Features August 1, 2003
Mali On The Mall 2003, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series on the exhibit From Timbuktu to Washington, presented on the National Mall from June 25 through July 6, 2003. Part 1 provides an overview of the exhibit and presents music of the Niger River and the northern Malian desert.
Part 2 describes two acts from the Wassoulou region in southern Mali, Fula music from Mopti, and the Masked Dancers of Dogon.
Part 4 reviews evening performances by Malian stars Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, and Salif Keita.

Histories of the Mande

Surprisingly to some, the Malian artists delegation to Washington included just one group representing the much celebrated art of the Mande griots, or jeliw. These musical historians often dominate in presentations of Malian music culture, in part because Mande people are the majority in Mali, in part because their oral histories are so extensive, so famous, and so central to the sense of identity of all Malians of all ethnicities, and in part because the music of the 21-string harp (kora), the wooden slated balafon, and the jeli n'goni is fantastically beautiful and by now well known throughout the world.

Just the same, in the Timbuktu to Washington exhibit, the Mande received no special treatment. Given the enormous ranks of popular and powerful jeli singers and instrumentalists, especially in the Malian capital, Bamako, this choice must have been especially difficult, and no doubt controversial. The lucky few this time came from the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, a formation originally created during the time of Modibo Keita, Mali's first president. The full ensemble includes representatives of many of Mali's ethnic traditions, but the group that came to the Mall and opened the evening performance of Oumou Sangare focused largely on classics of the Mande repertoire.

Especially moving in this full-blown, night performance was a long, leisurely presentation of the seminal Mande epic, "Sunjata," the story of the first king of the Mande Empire in the 13th century. The slow opening section was poised and elegant, filled with instrumental flourishes by kora player Babily Kanouté, balafonist Modibo Diabaté and Binéfou Koita on ngoni. The faster closing section included exultant choral work by four jelimusow (female griot singers), and as the music reached a crescendo, traditionally dressed men and women joined in a loose formation before the stage, extending their arms to wave their robes like huge, colorful birds, moving gracefully to a music bursting with cultural pride. For all the great jeliw who had to stay home, this was an exceptional display of Mande music.

After a number of big concerts during the first week of the festival, some members of the Instrumental Ensemble went back to Mali. But a small core group stayed on during the second week, giving more intimate performances of jeliya, many of them under a tree in the Malian village on the Mall.

Mariam Bagayogo: Mystic Bambara Queen

At four-foot-six, 67-year-old singer Mariam Bagayogo might have been easy to miss among the statuesque Malians circulating around the Mall. But even if you didn't catch her remarkable performance with the group N'Goussoun, you were apt to notice Bagayogo's stunning attire each day, including the most impressive bogolon (mudcloth) ensembles worn by anyone at the festival.

Mariam Bagayogo comes from the Bambara stronghold of Beledougou, one of the last pockets of resistance to the colonial French army, and a bulwark against earlier Muslim invaders. Personally, she seems to identify less with this proud military history than with the pastoral agricultural traditions of the region, including their mystical connotations. Her chosen symbol is the Chiwara an antelope-like creature with occult ties to the land and to the fortunes of farmers.

The Chiwara is now a national icon in Mali, and versions of it appear in art ranging from the sort of wood carvings sold on the street to the most respected works of sculpture in the nation. But it has a special significance for the Bambara, and Mariam displayed her loyalty to this mythic creature by carrying two carved, wooden ones with her much of the time, keeping them on stage with her when she performed. For her, the presence of these antlered carvings was more than just style; it was a manifestation of her profound, physical and spiritual connection with the land of her people.

I had a special interest in hearing Mariam's music. When I first traveled to Mali in 1992, I collected a lot of cassettes by artists I knew nothing about, and when I had the chance to listen to them, one titled simply Mariam Bagayogo turned out to be a favorite. It is a simple recording with just balafon, light percussion and singing led by Mariam's forceful, clear, vibratoless voice. Even without translation, the music seemed to convey an ancient reality, and it made a strong impression on me. On subsequent visits, I never encountered her music again, and did not find many who had even heard of her. It turns out that this cassette is one of only two commercial recordings Mariam has made in her life. In Washington, she told me that the man who made these recordings disappeared without paying her, and after that, she had little inclination to record again.

The centerpiece of Mariam's act is an enormous balafon with huge, elongated gourds attached below the wooden slats. World music fans may know this instrument because the internationally renowned Malian singer Rokia Traoré uses the balafon of Beledougou in her band, contrasting its particularly deep sound with the crisp, high sound of banjo-like ngonis. In Mariam's group, N'Goussoun--the group's name refers to a genre of Bambara court music--two musicians play one balafon, one player handling the low, loping accompaniments, and another playing lead melodies on the high keys.

Whenever N'Goussoun performed on the Mall, it felt more like an intimate court occasion than a formal concert. But that's not to say the show lacked spectacle. After just a few notes of balafon accompaniment, Mariam would begin to sing in that full-throated voice I recalled from her cassette. As the rhythms heated up, she would begin walking, marching, even running in a wide circle around the balafonists, singing all the while. Sometimes Mariam would actually jump on top of the balafon and dance on the slats while the musicians continued playing.

The combination of occult seriousness and a distinct playfulness on Mariam's part, accented by her beautiful, winning smile, was magical. Mariam's daughter and protégé, Djeneba Bagayogo sang back-up lines and even some leads. As the festival progressed, Mariam also invited one of the presenters--ethnomusicologist Heather Maxwell--to join in occasionally, singing and playing balafon. Heather had studied Bambara music in Mali, and was effectively recruited as an honorary member of N'Goussoun.

Neba Solo: Balafon Madness!

Perhaps the most crowd-pleasing of all the groups who lived on the National Mall for these enchanted two weeks was the Senufo balafon ensemble Neba Solo of Sikasso. Led by young Souleymane Traoré of Nebedougou, Neba Solo has blurred the line between modern and traditional music in a remarkable way. There are no electric instruments in the group. The drummer uses a trap kit, but the overall sound is certainly not crossover pop such as that of other musicians from this region, notably Abdoulaye Diabaté. Neba Solo's slimmed-down, touring lineup centered around two balafons, the metal scraper (karagnan or kèrègnè) used in Wassoulou music, and two round, gourd drums (baradunu). The full group back home also includes flute and other percussion instruments.

Neba Solo's music is roots all the way, but because of the familiar sound of its pentatonic scales and the universal appeal of its animated rhythms, this act has become as a force in contemporary Malian music. Neba Solo has three international releases, has toured widely in Europe, and has even had some of its music remixed as club pop, notably as part of Frédéric Galliano's Frikiwa project.

In fact, the music is modern in certain ways. Souleymane's father is a widely respected musician and balafon maker among the Senufo, and when the boy approached his father saying that he wanted to make some changes in the music, there was real resistance at first. After one spectacular performance by the newly formed Neba Solo, the patriarch dropped his objections and allowed his ambitious son to continue, but the understanding was always that the group would not distort or denature traditional Senufo balafon music, only develop it as a way to make it known to a wider audience.

A balafon maker himself, Souleymane introduced additional low keys to the standard instrument, allowing it to deliver more in the bass register. Souleymane says that at home he spends all his days in his workshop in Sikasso, drinking tea, receiving visitors, and constantly working on balafons. On the Mall, it was much the same as he set up a rudimentary shop in the backstage tent by the Bamako Stage.

Another modern aspect of Neba Solo's art is the song lyrics, which boldly engage current themes, such as the need for vaccination against diseases, issues of democracy and traditional life, and even a call for the end of the traditional practice of "circumsizing" young girls (female genital mutilation). Souleymane isn't much interested in simple love songs; he feels that music should uplift and educate. Just the same, his group's music puts across the feeling of an out and out village party, and the mood of reflective celebration is a signature.

The song "CAN 2002," written for the African National Cup soccer tournament held in Bamako last year, became the theme song for this historic gathering in Mali last year. It delivers a message of national pride and a call for people to work hard to achieve great things; it's also an irresistible invitation to party, one that brought visitors to the National Mall to their feet without fail.

Neba Solo is a family affair including two of Souleymane's brothers, Yacouba and Mahamadou on percussion and Siaka on lead balafon. Souleymane plays accompaniment balafon and sings in a clear, cutting voice that owes nothing to any foreign or popular influence. Perhaps the act's most electrifying feature proved to be its two lanky-legged dancers, Bacary Dembélé and Ibrahim Traoré. Combining nimble, perfectly synchronized footwork with near-acrobatic jumps, tucks and kicks, these two brought the house down with their graceful, high-energy forays across the stage and floor.

One presenter who saw practically every one of those performances also noted that each Neba Solo set was different, and that there was almost always at least one song tossed in that had not been played before. For a group accustomed to all-night jamming and boogieing, Neba Solo had more than enough repertoire to add individual spice to each of its dozens of 45-minute sets in Washington.


Even many who know Malian music and dance well might be surprised to discover the country's rich variety of puppet and marionette traditions. The dramatic, 12-foot fish marionette used in So Fing's act [see Part 1 of this report] provided one striking example, and there was more. Puppeteer Yaya Coulibaly is a modern innovator in this field, drawing both upon the large costume-like figures long used in Mali, and also upon string marionette techniques he learned while studying in France.

Coulibaly performed on the Mall in a variety of contexts, sometimes with Bambara ngoni players and story tellers Moctar Kone and Mamary Diabaté, other times with members of Fula/Mande group Krin de Birgo, or with Mariam Bagayogo's N'Goussoun group. Coulibaly's shows were rich in variety and improvisation. His large cow puppet shimmied and danced across the floor to whatever musical accompaniment he had chosen, and his bogolon-clad string marionettes were always a hit, dancing with kids, jumping up on their shoulders, and diving mischievously into the laps of women in the audience.

Yaya Coulibaly and his marionettes proved ubiquitous, turning up in the audience for other acts at the festival, and in the lively hotel lobby jam sessions that unfolded each night at the Key Bridge Mariot nearby. More on those jams, and on the four great modern groups who performed at the Smithsonian Folkways festival--Oumou Sangare, Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, and Kanaga de Mopti--in the final part of this report.

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