The Original Sound of Mali is a new compilation drawing together a selection of incredible music from, as the title suggests, 1970s and 80s Mali. Compiled by the esteemed Mr Bongo label, the album covers a remarkably fertile period of Malian musical history, a time when new recording technology led to a gold rush of bands laying tracks down to tape. This period saw the early recordings from artists who would go on to worldwide acclaim; the likes of Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Idris Soumaoro would later enjoy the championing of the ‘world’ music scene with their slickly produced internationally available CDs. This compilation goes back to a time before that, when they were still making music for a local audience. The production values are rawer, but the results are thrilling.
Having enjoyed the tracklist immensely we contacted David from Mr Bongo- the driving force behind the release- to talk about the genesis of a passion project that has taken years to deliver.
Hey David, how did this compilation first come together?
Going back to the beginning, I’ve always been inspired by Mali music. There’s a haunting, heavy quality to it. I used to work with Ali Farka Toure when I worked at World Circuit back in ’88, and I found out about Mali music then. So over the last 20 or 30 years I’ve been getting into the artists featured on this album; Idris Soumaoro, The Rail Band and so on. That process helped me find some of the people involved and start to license stuff. It took a long time; it’s taken about three or four years to put this together. I think the genesis was when I heard a mix on this website Soul Bonanza – I got together with those guys because they knew more than I did, and started contacting people in Mali from there, going direct to the artists that were still alive. Idris Soumaoro is a really interesting character, he used to run this blind school – you know Armadou & Mariam?
The two blind singers, they started with him, and I think Mariam sings on one of the songs on the album. We’ve tried to take songs from different provinces of Mali to give a different flavour, and try not to only use the well-known singers. We’ve tried to keep it a bit more obscure so it’s like a discovery.
How much of the compilation was licensed from Mali based record labels and how much from international majors who were coming in and signing stuff?
I suppose a bit of both. We spent a long time trying to find out who owned the Rail Band track, and in the end it turned out to be Universal. Idris, I managed to find through some contacts in Mali. Some of them were suggested by a guy called Fleur who’s a French musicologist. Trying to get hold of Malick Sidibe, the famous Malian photographer took a while, because he wasn’t very well – in fact he died while we were compiling it. Even sending money out there isn’t the easiest. Surprisingly most of the artists were still around – Salif is still playing and a lot of the Rail Band members are still alive which is great.
In that case, are you thinking about doing live shows around the compilation?
I never thought of that, I’ve got to say! Idris would probably be the one I’d want to bring over, it’s not a bad idea at all to have a Malian showcase. I don’t know whether the guys would be up for it. They did it with Buena Vista Social Club, and we’ve worked with people like Ebo Taylor and Pat Thomas, and Ebo’s 81. I guess people are living longer, and these old guys, they’ve still got it, they’ve still got the swing.
There’s a long standing theory that the blues can be traced back to Malian Music – is this something you hold any truck with?
I think it’s very interesting. With Ali Farka Toure there was a big debate. From what I could tell from listening to Ali was that he’d listened to a lot of John Lee Hooker, which is never a bad thing. But the Ngoni instrument, which Ali often used on his records, was- I guess- the first blues guitar and it must have travelled over there. So in some senses, yes. But it’s not as simple as that. I can easily hear the influence of blues on Ali, whilst it’s hard to hear the influence of an Ngoni player on a bluesman in the 19th Century. I’m sure it’s there it’s just a longer road. It’s got to be the case, because where else did it come from? It’s like how Brazilian music has the Batucada rhythm from Angola, it’s quite different by the time it’s got to Brazil, but you can still hear it there. There’s direct connections you hear and the more long term ones that an ethnomusicologist could break down. It’s beautiful, this cross pollination. There’s a technological aspect as well, suddenly you get new recording equipment and a whole load of new music explodes across Mali.
Were there tracks that got away on this one?
A lot of the Rail Band that I wanted to put on there, it was hard to get everyone’s approval. But also by the time I got everything together I realised I had an album and a half – I had nearly 120 - 130 minutes of music. In the end I had to kick a load of tracks off, because I couldn’t fit it all on a CD, let alone vinyl.
So does that mean there’s a part two coming?
Maybe. This one’s been very well received and it hasn’t even come out yet. So maybe I’ll get working on a part two. We’re talking about doing a Benin one as well, it’s a similar kind of scene. But I’m surprised no one’s done a Mali compilation like this yet, I mean I love the Soundway albums covering Kenya and Ghana, but the Mali music, it’s deeper, it isn’t necessarily a DJ tool, it’s much heavier, much deeper.
There’s a great track from Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako on there that has a violin at the end – hearing that really surprised me
You’ve got a lot of Arabic influence in there, and lots of the Latin American Charanga music – a lot of the Charanga bands would play in West Africa and the sound was really popular. You can hear it in a couple of tracks.
You mention in the PR that you’re hoping to shine a light on Mali’s current situation – there’s a civil war going on right now, do you feel some obligation to draw attention to this?
To a certain extent; the record is a document of a certain time that isn’t now. It’s good to draw attention to things though. Just by talking about Mali it opens up a lot of new stories, and that’s what inspired us initially. It’s an ever changing situation. I was really disappointed that the Timbuktu library got destroyed, and all those great documents got destroyed. Mali’s not a place you can go to that easily now. It’s not that safe. It’s really sad what’s happening there. We dedicated the album to Malick Sadibe, and the situation in Mali hasn’t been highlighted that much recently, I guess because we don’t have that Francophone connection in this country. We had that first splurge when the French troops first went in but that was quite a while ago. Hopefully this record will trigger some new interest. 6 Music made this the biggest compilation of the week, and there was a lot of good feedback from people calling in saying they’d like to know more about Mali, so maybe there is a bit of a knowledge gap that this can help fill.
The Original Sound of Mali is released via Mr Bongo at the end of March - more info on the Mr Bongo site