Mali has been in the news a great deal lately, due to the coup d'etat, the resulting military rule and an ongoing conflict with Tuareg factions to the north that have rocked the West African nation's sociopolitical landscape. In times of such unrest, the rest of the world watches and worries and works to understand the society, the culture, the people involved in this struggle. Mali's musical traditions offer a particularly evocative portrait of this country and the geographical, political and social diversity that has made it so culturally rich, even as that diversity has led to misunderstanding and conflict.
Like Mali's landscape (which encompasses desert and tropical savannah) and its cultures (which encompass urban meccas and nomadic tribes), contemporary Malian music is a blend of various traditions and styles that are both cutting-edge and steeped in the region's many traditions. The legendary musical-storyteller griot tradition is still a major player -- even as a social structure against which to rebel. Afropop of all shapes and sizes thrives here, from Mamani Keita's chic global beats to Amadou and Mariam's indie-rock explorations to SMOD, the latter couple's son's "Afro-hop" group. Wassoulou music from the southwest has produced both folk traditionalists and crossover-friendly mega-stars like Oumou Sangare. Projects like the acclaimed AfroCubism collaboration gesture toward Mali's history of enchantment with Cuban music, while a growing hip-hop scene points to an equally globalized musical present.
Elsewhere, following in the massive footsteps of masters like Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure are legions of African blues artists, including Boubacar Traore and Toure's son Vieux, who pair regional folk traditions with salty blues licks. And in the north, in the Saharan regions that may not be part of Mali much longer, come desert-blues rockers like Tinariwen and Khaira Arby, who have taken the world by storm by interweaving folk musics (including Tuareg, Berber and Songhai styles) with rock, funk and plenty of mournful electric guitars. In other words, there's a lot to experience in contemporary Malian music -- and the glimpse it offers into present-day Malian culture. Start listening!