An aural history: Mali’s big band swing

An aural history: Mali’s big band swing

When Mali gained its independence from France in 1960, it ushered in an era of intense musical activities with the establishment of regional bands that underpinned national pride, and the evolution of big band patronage. Within a decade, it became common for those who had become the new elite in Malian society to display their status by patronising musical ensembles, usually referred to as ‘orchestras’.

Two bands, in particular, emerged at this time – the Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare (established under the mantle of the director of the National Railways and Minister of Public Works, Karim Dembélé), and Les Ambassadeurs de Bamako.

Les Ambassadeurs’ patron, Tiékoro Bagayoko, was a military strongman and head of state security. Bagayoko had helped depose Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, and install Lieutenant Moussa Traoré and his Military Committee for National Liberation.

These are classic mid-1970s Les Ambassadeurs tracks of that era, including two radio broadcast recordings, probably engineered by Ali Farka Toure. The songs recorded for the radio were later released on the Sonafric and Mali Music labels.

This two-CD release comes at exactly the right time, with the imminent reunion of the four surviving members of the ensemble (those italicised), supplemented with a few other musicians of the genre.

These are Salif Keita as the lead vocalist; Cheick Tidiane Seck and Idrissa Soumaoro on keyboards; Ousmane Kouyaté and Amadou Bagayoko on guitars; Sekou Diabate on bass; Mahamadou (Pacheko) Bakayoko on drums; Modibo Koné providing additional percussion; Mamadou (Prince) Koné playing the calabash; and Samaké Harouna on ngoni (a stringed bass harp). Dante Aminata and Bah Kouyaté are the backing vocals.

Modern Manding swing

The original Les Ambassadeurs played an eclectic mix of regional musical styles: salsa, son, and calypso, with a peppering of Western influences such as funk, soul, rock’n’roll, and Country and Western. But the band’s modern repertoire is more likely to be focusing on the ‘modern Manding’ swing that is so well loved, some of the songs having the tentacles of their origins stretching deep into history and the ancient griot ballads of West Africa.

The history of the band includes the poaching of Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare’s star vocalist, Salif Keita, just as a vocalist called Ousmane Dia was tempted away from the legendary Star Band of Dakar. Keita had been with the Rail Band but was friendly with their arch-competitors. Unhappy with the pay at the Rail Band, he did not take much persuading to switch camps.

But Keita did not simply step into stardom with this move. He was told by his new band colleagues, quite blandly, “Learn or get lost!”.

Before, he had been singing those old griot epics with a Latin backing, but now, with Les Ambassadeurs, he began a musical apprenticeship, learning the many musical styles of his new compatriots.

These compatriots included bassist Ichiaka Dama and drummer Djossé, the guitars of Kanté Manfila, Ousmane Kouyaté and Issa Gnaré and a horn section made up of Moussa ‘Vieux’ Cissoko and Kabiné ‘Tagus’ Traore.

The ‘business model’ was that Salif Keita would come to the fore to sing the Manding songs; Ousmane Dia would sing the Wolof numbers from Senegal; and Moussa ‘James Brown’ Doumbia deliver the funk and soul that came from the US.

The difference between the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs was that the former was a very Malian band, but the later delivered a truly international sound.

There is one instance where, it seems, the two bands appeared on the same bill, in 1974, when both groups shared the stage at Bamako’s Modibo Keita stadium. Both had been asked to sing ‘Kibaru’, a song that sang the praises of education and literacy. By common consent, Les Ambassadeurs won the day.

Salif Keita is quoted as saying: “There was no competition really because we were composers and they weren’t.”

Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako
Cat: STCD3065-66

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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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