Mali, the largest country in West Africa, reached its pinnacle of power in the 14th century, when it dominated the trans-Saharan gold trade and its fabled city of Timbuktu became a hub of wealth and culture. Today, 40 years after gaining independence from France, Mali is among the world's poorest nations. But it remains culturally rich, and some of its musicians rank among the superstars of world music.
Two of these -- feminist singer/songwriter Oumou Sangaré and vocalist Habib Koité with his band Bamada -- arrive in Berkeley on Friday. As befits an African nation in which French is still the official language, the music is a blend of traditional and modern -- ancestral instruments paired with electric guitars, and age-old musical forms molded into new shapes.
Of the pair, Sangaré is perhaps the more celebrated. Her first album, Moussoulou (1989), sold over 200,000 copies worldwide and caused a sensation over its subject matter -- women's oppression, arranged marriage, and polygamy. Her soaring alto, echoed by call-and-response backup singers, creates an Afropop sound that lands comfortably on Western ears.
Koité, at 42 a decade older than Sangaré, developed his unique guitar style from his grandfather, a virtuoso of the four-stringed n'goni, an instrument used by hunters to charm wild animals and invoke the protecting spirits. He formed Bamada in 1988 with other Malian musicians and began touring. The band's first album, Muso Ko, reached No. 3 on the European World Music Chart, and its second, Ma Ya(1999), shot to No. 1, where it stayed for an unprecedented three months.
Sales of world music have risen steadily in the U.S., and these two artists are part of the reason. As with the best Afropop musicians, their music sells internationally, yet retains enough of its indigenous quality to appeal to African listeners.