Mali's musical resistance

Despite attempts by the former Malian government to brand the Tamasheq as terrorists and turn the general population against them, not to mention the Islamists′ drive to ban music and turn Muslim against Muslim in a bid for control and power, the album "Jamal" by newcomers Alkibar Jr. stands for unification and a better future. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

Mali, especially Northern Mali, has been through a turbulent four years. The attempt by terrorist groups to impose their version of Sharia law upon the north resulted in the mass exodus of most of the musical groups and musicians who made the region famous. As musicians were threatened with death and equipment was confiscated and destroyed, it became hard to believe there would be a time when the musical traditions of the region would be resurrected. A younger generation of musicians who couldn′t flee appeared to comply with the new regime, but under cover of dark they were secretly practising and writing new music.

Jamal, the first album by the new group Alkibar Jr. is an example of the work produced during this trying time. The band represents a new era in Malian music and draws upon all the traditions we′ve long equated with the country. The area they come from, Niafunke, has always been a cultural melting pot – a place where the various peoples of the region would gather and meet. So it′s no surprise you can hear elements of Songhai, Peuhl and Tamasheq rock/blues on the disc.

While the lead singer, Sekou Toure has performed with famous musicians like Vieux Farka Toure and guitarist Diadie Bocoum is the youngest brother of the album′s producer Afel Bocoum, the band still brings a new and fresh approach to the music of their region. While they may have literally been writing their music in isolation, their generation has been exposed to more music and more cultural influences than previous ones. As a result we hear a broader cross-pollination of musical styles then we might have heard previously.

Blending desert blues with other Malian sounds

What′s wonderful to hear is the mixing of Tamasheq – desert blues normally associated with bands like Terakaft and Tinariwen – music with other Malian sounds. With the Tamasheq people striving for their independence within Mali (and Niger and Algeria), there has always been a certain amount of tension between their population and others. This was exasperated by the uprising of 2012 which began as a Tamasheq quest for a homeland in North Mali before it was co-opted by those elements who wished to create their version of an Islamic State in the region.

Cover of "Jamal" by Alkibar Jr.

It would have been easy for the general population to continue blaming the Tamasheq for the ongoing troubles. However, most people and musicians especially, are aware of the impact the revolt had on musicians and people of all cultures.

Jamal is not just a celebration of music′s return to the north, it is also a sign of hope and a symbol of future co-operation between the various people of the region. Despite attempts by the former Malian government to brand the Tamasheq as terrorists and turn the general population against them, not to mention the Islamists′ drive to ban music and turn Muslim against Muslim in a bid for control and power, the album Jamal by new group Alkibar Jr. stands for unification and a better future.

Jubilant defiance

Unfortunately, as the album is only available through bandcamp as digital download, there were no liner notes available to offer translations of the song′s lyrics. The promotional material provided with the music tells us they are praise songs for those individuals who have done their best to rebuild the north of Mali over the past few years. While we can′t understand what is being said specifically, the tone of the music and the sound of the voices is most definitely positive.

The three lead vocalists, Toure, Demba Traore and Amadou Daou, raise their voices in what can only be called celebration, even if the song is a desert blues number like the opening track "Souka Selenam" or the fourth song "Kori", a much more sedate tune. The lead male vocals are joined by the backing voices of Leila Gobi and Ami Wassidje whose wonderful harmonies not only add a layer of texture to each song, but are also another act of defiance against those who tried to change the north. Women have always been a key component of music in Mali and this album is no exception – something which would not go down well with those who wanted to ban music.

The album is beautifully grounded by both Oye Yattara′s percussion and Kola Kane′s drumming. They are equally comfortably laying down the rhythm for both the more traditional songs, such as the fifth song on the disc "Daou" or the eighth track "Thimi" with its almost rock and roll beat. However, what really stands out about the music is the wonderful work guitarist Bocoum and violinist Salah Guindo do in playing off each other.

A product of the new generation

Violin is not an instrument I′m used to associating with Malian music. Sure there are other traditional bowed instruments used in some ensembles, but this is different. For it and the guitar appear to be equally important to the songs – in fact the violin and guitar will pass the lead back forth a couple of times during each song. Not only does this give the band a distinctive sound, it also makes for an exciting change and shows the potential for growth and change that exists for the music of this region.

While the band is joined by a group of experienced musicians in the studio, including members of Ali Farka Toure′s original band, Jamal remains a product of the new generation. While they are keeping one foot in their traditions they′re also not afraid to forge new paths. Which for this troubled region of the world is a good thing.

Music has always been an important element of Malian culture and society. Whether the band that′s hired for a communal celebration or because they are the story keepers of their people, music is part of the country′s cultural fabric. If this album is any indication, that tradition is in safe hands.

Richard Marcus

© 2017