Damon Albarn didn't just stick a pin in a map when he decided to take his Africa Express project to Mali: he knew that the country's music was both rich in history, and fresh and exciting. And, arguably, it's more important right now than it's ever been. Last year the northern half of Mali was seized by Islamic and Tuareg rebels before defeat by French militants, although the conflict is still ongoing. As a result, a ban on secular music on radio stations was enforced: only the singing of Koranic verses was allowed, and any songs with non-Muslim lyrics were declared Satanic
This weekend's radio programming on the BBC, then, promises to be a fascinating listen. As part of 6 Music Celebrates African Music (January 17 - 19), Gemma Cairney will present Mali Music this Sunday from 1pm - 2pm. We caught up with Gemma to ask about Mali's musical history and heritage, its future and its influence – and she also made us a special playlist to coincide with the documentary, which you can listen to below.
How would you define or describe the music of Mali?
Gemma Cairney: If you listen to the documentary closely, you'll notice that at certain points I'm almost breathless. Some moments were such a sensory overload I felt positively giddy. It was sticky and meltingly hot, glisteningly colourful, yet mad, bustling, dusty and alive with sound. I think of Mali and I want to sway – I can hear it as much as I can see it in my mind. I tried to learn as much as I could about the importance of music to Malian people, I learnt that women would sing on the front lines of the battle fields during warrior wars hundreds of years ago. Music then was used to guide the soldiers, make them stronger. The tradition and power of music remains. Political rap albums used as letters to the government, young boys on the streets tell you their secrets through a talking drum. I met women expressing their rights and injustices via the sweetest of song.
I met Salif Keita (now one of the most famous Malian musicians), a man ostracised from his family when young because he was born albino. He has spent his career crusading for the Albino community (who in some parts of Africa are still victims of human sacrifice) and used powerful lyrics to do so. I met a rhythm and blues band from Timbuktu called Songhoy Blues who had fled the desert in the North, where Islamic extremists had tried to ban music, to continue making it. Their guitars sounded so sexy; my eyes shot stars and hearts when I first heard them. It is impossible to define the music of Mali, except for to say that it's so diverse for so many reasons it makes you breathless.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about it?
GC: It was a story that needed to be told. I'd heard about the political unrest in the North of Mali and could not fathom how anyone could ban music. I did not understand how this could be possible in a place where music is so prolific. It made me feel achy and sad inside. I then learnt that the Africa Express were going to take producers and musicians to Mali to make an album in a week, to pump hope and provide a platform for emerging Malian musicians at a time most needed. I've worked on lots of radio documentaries before and believe they can tell a story in a way nothing else can.
What happened in Mali last year, and how did it affect the music there?
GC: Islamic extremists tried to take over the North of Mali and as a part of this, they tried to ban music. Drum kits were burnt, threats of the tongues being cut out of singers spread, and radio stations were changed to just play Quranic verse. Many musicians fled to Bamako, the city in fear.
What did you find in Mali and how had it affected musicians?
GC: There was mostly a sadness at the upheaval of peace.
What drew Damon Albarn, Brian Eno and co. to Mali?
GC: The Africa Express first visited Mali 10 years ago, it was after Damon had fallen for the country and its music on a trip with Oxfam years previously. I thought it was pretty special; he'd decided to return in show of love for the country in a time of political unrest. When I was there I felt Damon seemed to have an affinity with Mali, he seemed so at home there. I'm not surprised he'd managed to swoop up a ridiculous bunch creators and innovators to come with him to make an album. It was an opportunity for sponge brains to soak up some of the best music making in all the world. Brian Eno described it me as 'musical humiliation'.
What does the musical future of Mali look like?
GC: I don't know what the musical future of Mali is, but I do think that Songhoy Blues should support Yeah Yeah Yeahs on their next tour. I think that we should see Malian artists at the festivals this summer. I think we should continue to look to Mali to sway and get breathless.
Songhoy Blues feat. Nick Zinner – 'Soubour'
"One evening in Mali, there was a kind of 'work in progress' playback, where all the artists lined to what they'd recorded so far. As soon as this started playing, we were like 'WOW'.
Rokia Traoré – 'Mélancolie'
"Rokia is a well known Malian musician. I met her in London recently as she was on tour, she is strong and wise with so much love for her country, it comes across in her music. If you listen to the documentary, she is also the sister of Naaba, the young woman singer, whose house we go to, and she describes herself as a feminist."
Bijou and Damon Albarn
"This is Bijou performing at Maison de Juenes album launch with Damon Albarn. It's a good example of how much Damon seems to have an affinity with Malian music."
Salif Keita –'Tomorrow'
"This is one of Salif's most famous songs. It's beautiful."