A brief listening tour of the amazing music of Mali

January 14, 2013

When Islamist extremists took over the northern half of Mali, an African country that is economically poor but rich in culture, one of their more barbaric impositions was to ban music. To understand why this has been so painful for Malians, why The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan called it "a shattering of their culture" after visiting the country, you have to listen to the music yourself.

Now that French forces have intervened militarily to stop the rebels' advance, opening what could potentially be a protracted conflict in Mali, it's worth hearing the music at the heart of this country's culture, if you haven't already. Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American novelist whom I once had the pleasure of editing, tweeted out a 10-track playlist of Malian music last year. I've embedded the songs and reproduced his commentary here.

After listening to a few of these, you'll understand why the country is considered "one of the richest reservoirs of music on the continent," as Raghavan wrote, why the music has found such success in the West, and perhaps a small part of what makes the Islamists' rule so painful.

Listen to them all, but my favorites in his playlist are the Salif Keita and the Onmou Sangare, both an absolute blast. Cole is speaking to fellow aficionados, so I might add two entry-level tracks for first-time listeners. If you find this playlist too daunting, skip to the bottom.


And here are my two, entry-level suggestions for listeners who are new to Malian music and found Cole's playlist too much to digest. If you enjoy these – and you might have already heard both, as they have found some real success at Western music festivals – return to Cole's playlist. The first is "Lulla" by Tinariwen. The second, by the duo Amadou & Mariam, sometimes known as "the blind duo," is "Djama."

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Max Fisher · January 14, 2013