Mali's magical music

Music is central to Mali's identity – and yet the conflict there has led to it being widely banned. Here, African and western artists pick their favourite tracks from this most musical of nations

This week, the world has finally focused on the tragedy that has befallen Mali. It took bombing raids from French aircraft to draw attention to the fact that Islamist extremists have captured two-thirds of this beautiful country, imposing a distorted and destructive interpretation of their faith on a people for whom it could not be more alien.

Unlike in most conflicts, musicians are on the frontline. For a start, music is now banned in the vast desert regions where once people – myself included – flocked to the famous Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu. Yet music is more entwined with the life of the nation in Mali than perhaps any other place in the world: a political, cultural and social force. There was the griot tradition dating back centuries, then in post-independence days musicians were used to bond together a nation that lies on the faultline between the Arab and African worlds. More recently, a succession of sublime artists have blazed a trail around the world, their easily accessible, blues-based sounds making the word Mali even more synonymous with magical music.

Some commentators talk about the situation in the Sahel as the African wing of the war on terror. This is far too simplistic given the complexities of events there, their deep roots in old grievances inflamed by newer issues such as feuds over the profits of drug-running and kidnapping. But at root this is now a cultural war – between modernity and the past, between tolerance and brutality, between unity and division. And this is why the music of Mali remains such a vital force in the fight for all our futures.

It was excellent to hear the organisers of the Glastonbury festival announce yesterday that they would use Britain's most important musical event to highlight Malian music. Rokia Traoré, one of the most brilliant talents I have ever seen, will kick off the festivities; I advise you not to miss her. And to underline how artists from this nation have entranced so many of their fellow performers, we asked some artists from Africa and the west to tell us which tracks have most touched them.
Ian Birrell, co-founder Africa Express

Robert del Naja
Massive Attack

I first came across Amadou Bagayoko – the Amadou in Amadou and Mariam – when I arrived late in the Congo to join an Africa Express trip. He was like an oasis of calm amid the chaos, this super-cool dude playing incredible riffs on a beautiful gold guitar. I was meant to remix their track C'est Ne Pas Bon, but in typical Massive Attack style never got round to it. It is hard to think of another song more relevant to what is happening right now. It just seems so wrong that this couple come from a country where musicians are being persecuted when they are such ambassadors for all that is good and strong about Mali.

Baaba Maal
Senegalese musician

There is a wonderful record by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté called In the Heart of the Moon – it's my favourite Malian record. It reminds me of the sort of music I grew up listening to in Senegal. The melodies are so beautiful, and there is a simplicity that makes it accessible to everyone. And it is two great musicians coming together in a very natural way – they are totally in sync with each other. I can listen to it all day.

Emily Eavis
Co-organiser of the Glastonbury festival

The Radio Tisdas Sessions is Tinariwen's first album, recorded at a radio station in Mali, and I got into it after seeing them play at Glastonbury in 2007. It was a muddy year at the festival, with a lot of rain all weekend, but two of the highlights for me were Tinariwen on the old Jazz World Stage (now the West Holts Stage) and Africa Express in The Park. We've always had a lot of great African artists coming to play over the years but these two sets really stood out and maybe captured a bit of the rock'n'roll spirit that was needed in those conditions.

Anyone who was there to see Rachid Taha and the enormous Africa Express band blasting out Rock the Casbah up on that hill will never forget it. And you could feel the same sense of excitement for Tinariwen when they came on in their traditional desert robes and knocked out this amazing, hypnotic blues. It felt as if you had entered another world and we all just got completely lost in it. There's such a mystery around them as a band and you hear tales of them roaming the desert on horseback, riding into town to play their music, guitars in one hand and rifles in the other. For them, just being able to play and perform music is a matter of life and death and they are constantly on the move. The music that they make is completely spellbinding and very powerful, it really affects you.

John Paul Jones
Bassist with Led Zeppelin

There is a song by Rokia Traoré called Dounia (from the 2009 album Tchamantché) that I absolutely love. It's beautifuly delicate but also a very complex piece of music. Her voice just floats above it.

My introduction to Malian music was through the blues of the late Ali Farka Touré, and I loved his whole approach. I'm not a student of it in any way, but it's a music I love to play – I've played with Afel Bocoum, who played with Ali, and with Rokia, as well as with Fatoumata Diawara. There's always a lot going on, so you really have to pay attention, but unlike Congolese music, for instance, it tends to be very gentle, too. The riffs are very melodic and it's very soulful, very subtle. I find the Rokia song particularly uplifting.Reading this on mobile? Click here

Nick Gold
Producer of the Buena Vista Social Club, Ali Farka Touré and others

In 1990, the late, great Ali Farka Touré gave me a cassette and said: "Ca c'est la musique." I put it on. What is this? I thought. A scraper-driven push-pull rhythm, an insistent funk pulse, declamatory chorus vocals and, occasionally emerging from this minimal but mesmerising stew, the strange combination of violin, acoustic guitar and a weird instrument that sounded like an underwater banjo, but which I later discovered to be a kamelngoni, a recent adaptation of an ancient traditional hunter's harp and the base of this extraordinary music called modern Wassoulou. And above it all that oh-so-definite and beautiful soul voice unfurling endless serpentine lines. It was the 21-year-old Oumou Sangare's debut release Moussolou (Women). Six songs, 30 minutes long. Perfect. I listened to it on repeat for weeks on end.

David Harrington
Kronos Quartet

Toumani Diabaté's Mande Variations is currently my favourite album from the amazing riches of Malian music. Like Bach's Goldberg Variations from nearly 300 years earlier, it's a record that manages to give the listener a vast sonic-compositional picture of musical possibilities, sets a new high-water mark for the kora as an instrumental force and at the same time is a generous tribute to the bountiful ancient tradition that Diabaté inherited. This is music at the highest, most exalted level, coming from the centre of the incredibly deep culture of Mali as refracted through the vision of one of the world's greatest instrumentalists.


Mamani Keita is one of those unique voices originating from the homeland of blues music. Her songs are in the tradition of Bambara music, but at the same time they are completely in tune with our times. The 2006 album Yelema is not perfect, but she is not afraid to play with the rules of world music and to transgress them. She is like a quiet storm: she provokes and goes against the grain, without us completely noticing it.

"Pee Wee" Ellis
Saxophonist and arranger for James Brown

Ali Farka Touré had a unique style of guitar playing which was quite reminiscent of the blues from the deep south of America. It was quite surprising to hear that; an African guy playing blues. His album Savane has a sadness to it: very haunting, very, very beautiful. I really enjoyed working with him; he was such a pleasure to work with, a calm and sensitive artist. It came very naturally because it's such an honest form of music. I felt the spirit from him.

Femi Kuti
Singer and bandleader

I've come to know of Rokia Traoré over the past couple of years. She's a very strong woman in persona, her beliefs, and in her writing – a true artist. I love the song Aimer for the soft beauty in her voice – and I love jazz and the cyclical shuffle on the track, the harmonies, the great n'goni and with it being about love it's befitting to the current climate as Mali needs some serious love

Jon McClure
Singer with Reverend & The Makers

Although there are so many great Malian musicians, if I had to choose one I would pick Bassekou Kouyate. I had heard great things of him from people who had visited him at his home in Mali but nothing prepared me for seeing him live. The "Jimi Hendrix of the ngoni" tag is overused but rings so true. He is the master of the instrument and a total gent to boost. His record Segu Blue is a masterpiece.

Angelique Kidjo
Beninoise singer-songwriter

Exiled in Paris from my native Benin in west Africa, I started to study music in a jazz school in 1985. I could hear the passion the great jazzmen had for African music. John Coltrane had written a song called Dahomey Dance after the name of my country and it has been said that Miles Davis's modal approach in Kind of Blue was inspired by a performance of the Ballets de Guinée that he attended. But African music in the 80s was just about dance, partying, Congolese guitars and "la Sape", the Zairian form of dandyism. I was so frustrated. I could not imagine how to reconcile in my music the beauty of the traditional music of my youth with the modern sounds of jazz. Then, in 1987, came Salif Keita's album Soro. It was a grand revelation for me. In the opening of the song Sina, his most amazing voice felt like an incantation. It was surrounded by mystical minor chords and backed by the funkiest Malian polyrhythms you could imagine! The emotion it carried gave me a sense that African culture had unlimited depth and power and could also touch your heart like nothing you had heard before.

Johnny Marr
Former Smiths guitarist

I first heard Amadou and Mariam when I was in the band Modest Mouse and the drummer would play their first big record on the bus. It didn't surprise me that they crossed over to rock fans because there's a shared sensibility in the arrangements. I played with them at an Africa Express gig at Koko in London, and I suspect Amadou is a secret shredder – and nothing wrong with that. Put it this way: he's very into his riffs. He and I were sat in a hotel room on our own. Two electric guitars, not plugged in. Jamming. I know how to approach jamming with someone you've never met before: there's a feeling out of space, there's an appropriate way of making it happen ... and within 20 seconds he was saying: "Solo! Solo! ... Blow! Blow! Blow!" I was completely unencumbered by any electricity: there was no amplifier. I wasn't plugged into anything. And he wanted me to "blow" like Jimi Hendrix or someone. And I recognise a guitar dude when I hear one – and he's one.

There's one tune of his which sounds very like one of mine: What Difference Does It Make? In fact, I remember thinking when we were on stage playing: "I guess you haven't actually nicked my riff ... in which case, we're cut from a similar cloth."

I'll leave it at that!

Michael Nyman

My favourite Mali music album is Damon Albarn's Mali Music simply because I had the privilege of hanging out in Bamako during the rehearsals for the first live performance of Damon's collaborative gig at the Barbican in London in March 2002. My trip enabled me to mix with, talk to, listen to serious representatives of the Malian musical culture that is now in the process of being destroyed.

The past and present memories are strong; the future is unthinkable.

Spoek Mathambo

I first heard A Chacun Son Problème by Amadou & Mariam on the African Express train that toured the UK last summer – with Amadou sitting and singing it by himself much as on the original recording. The world stopped for a moment. I instantly connected with the meditative, trancey qualities of the song, and although I don't understand French the sentiment cuts through my psyche and my make-believe translations make my probleme that much less problematic. To this day, A Chacun Son Problème takes me a very warm and special place filled with love.

Romeo Stodart
The Magic Numbers

I've been extremely fortunate to collaborate with Amadou and Mariam on several occasions over the years and making music together has always been a real humbling and inspiring experience. Amadou's effortless guitar playing just oozes so much soul and the chemistry between them is really infectious. My favourite record to play of theirs is a collection of early recordings from 1990–1995 called Le Meilleur des Années Maliennes. It's really sparse, just their beautiful voices with mainly Amadou's guitar for accompaniment. It features some of the best liquid guitar playing you'll hear - I highly recommend it.

Ludovico Einaudi

My favorite Malian album is New Ancient Strings by Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko, the best exponents of that beautiful Malian instrument, the kora. Apart from the unique atmosphere, the virtuosity of the musicians and the emotional depth what really makes special this album is also the sound being recorded in a natural acoustic. And I love it that the album is also a tribute to their respective fathers – also kora masters.

Cerys Matthews
Singer, songwriter, broadcaster

I've been in love with music coming out of Mali since I was a teenager when Ali Farka Touré's haunting blues slinked out of a mixtape I'd been given. Mali could quite easily be branded, like Wales, as a "Land of Song" - music seems to be in the very soil. There are so many talented artists and albums to enjoy – from Ali's Savane and Amadou and Mariam's Dimanche à Bamako to more recent releases like Fatou Diawara's Fatou and Bassekou Kouyate's new one Jama Ko. I also love the Tel Aviv Session, a collaborative release from Mali's Vieux Farka Touré and Isreali Idan Raichel.

Ian Birrell, Robert del Naja, Baaba Maal, Emily Eavis, John Paul Jones, Nick Gold, David Harrington, Baloji, Pee Wee Ellis, Femi Kuti, Jon McClure, Angelique Kidjo, Johnny Marr, Michael Nyman, Spoek Mathambo, Romeo Stodart, Ludovico Einaudi and Cerys Matthews

The GuardianTramp

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