Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision on 02/11/99)


From time to time on the Djembe List, mention is made of "griots" or "jelis". To follow up on this interest, I have assembled my Best of Mande Jeli CDs list. Among the Mande peoples, jelis are musicians/oral historians who learn their art from members of their family. They are thus hereditary musicians and their musical tradition is one of the most important ones in the areas of West Africa where the jembe is traditionally played. Jelis, however, do not generally play jembe; their preferred instruments are the kora, the balafon, the ngoni (the ancestor of the banjo) and more recently the guitar. Furthermore, there is relatively little overlap between the song repertoire of the jeli and jembe traditons: one major exception being lamba/jeliya. 

Jeli music often departs from the call and response pattern that is so prevalent in African music. Songs usually begin and end with the basic melody being sung by the chorus; during the middle part, the lead singer generally launches into extended improvisation. The song pattern of jeli music is, thus, quite similar to the head-solos-back to the head pattern found in jazz. The distinctive features of this music are the sounds of the kora, balafon and ngoni, unforgettable Mande melodies, heavenly choruses and daring improvisation by the lead singer. This list of CDs is intended to provide of sampling of different regional and individual styles of Mande jeli music, with a focus on singers. 

Ami Koita "Songs of Praise" 
[Stern's Africa, STCD 1039] (Mali)
I am not a big fan of the production of this CD: a bit too much synths and programmed drums for my taste. But all is forgiven once Ami Koita begins to sing. She has a big, powerful voice that flows like honey from note to note. And no one streches out a musical phrase quite like Ami. Her virtuoso rendition of "Lamban" must be heard to be believed, but my personal favorites are "Nakan", "Allah Noh" and "Sanou Djoube". Ami's improvised solo on the latter is a flawlessly constructed marvel. 

Tata Bambo Kouyaté "Jatigui" [Globestyle, CDORB 042] (Mali)
Tata Bambo Kouyaté is a jelimuso of the first-order. On this CD, she is backed by a stately all-acoustic kora, balafon, ngoni, guitar and flute ensemble. Of all the CDs listed here I would rate Tata's vocal performance the highest, with that Kassé Mady Diabaté and Ami Koita very close behind. Her voice, which is a bit harsh sounding, may not appeal to everyone and her approach to singing is not what one call laid back. However, she is a singer of rare passion and a brillant improviser. For me, the highlight of this CD is "Anina Bah", a gorgeous song that is the perfect vehicle for Tata's flights of ecstasy. 

Dembo Konte, Kausu Kuyateh and Mawdo Suso "Jaliology" [Xenophile XENO 4036) (The Gambia, Senegal)
On "Jaliology" the kora duo Dembo Konte (The Gambia) and Kausu Kuyateh (Casamance, Senegal) are joined by Mawdo Suso (The Gambia) on balafon to form an all-star ensemble. This is essentially instrumental music, with occasional rootsy singing. All three are excellent players, but Kausu Kuyateh stands out with his cascading runs and crystalline tone. Some people might recognize Mawdo Suso, who was the featured balafon player in the "Born Musicians" episode of the "Repercussions" series. The rhythmic and melodic dialog between these three musicians is astounding. 

"Ana Be Kelen: Griot Music from Mali" [Pan Records; PAN2015CD] (Mali)
Recorded in Kela, Mali, the celebrated village of jelis, this is an excellent field recording,complete with the sound of crickets and an occasional rooster. Two ngonis  provide instrumental accompaniment (although two songs add a jembe) and Bintan Kouyaté and Lanfia Diabaté contribute powerful singing. On "Ana Be Kelen" the jelis of Kela perform a fine selection of songs; especially noteworthy are "Sunjata Fasa" and "Jaliya", two classics of the Mande jeli repertoire. Very deep jeli roots music! 

Kassé Mady Diabaté "Kela Tradition" [Stern's Africa, STCD 1034)(Mali)
Kassé Mady was the first jeli I heard and he is responsible for getting me hooked on the music. I must caution, however, that his music is challenging and is not for all tastes. Kassé Mady is from the village of Kela (see previous CD) and there, surrounded by accomplished jelis, his musical gifts stood out from an early age. He has beautiful voice, a broad emotive range and amazing improvisational skills. The songs on this CD average 8+ minutes in length and on each track Kassé Mady engages in extensive improvisation which require serious concentration of the part of the listener. This effort is, however, amply rewarded. 

Kassé Mady Diabaté "Live Concerts" [TF1 (Video)] (Mali)
Backed by kora, balafon, ngoni, djembe and two chorus singers, Kassé Mady Diabaté performs for a French audience. This is another great introduction to jeli music. The video and audio are very good and it's hard to watch the joy on the musicians' faces and not be moved. Kassé Mady and his ensemble deliver stellar performances of "Lamban Djoro", "Koulandjan" and "Tessiry Magan". 

Ousmane Sacko and Yakare Diabaté "La Nuit des Griots" [Radio France OCORA, C559009](Mali)
This CD is a live concert recorded in the Havre in 1983 before a knowledgeable and appreciative audience. Both Ousmane and Yakare, who are husband and wife, are excellent singers; they are accompanied by Ousmane's acoustic guitar and kora by Boubakar Diabaté and balafon by Brahima Kouyaté. Ousmane has written fine songs over several of the classic jeli accompaniment patterns (Lamban, Alla l'aa ke, and Douga) Their style, which is from the Khasso region, though distinctly Mande, bears some resemblance, at least to my ears, to that of Tukulor musicians, such as Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck. With their inspired accompanists, Ousmane and Yakare weave a magical spell. 

Sékouba Bambino (Diabaté) "Kassa" [Stern's Africa, STCD 1074] (Guinea)
Every since I heard Sékouba's "Le Destin", it has been one of personal favorites. However, when I purchased "Kassa", I was in some ways disappointed with it. Sékouba recorded the songs on "Kassa" with several different arrangers and, at least initially, it seemed to lack the stylistic focus of "Le Destin". However, after several listenings, I have come to view Sékouba's wonderful singing as the glue that holds everything together musically. It is best to view Sékouba as an example of jeli who has deep roots in the tradition, yet is capable of mastering modern infuences both in terms of instrumentation and musical styles. However, despite his assimilation of modern and pan-African influences, Sékouba gives perhaps his finest recorded vocal performance when he is accompanied by traditional Mande instruments (kora, ngoni and balafon) on "Diommaya". Although I have learned to appreciate the varied treasures of "Kassa", what wouldn't I give for a full CD of Sékouba backed by a traditional jeli ensemble. 

Adama Diabaté "Jako Bayo" [Stern's Africa, STCD 1062] (Mali)
This CD is a great place to begin exploring Mande jali music. Adama is an excellent singer, but she is probably a bit more accessible than say Ami Koita, Kassy Mady Diabaté or Tata Bambo Kouyaté, because her improvisations are more restrained and she stays a bit closer to the melody. The arrangements are wonderful, adding some bass, electric guitar and keyboards, while maintaining a strong traditional sound. A special treat is the ngoni playing of Makan Toukara, Adama's husband,. Personal favorites on this CD are "Dunwolo Lalou", and "Sabafolo". This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD. 

Jali Musa Jawara "Yasimika" [Hannibal, HNCD 1355] (Guinea)
Jali Musa Jawara plays kora and sings; he is accompaned by balafon, acoustic guitar and a wonderful female chorus (Janka Jobateh, Fanta Kuyateh and Jeni Doumbia). Along with "Kankan Blues" "Yasimika" is an excellent illustration of the Guinean jeli tradition which tends to be a bit more sprightly and less sober than the Malian tradition. The songs are long and leisurely with extended balafon and kora breaks. "Haidara" is a gem. 

Kanté  Manfila and Balla Kalla "Kankan Blues" [Popular African Music OA 201] (Guinea)
After acheiving international fame with Salif Keita and Les Ambassadeurs Internationales, Guinean guitarist Kanté Manfila returned to his home town, gathered friends and family and recorded a CD of down-home Mande blues. Kanté showcases his guitar playing on two long instrumentals: "Kankan Blues" and "Lamagnote". He sings on two songs, but generally leaves the singing in the capable hands of Jelimouna Diabaté and Nyalenfi Kanté. Balla Kalla adds fine balafon playing. 

Toumani Diabaté "Djelika" [Hannibal HNCD 1380] (Mali)
This is another great place to start your exploration of jeli music: the music is wonderful and I have found that open-minded listeners, who are not familar with jeli music, usually like it immediately. Toumani plays kora and is accompanied by Keletigui Diabaté on balafon and Basekou Kouyaté on ngoni. This is an instrumental CD, so Toumani, Keletigui and Basekou all have ample opportunity to strech out and illustrate the jeli art of improvised embellishment of a basic melody. 

Aminata Kamissoko "Malamine" [Stern's Africa STCD 1079] (Mali)
Another outstanding female singer from Mali, Aminata Kamissoko has quickly become one of my favorites. The timbre of her voice is similar to that Tata Bambo Kouyaté as is her fervent delivery.She is accompanied buy her son, Lamine Soumano, on kora, Baye, on backing vocals, and Zoumana Diarra on electric bass and guitar; Lamine Soumano also adds some relatively subtle drum machine programming. In my mind, the two songs on this CD that stand out are "Malimine: and "Titati".  For more on Aminata Kamissoko, see:

Tom Daddesio