Given recent unwelcome events taking place in Mali, finding a point of departure is not easy.The number of internet entries on the Sahel has increased exponentially. So let’s begin with a bit of wicki pilfering on the history side:
Mali was once part of three famed West African empires which controlled trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, slaves, and other precious commodities. These Sahelian kingdoms had neither rigid geopolitical boundaries nor rigid ethnic identities. The earliest of these empires was the Ghana Empire, which was dominated by the Soninke, a Mande-speaking people. The empire expanded throughout West Africa from the 8th century until 1078, when it was conquered by the Almoravids.
The Mali Empire later formed on the upper Niger River, and reached the height of power in the 14th century. Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centers of both trade and Islamic learning. The empire later declined as a result of internal intrigue, ultimately being supplanted by the Songhai Empire. The Songhai people originated in current northwestern Nigeria. The Songhai had long been a major power in West Africa subject to the Mali Empire’s rule. In the late 14th century, the Songhai gradually gained independence from the Mali Empire and expanded, ultimately subsuming the entire eastern portion of the Mali Empire.
The Niger River which is every bit impressive as the Mekong
Mosque in background
The Malian Kingdom was organised around very sophisticated forms of social organisation and was seriously wealthy as evidenced by this entry by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ibn Battuta, the great Morrocan Berber traveller, visited Mali by foot and his account is found HERE. He gives Mali a bit of a mixed review, but had the good sense to comment on the beauty of the women. However, I suspect our Islamic version of Marco Polo was a bit of a grizzle guts and non-cosmopolitan, since his visit to China concluded thus:
China, for all its magnificence, did not please me…. When I left my lodging I saw many offensive things which distressed me so much that I stayed at home and went out only when it was necessary. When I saw Muslims it was as though I had met my family and my relatives.
Yet, even in the 20th century, Mali retained aspects of its original greatness and advanced notions of civil society. And this brings me to one of the great train journeys in the world.
The Bamako-Dacca Senegal rail link – Inaguarated in 1904 with branch lines completed in 1924.
After independence in the early sixties, the railway was jointly run by the Regie des Chemins de Fer du Mali RCFM and its Senegalese counterpart. The Malian Ministry of Information and the RCFM displayed advanced social characteristics when they formed the Super Rail Band to entertain passengers staying at The Buffet Hotel de la Gare before departing to the coast from Bamako’s railway station.
I suggest that you read the full Wiki entry on the Super Rail Band HERE – taking note of the original Cuban influences – as it contains all the musical references you will be to be aware of in order to complete your weekend homework.
Finally, I highly recommend this tremendous photo gallery assembled by various photographers, containing as it does the only image of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare I could locate, plus the Artisans Market….many thanks.
And what is all this verbiage about?
The original (?) Super Rail Band.
Tons of youtube entries when you include the many luminaries such as Mory Kante and Safil Keita who passed through the Rail Band. However, the Rail Band has a much slicker sound today due to high-end French production methods.
And I leave you with two recommendations:
For a guaranteed killer introduction to the West Sahelian griot sound (Whats that KT? – back to your Wicki homwework), try this CD offering from Rough Trade . The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali and Guinea: Kora Kings and Griot Minstrels. This is the disc for you when you hold your next block party and want to test your slinky new moves on the dance floor.
And to understand what is taking place in Mali today, read anything by Jeremy Keenan, an independent anthropologist with decades of experience in the Sahel. Here is just one recent sample of his reporting from Al Jazeera.
If you have the time, obtain a copy of his The Dark Sahara: America’s War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2009). Densely written, but highly rewarding.
And what of the Bamako-Dacca rail link today? Well, it is basically fucked as this recent account by Rhiannon Batten for The Independent notes.
Sad, so here is a truly beautiful entry on an experiment in Malian musical cross-fertilisation written for Vanity Fair.
Contains photos to die for.
Enjoy, because the follow-up – KTs Musical Master Class – will be demanding and requiring your very best artisanal skills.