Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section


Over the years, I have played many popular African and Western rhythms and I finally decided to focus on Malian music. We have so many rhythms in Mali we do not have to play music from elsewhere. Habib Koité
This compilation was born out of a discussion on jembe list of a recent CD release by Putumayo, “Mali to Memphis”, that juxtaposes recordings by Malian musicians and American blues artists. 

The premise behind “Mali to Memphis” is that there exists a deep similarity between the music of Mali and American blues. Like several of the musical traditions of Mali, the blues makes extensive of the minor pentatonic scale; “Mali to Memphis” focuses on the penatonic musics of Mali and excludes the music of the Maninka jelis from its purview and this compilation will take the same approach. NOTE: many of the major Malian Maninka jelis are already covered in the “Favorite Jeli CDs and Video” List (

Historically, the territory that now makes up Mali was an important cradle of civilization, being home to the Ghana, Mande, Songhaï, Bamana empires. Today Mali is a multi-cultural nation that brings together the Bamana, Bozo, Fula, Kassonké, Maninka, Senoufo, Songhay, Soninké and Taureg peoples. As a result of its resplendent historical legacy and its cultural diversity, the music of Mali is distinctive, rich and steeped in tradition. And, of course, you have to add to the mix a marked Arabic influence, product of centuries-long contact with the Arab world and a population with high degree of Islamization.

While there are significant similarities between American blues and the Maninka jeli tradition, most notably micotonal singing, these similarities are not as immediately apparent as those between the Blues and say Wasulu, Songhaï and Bamana music. Did I say “immediately apparent” in the previous sentence? That might be a little strong, because there is no doubt that the Blues, like other musics of the African Diaspora, evolved significantly in the Western hemisphere. A case in point is the twelve bar I-IV-V chord progression that shapes so much of American blues (Brian Olson made this point in his 2/20/99 post) which appears to have developed in the Diaspora. 

This evolution was amply clear to me, when, several years ago at a time when I was listening heavily to the blues and with no previous exposure to Malian music, I first heard Ali Farka Toure’s “African Blues”. I purchased “African Blues” expecting to find a simple variation of a musical form that I had grown to love. While the connection to the blues was audible in Touré’s guitar playing, in general I found “African Blues” to be profoundly different from the blues that I was familiar with and, consequently, the cassette languished on my shelf until very recently. 

Looking back at my initial reaction, I no doubt missed the twelve-bar progression and the insistent shuffle that I associated with the blues, but perhaps the most significant difference was the pronounced Arabic influence in Touré’s singing. My point in relating this story is that the similarity between Malian music and American blues does not imply a simple and rigorous identity and that it may take the listener some time to begin to hear the profound affinity. 


Samuel Charters "The Roots of the Blues" (Da Capo Press, New York, 1981). 
Charters is well-known as a musicologist and collector of rural southern musical forms (blues, church music, prison work songs, etc.). In "Roots of the Blues" he describes his travels with tape recorder to West Africa in search of direct links to known southern rural blues songs. Even though his search failed to find what he was seeking, his travels and musical encounters were fantastic and wonderfully described. There's lots of information about African music, griots, West African history and geography, and travel. 
(Submitted by Brian Olson) (Extended review)

John Storm Robert “Black Music of Two Worlds: African, Caribbean, Latin and African-American Traditions” (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998 2nd Edition)
Originally published in 1972 and reedited in 1998, “Black Music of Two Worlds” is an exploration of the specific forms that African music has taken in the Americas. Since it covers a lot of ground, it gives a panoramic view of several musical traditions rather than a detailed
view of a single one. It closes with a section on music in post-Colonial Africa and how the musics of the Diaspora (Afro-Cuban, jazz, James Brown) returned to Africa and played a role in developments there. 


Mah Damba “Nyarela” La Voce Records/Trema 710735
This is a relatively recent purchase, but it has quickly become a favorite of mine. Born to a renowned Bamana jeli family, Mah Damba is both a strong singer and a superb improvisor. On this CD, she is backed by ngoni, acoustic guitar, Bamana flute, tamani, djembe, balafon and a fine female chorus. This is a rootsy recording with standout performances by Mah Damba and Mamaye Kouyaté on ngoni.

Nahawa Doumbia “Yankaw” Cobalt/Mélodie 09278-2
Raised in the Wassulu region of Mali, Nahawa Doumbia won a prestigious award for young Malian musical talent as a teenager and, now, nearly twenty years later, is in full command of her considerable musical skills. This CD features rock-solid grooves by the accompanists (on guitar, bass, Senoufo balafon, doun doum, kamele n’goni), incendiary singing by Nahawa Doumbia and electrifying djembe work by Alassane Sissoko. 

Alou Fané's Foté Mocoba (Mali) "Kamalan N'goni Dozon 
N'Goni"; Dakar Sound; DKS  005
Alou Fané leads Foté Mocoba, a Bamana ensemble whose five 
members play an assortment of instruments including balafon, 
electric bass and guitar, flute, drum kit and assorted percussion, 
n'goni and kamalan n'goni (the Bambara hunter's harp). Alou Fané 
plays the kamalan n'goni which resembles the kora in form but has 
fewer strings and generally adds a lower register ostinato. This CD 
contains non-stop hypnotic grooves that are complimented by Alou 
Fané's fiery singing.

Oumou Sangare “Moussoulu” World Circuit WCD 021; “Ko Sira”, World Circuit WCD 021; “Worotan” World Circuit/Nonesuch 79470-2
Of the Wasulu singers, Oumou Sangaré’s is the most-well known in the West. Her success is justified because she is an outstanding singer, but it would be nice to see other Malian also receive the attention they deserve. The arrangements of Oumou Sangaré’s songs include more Western musical elements than say those of Nahawa Doumbia, nonetheless she maintains a strong roots sound. She has a powerful, plaintive voice yet her singing is remarkably nuanced and restrained.

Sali Sidebé “From Timbuctu to Gao” Shanachie 65011
Another excellent Wasulu singer, Sali Sibebé has a powerful, full-bodied voice; she definitely belongs to the “blues shouter” tradition. On this CD Sali Sibebé is backed by a grooving ensemble that includes kalalen ngoni, spike fiddle, flute, djembe, dundun, balafon, drum kit and female chorus. Zoumana Terérka spike fiddle (soukou) play stands out as does Sali Sidebé’s singing.

NéBa SoLo "Kenedougou Foly"; Mélodie; 09281-2
Senoufo balafon music from Southern Mali. NéBa SoLo plays the 
balamba, a bass balafon, and is accompanied by Siaka Traoré on 
lead balafon, as well as two baras, a karignan and a titiara. The vocals on "Kenedougou Foly" display a marked Arabic influence, while the grooves are both funky and hypnotic.

Ali Farka Touré “African Blues”; Shanachie 65002
Of all the recordings featured on this compilation, “African Blues” is probably the one that sounds the most like country blues. Some have compared Ali Farka Touré, who is Songhaï, to John Lee Hooker, but I think that the comparison is a bit forced. This recording features Touré’s guitar and singing with subtle percussion. The effect is quite similar to the country blues but, at the same time, quite different.

Although this is a compilation of Malian blues, I couldn’t resist adding a recording from Senegal

Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck “Djam Leelii”; Mango CCD 9840
Recorded in 1982, “Djam Leelii” has been recently re-released with three additional tracks from the original sessions. Backed by electric guitar, subtle percussion and balafon, Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck (both are Tukulor) combine their voices and guitars to produce unforgettable music. This is both a classic recording of West African music – a must for any collection – and an important source for the study of the African roots of the blues.


Amadou et Miriam
This is short bio of the 

For some great black and white photos of Oumou Sangaré, Habib Koité, Lobi Traoré and Baaba Maal.

Favorite Jeli CDs
This is a companion piece to the present compilation. It contains short reviews of the recordings of 10 prominent jelis.

Habib Koite’s Homepage

Poetic Devices in the Songs of Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues
The essay was published in the Transcultural Music Review
(Submitted by Johannes Schya) 

Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck “Djam Leelii” by Cliff Furnad
Excellent background information on “Djam Leelii”.

Baaba Maal transcriptions
This site is part of Eric Charry’s home page and contains sound samples and transcriptions (done by Charry) of three guitar parts of a song from “Djam Leelii”.

Baaba Maal
Contains information on Djam Leelii as well as other recordings by Baaba Maal, an extended interview with the BBC and a biography of Baaba.

Putumayo World Music
Just look under the CD catalog menu and you’ll find pages devoted to “Mali to Memphis” and to Habib Koite’s “Ma Ya”
(Submitted by Boo Kunta, aka Lynn Walsh)

CD Review: Mali to Memphis
This is a detailed review of Mali to Memphis written by Rodger Collins.

Music Contemporary Showcase: Ali Farka Touré
A good bio of Ali Farka Touré and introduction to his music.

Oumou Sangaré in Concert
A short review by Dan Rosenberg of a Oumou Sangaré performance.

Oumou Sangaré, Mali
This is a good introduction to Oumou Sangaré and her music.

Oumou Sangaré “Worotan”
A short review of Oumou Sangaré’s third CD, written by Cliff Furnad

Penatonic Passport: A Malian Phrasebook
An introduction by Banning Eyre to Malian penatonic guitar styles.

Sali Sidebé “Wassoulou Foli”
A short review of Sali Sidebé’s Wassoulou Foli

The Ali Farka Touré,Ali_Farka.shtml
Excellent site with a search engine that will take you to practically everything relating to Ali Farka Touré on the web.

Ali Farka Touré (with Ry Cooder) “Talking Timbuctu”
An excellent review of Ali Farka Touré’s “Talking Timbuctu”.

West African Music (submitted by Johannes Schya)
Interesting site that focuses primarily on Mali and Senegal; it contains short biographies and reviews of recordings by Habib Koite, Oumou Sangare, Baaba Maal and others as well as brief discussions of the major musical styles and instruments of the region.