By Robert Fox
The Sunday New York Times has a nice article on the music of Mali today by their senior music reviewer John Pareles. Since the major US papers don't spend a lot of time covering West African music, this was a pleasant surprise. Pareles highlights ten powerful albums from Mali and gives brief reviews of each. He has a long-term interest in African music and can write informatively about it.
Some of my all-time favorites are reviewed in the article, including "Worotan" by Oumou Sangare, which my wife and I had playing in the delivery room during the birth of our son Patrick seven years ago. It's a deep and resonant recording that means a lot to me.
(Other recordings we played that day in the hospital included King Sunny Ade's "Juju Music," Randy Weston's "Spirits of Our Ancestors," Baaba Maal's "Djam Leelii," Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings and Miles Davis/John Coltrane on "Kind of Blue." It took quite a while for my son to arrive, so we did some listening--I still have the compilation cassette tape I made afterwards from the various CDs).
The New York Times article has audio clips from each CD associated with the reviews, so you can check out samples. Here is John Pareles on the importance of history and tradition in Malian music, even as it has absored influences from around the world:
"HISTORY echoes through Malian music, new and old. It's in the ancient modal scales of the melodies, which can sound like American blues. It's in the circling, hypnotic vamps that those melodies soar above. It's in songs that might well be modern versions of the epics passed down by generations of the troubadours known as griots. And it's in the way electric guitars and synthesizers are often used to recall the pointillistic patterns of traditional instruments like the kora — the griot's traditional harp-guitar — and the balafon, an African xylophone.
In the 13th century, Mali was an empire, a cosmopolitan place where the cultures of northern and sub-Saharan Africa mingled. Malian music absorbed Islamic vocals, West African polyrhythms and, later, the sounds of Afro-Cuban music and American funk and rock."
Check out the full article here.