.
Internationally acclaimed guitarist Bombino is a member of the same ethnic group in the north of Mali, although he hails from neighboring Niger. Bombino sang of geopolitical struggles of the Tuaregs in the group’s language, Tamasheq. Garbed in traditional headwear popular in the Sahara, the budding legend flaunted superb blues-rock guitar soloing over repeated Arab-style chord upstrokes and chanting.
The guitar has long been a powerful instrument for social change among the Tuareg. Bombino first taught himself to play when relatives brought guitars back from the frontlines of the 1990s rebellion. During the 2007 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and Niger, Nigerien government forces killed two of his band members and he fled to exile in Burkina Faso. Eventually, he was allowed to return to Niger but has also travelled the world advocating for Tuareg rights and respect for traditions in children’s education. His most recent album, Nomad, topped the Billboard World Music album and iTunes World charts.
In the face of war, extremism, military coups, and a politically stagnant state, the people of Mali have shown that they can adapt and endure, preserving cultural strengths while adopting modern capacities. Somewhere between the amplified guitars, percussive rhythms, and multilingual lyrics, these artists managed—for a fleeting moment—to give West Africa the spotlight it deserves.
More pics on the photo page.