Sounds of Mali
Visiting string-masters take over Café Culture
The winner of the World Music Grand Prize at the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest was a song called “Ay Masilan” by Malian songwriter/musician Mamadou Sidibe and his wife, Vanessa. The lovely, lulling song (hear it at www.musicmali.com) features Mamadou on vocals (sung in the Malian language of Bambar) and on an instrument called the kamel n’goni.
The kamel n’goni is a popular eight-string instrument that Mamadou invented as a teenager by adding two strings to the traditional donzo n’goni, or “hunter’s harp,” while growing up in the Wassoulou region of southwestern Mali, in West Africa. Vanessa accompanies on vocals and karinye, a traditional metal percussion instrument played with a metal stick.
The Sidibes reside in Berkeley, where they spoke to me recently via speakerphone about their music and their upcoming appearance at Café Culture, one stop on a Northern California tour in support of their 2008 album, Wassoulou.
Mamadou (who moved to the United States 13 years ago) and Vanessa said they wrote “Ay Masilan” as a tribute to Mali’s national football team.
“It says, ‘Don’t be afraid of the other team, don’t be afraid of what’s coming in your life,’” explained Vanessa, who is originally from New York, where she met Mamadou five years ago. “‘If you have a clear, open heart, you don’t need to be afraid.’ It’s written for [the team], but it’s really for all people.”
Mamadou pitched in, pointing out that the breezy, cheery song “Coucou Foli” (coucou is the name of a traditional Malian dance, and foli means rhythm), is a “very traditional” song from the Wassoulou area.
“Originally, ‘Coucou Foli’ is only djembe,” said Mamadou in his thick Malian accent, referring to the sole, historical use of the West African hand drum called a djembe for the coucou dance. “So, everybody dance. Later, we add kamel n’goni and all the other instruments.”
Mamadou knows his history. In a country where written Bambara became codified enough to be taught in schools only 50 years ago, musicians, or griots, such as Mamadou have kept alive the history of Mali through their musical oral tradition.
“A lot of songs have people’s names in them,” offered Vanessa, “especially dead people. That’s the way they get remembered.”
“Fula,” from the couple’s 2005 album Nacama, is a playful history-song about the four most common Malian surnames: Diallo, Diakite, Sidibe and Sangare.
But, as traditional as Mamadou is, he is also a rule-breaker.
Vanessa pointed out that Mamadou, at the time he transformed the traditional hunter’s harp into the kamel n’goni, “was part of a really controversial movement to play [the instrument] in a popular music setting. Before that, it was only used in hunting.”
The Sidibes’ style of musical composition is a refreshing mixture of the traditional and the new. They generally take a traditional rhythm, as they did with the coucou, and add original lyrics, instrumentation and arrangements. The somewhat Asian sound they achieve is the result of the kamel n’goni being tuned to the pentatonic scale, common to melodies from Korea, China, Japan and Vietnam.
It’s a truly world-music sound, spanning time and geography.
At one point, the irresistible Mamadou started singing an infectious percussive rhythm over the speakerphone. Vanessa joined in with a complementary rhythm on her karinye.
“It is very important to start with traditional Wassoulou rhythm as the foundation,” said Mamadou.
“I think this music is coming from the heart—this is my theory,” he added. “If I try to compose the music, I am thinking ‘no borders.’ ”
Sharing the world-class double bill at Café Culture will be Madou Sidiki Diabate, a 71st-generation Malian master of the kora, a 21-string, West African lute-like instrument. Diabate’s late father, Sidiki Diabate, was known world-wide as “King of the Kora.”