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The search for the African roots of the blues has long been a subject of fascination to writers, scholars and musicians, with Mali taking an increasingly central role in the popular imagination as the missing link in the blues’ DNA. Many Malian artists have found their music being labelled by journalists and record companies with such tags as ‘Mali Blues’, ‘Desert Blues’ and ‘Bambara Blues’, in recognition of the strong stylistic similarities with the Delta Blues in particular. But which way around did the influences travel? A crucial piece to the puzzle is a Bamana jeli (griot) song called ‘Poyi’, which, according to oral tradition, may have been the last tune that war captives of the empire of Segu (1712–1861) heard, before being taken into slavery. This article explores the complex trajectory of the trans-Atlantic conversations between the blues and Mali, by focusing on one musical tradition that has so far been ignored in scholarly studies of both blues and Mande music – that of the Bamana (‘Bambara’) griots from Segu in the middle Niger valley, with their trademark lute, the ngóniba. Drawing both on extensive academic research carried out on Mande music, and on long practical experience of working as music producer of Mande artists, it argues that Bamana music could well be a strong contender for the ‘roots of the blues’.
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POYI! Bamana jeli music, Mali and the
Lucy Durán a
a Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa , SOAS ,
London , UK
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African Cultural Studies, 25:2, 211-246
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POYI! Bamana jeli music, Mali and the blues
Lucy Durán*
Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa, SOAS, London, UK
The search for the African roots of the blues has long been a subject of fascination to writers,
scholars and musicians, with Mali taking an increasingly central role in the popular imagination
as the missing link in the bluesDNA. Many Malian artists have found their music being
labelled by journalists and record companies with such tags as Mali Blues,Desert Blues
and Bambara Blues, in recognition of the strong stylistic similarities with the Delta Blues
in particular. But which way around did the inuences travel? A crucial piece to the puzzle
is a Bamana jeli (griot) song called Poyi, which, according to oral tradition, may have
been the last tune that war captives of the empire of Segu (17121861) heard, before being
taken into slavery.
This article explores the complex trajectory of the trans-Atlantic conversations between the
blues and Mali, by focusing on one musical tradition that has so far been ignored in scholarly
studies of both blues and Mande music that of the Bamana (Bambara) griots from Segu in
the middle Niger valley, with their trademark lute, the ngóniba. Drawing both on extensive
academic research carried out on Mande music, and on long practical experience of working
as music producer of Mande artists, it argues that Bamana music could well be a strong
contender for the roots of the blues.
Keywords: Malian blues; Mande music; roots of the blues
On a late afternoon in February 2006 in Garana, a village deep in the countryside of Segou
vince (Mali), a local crowd was gathered in the courtyard of a family of Bamana jeliw (hereditary
musicians or griotsof the Bamana people
). They were hosting some festivities to welcome a
renowned marabout (Muslim cleric) to the village. Seated in the centre of the courtyard was
the head of the jeli household, the veteran female singer Yakaré Damba, together with several
of her sons, ranging in age from their 20s to late 40s. All were exceptionally talented performers
of the ngòni, a West African lute with a wooden resonator and skin sound table. Around the
imposing figure of the matriarch were many of her grandchildren, some barely old enough to
walk, some in their late teens all budding singers, dancers and drummers in this intensely
musical family.
Yakarés son Bassekou Kouyaté was the familys most celebrated artist. He had been touring
and recording with some of Malis most prominent musicians since the early 1990s, and was
known for his innovative approach to the centuriesold music of the Bamana griots with
which he had grown up.
One such innovation was to attach the ngòni to a strap slung around
his shoulder, guitar style which was how he was holding the instrument that day. By contrast,
his elder brother, Modibo Kouyaté, played in the more traditional way, seated on the ground, his
right leg hooked over the ngòni (see Figures 1 and 2). The two had been raised together in Garana
© 2013 Journal of African Cultural Studies
Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2013
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(along with 11 other brothers and sisters), but Modibo stayed in the village, while Bassekou
moved to Bamako in his late teens.
Garana lies in the heart of the historical region known as Dò. In the epic tradition of the Mande
jeliw, the Mande Empire was founded by Sunjata Keita in c. 1235, and his mother, Sogolon Kone,
was from Dò. Just 2 km away from Garana, at the top of a small hill in the middle of an arable
Figure 2. Bassekou Kouyaté on stage with his band in Lisbon, 2007. One of his rst performances with his
band Ngoniba following the release of their rst album, Segu Blue. Note the straps that hold the instruments.
Source: Lucy Durán.
Figure 1. Modibo Kouyaté, older brother of Bassekou Kouyaté, plays the ngòniba. His daughter Bintou
Kouyaté, a budding singer, sits with him, at home in Garana, Segou province, 2008.
Source: Photo by Thomas Dorn, by permission.
212 L. Durán
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field, is the supposed grave of Sunjata Keitas aunt, Dò Kamissa, the buffalo woman. This little-
known, and rarely visited, spot plays a significant role in the imaginary of Bamana jeliw, as it was
from her lineage that Sunjata was believed to have derived his esoteric strength, with which he led
the Mande to power
(See Figure 3).
Like many of the surrounding villages in this part of Mali, the middle Niger valley, Garana has
a mixed population consisting of four main ethnicities the Bamana who are the farmers, the
Fulbe who are the pastoralists, the Bozo who are the shermen, and the Soninke who are the mer-
chants and Muslim clerics, along with the Jokarame (a sedentary branch of the Fulbe). For the
days festivities, each one of these had provided their own drummers and singers to represent
their communities and to entertain the crowd. Megaphones connected to a rudimentary sound
system had been mounted around the courtyard, blaring out the music. When the drumming
and dancing nished, the village schoolteacher gave a formal welcome speech. Then it was
time for the Kouyaté family to perform the songs for which they were known throughout the
region: Bamana jeli (griot) music. Most of their repertoire dates from the time of the Segu
Empire (c. 17121861)
(Figure 4).
Bamana jeli music shares some elements with other, better known and more studied, forms of
Mande music,
but it has also many features that set it apart. The repertoire is made up of a
number of songs that tell the stories of Segus rulers and warriors, typically accompanied on
the ngòniba, a large four-string version of the lute, the preferred instrument of Segus rulers
(as described later on in this article). The songs are characterized by pentatonic scales, 6/8
rhythm and slow tempo. Combined with the timbre of the ngòni, derived from fingering tech-
niques that include slides, pulls, hammers and vibrato on the strings,
Bamana jeli music is at
times heavily redolent of the blues.
One piece in particular, Poyi, stood out that day as a blues dead ringer’–especially the way
it was played by Bassekou Kouyaté. I was in Garana at the time, researching the Bamana reper-
toire for a recording project with Bassekou.
I was already familiar with several of the best-known
Bamana songs such as Da Monzonand Bakari Jan, but Poyiwas new to me. Perhaps I had
Figure 3. Bassekou Kouyaté at the spot marking the supposed grave of Dò Kamissa (the buffalo woman),
aunt of Sunjata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in 1235.
Source: Thomas Dorn, 2007, by permission.
Journal of African Cultural Studies 213
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heard Poyibefore but had failed to recognize it, since it is more of a template accompaniment
than a specic song, much in the way that the blues is. While his older brother Modibo played a
slow, two-bar melody in 6/8 time on the large ngòniba, Bassekou gradually added variations on a
smaller ngòni, some of which sounded distinctly bluesy, at times reminiscent of the kinds of guitar
riffs one might hear on a John Lee Hooker track.
That evening when the festivities were over, I asked the two brothers to tell me more about
Poyi. Bassekou explained that it was an old, very traditional piece, which had several regional
variants. He had taken his fathers version and modied it in his own way a common enough
process by which Mande jeli pieces evolve through time and the oral tradition. Bassekouswayof
playing Poyireflected his contact with blues musicians on stages and in studios around the
world. Nevertheless, his upbringing in a remote village as the son of a knowledgeable and distin-
guished jeli family had provided him with a solid grounding in local oral narrative.
From Bassekous description it emerged that unlike most of the Mande jeli repertoire, Poyi
is not connected with any one historical person or song.
Instead it is an accompaniment, over
which male jeliw would improvise spoken praises for those who have demonstrated great bravery
and strength. It could also be played as an instrumental, which is unusual in the Mande repertoire.
Poyi, added Modibo (who had never heard of the blues), was a term to signify bravery on the
battlefield, at the time of the Segu Empire.It was the tune to which nobles swore an oath. It also
had grim associations with the battlefield.
Poyi is the original Bamana blues. We were taught it by our father Moustapha Kouyaté who was a great
ngòni player, and his father before him. He never even heard of the blues, but when he played Poyi,it
was the blues. Poyi means to kill people; it means to shed blood. It was considered better to capture your
opponent alive than to kill him. Would they ever come back alive to their homes and family or would
they lie dead in the battlefield, food for vultures, or be captured and enslaved?
Figure 4. Modibo Kouyaté playing the ngòniba, through a small amplier, surrounded by his family: his
mother, the singer Yakaré Damba (wearing an orange and green scarf) and his sister Oumou Kouyaté (far
right). Garana, 2006.
Source: Lucy Durán.
214 L. Durán
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After the battle, all those captured alive had to line up, and the jeli would play Poyi.One after the
other each would be asked, do you want to go into slavery?If he says yes, he passes out of the line
and he belongs to his captor. If he says no, he has to stand still, and his head is chopped off. (Bassekou
Kouyaté, Personal communication, Garana, 2006)
There is plenty of gore in the Bamana epic tradition (see, for example, the vivid description of a
bloody massacre by hatchetmen of Bamana elders after the death of Monzon; Conrad 1999, 186
187). Yet the Kouyaté brothersaccount of how Poyiwas linked to the precise moment when
captured warriors had to choose between shameful life in slavery or honour in death,
up new perspectives on the so-far undocumented connections between the blues and Bamana
music. It raised the question: how signicant was the context in which such music was played,
if it was the last piece to be played to warriors before they went to battle? What effect would
such an association with warfare, bloodshed and indeed esoteric power have on the minds of cap-
tives, some of whom might have been shipped across the Atlantic?
This article attempts to address some of these questions. A major part of the discussion is
devoted to a long-overdue ethnography of Bamana jeli music, giving descriptions of its historical
and cultural context, its musical and lyrical features, its main instrument, the ngòniba, and its
repertoires, in order to better assess their place in the quest for the roots of the blues. The
article draws on extensive research conducted by the author with Mande jeliw over many years
in Mali. The family of Bassekou Kouyaté in Garana, who represent an old and authoritative
oral tradition, have been a particularly important source of information on the Bamana repertoire,
but many other musicians have also been consulted on the topic in both Segou and Bamako and in
the diaspora.
The discussion ends with a focus on Poyi, a tune that has been little reported and for which
there are few recordings. Yet there is enough evidence from oral tradition, documentary literature
and a few extant recordings to suggest that it was once a powerful signier of core Bamana values.
Ali Farka Touré, the leading gure in Malisdesert blues, cited Poyias a kind of proto-blues: I
have always said the word blues has no signicance here in Africa if theres a need for a label,
theres no reason why the Americans shouldnt call it the blues. But if I say Seygalare, ... or
Ndoondo,orMbowdi,orPoyi! Everyone here knows what that is.
Writing about uprooted populations on the borderlands of South Africa, Mozambique and
Swaziland, Angela Impey observes that: sound, song, and the effect of music-making represent
a much under-utilised historical research resource, particularly in contexts of spatial and social
rupture(Impey 2008, 33). Poyimay well be such a resource, a piece of musical archaeology
surviving in the oral tradition, which has a bearing on the story of Mali and the blues.
The quest for specic African sources of African-American musical genres is highly proble-
matic (see Kubik 1999, 2223). In a 2007 interview for the American radio programme Afropop
Worldwide, Kubik, whose book Africa and the Blues (1999) is the most comprehensive study to
date, emphasized the futility of looking for African roots of the blues.
In African and African-American history as elsewhere in the world we have to operate from sources:
written sources, oral sources, recorded sources, if possible, archaeological sources. Where there are no
sources, there can be no safe conclusions. Rootsis too vague to be used beyond casual statements
that such and such tradition is based on something, somewhere. For example all the talk about roots of
the blues in Mali is just enough to satisfy the publics need for wild imagination. But we want to know
which traditions, by whom in Mali or elsewhere, and in which time period late 18th century? were
relevant as a background for the rise of blues in the US a century later. Popular formulations such as
From Mali to Mississippiare anathema to historical studies.
(Gerhard Kubik, interview with Banning Eyre on Afropop Worldwide, 2007, PBS radio)
In an attempt to move beyond the publicswild imagination, this article seeks to provide some
answers to Kubiks three questions, as follows:
Journal of African Cultural Studies 215
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(1) which traditions?This article argues that Bamana jeli music is one tradition that has so
far been overlooked as a music which might well have fed into the early rural blues, and,
before that, slave banjo music. Bamana music belongs to a wider regional style in central
Mali, overlapping with other neighbouring cultures such as those of the Fulbe and
Soninke, but it may have been the conduit by which such musical traits crossed the Atlan-
tic with the slave trade;
(2) played by whom in Mali?I suggest that the answer to this is the Bamana jeliw, with tunes
such as Poyi;
(3) during which time period?This question can be answered at a broad level by citing the
Bamana Segu Empire during the eighteenth century, a time of intensive slave trade, to
which the empire certainly contributed. Not only did the Bamana Segu Empire thrive
on slavery, but it was ruled by former war captives (the Diarra lineage), from 1766 to
1861 (Conrad 1990). But perhaps we can further narrow down the which timequestion,
and even suggest a likely specific context in which this possible root of the blues would
have been played: that is, precisely around the many battles that were an intrinsic feature
of life in Bamana Segu and that engendered vast numbers of slaves, some of whom were
sent across the Atlantic.
While the epic recitations by Bamana jeliw with their vivid stories of Segusrulers(faamaw)have
been well documented from the point of view of their texts (Kesteloot 1993; Courlander and Sako
1982; Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975; Conrad 1990), the music, which is equally steeped in the
history and ethos of the region, has still not been researched. Bamana music is not included in
Charrys otherwise comprehensive study of Mande music, which focuses on Maninka and
Mandinka traditions, though he does acknowledge that the reign of the Bamana of Segu in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is an important source of pieces for Malian musicians
(Charry 2000, 150). In addition, there are very few internationally available recordings either of
Bamana music or of the ngòniba, its emblematic instrument. This general lack of source material
no doubt explains why Bamana music has been omitted in studies of the possible African antece-
dents of the blues. It is only mentioned very briefly in KubiksbookAfrica and the Blues (1999),
which betrays a general lack of information about the styles from the middle Niger valley. Yet
Kubiks instinct is to look for clues in precisely this region, referring to the music of Malis
griots as one likely candidate for early models that were still remembered by African Americans
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, eventually becoming a factor in the development
of the blues(Kubik 1999, 46). Kubik asks how such a memorycould have survived until the
end of the nineteenth century(Kubik 1999, 46, italics in original), postulating that we are at least
eighty years too late for reconstructing proto-blues forms. On the other handhe adds, the absence
of written sources testifying to such memory does not present a puzzle(Kubik 1999, 46).
Poyiis perhaps one piece of that puzzle of memory and musical survival from the other
side of the Atlantic (Figure 5).
The search for the roots of the blues
The search for the African roots of the blues has long been a subject of fascination to blues and
African music scholars (Oliver 1970; Charters 1981; Coolen 1982), as well as to American musi-
cians of all sorts from blues and jazz to banjo players (too numerous to mention here), and most
recently lm makers (for example, ScorsesesFeel Like Going Home, 2003).
The Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré was the rst to draw international awareness
to the similarities between traditional genres of Malis northern desert and the blues, resulting in
the label desert blues, coined in the early 1990s. His Grammy-winning album, TalkinTimbuktu,
216 L. Durán
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Figure 5. (a) Map of Mali showing Segou province, Malis fourth region.
Source:; (b) Map of Segou region. Garana is 2 km
east of Tamani.
Source: Macdonald et al. (2011).
Journal of African Cultural Studies 217
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in which he collaborated with American guitarist Ry Cooder, captured the public imagination, and
won him the epithet king of the desert blues. Touré himself rejected such descriptions, however.
He refuted the influence of the blues on his music, claiming that it was the other way around. In
fact, the excessive interest of Western journalists in his blues connection irritated Touré. He would
often joke that, for him, blues meant doctors, because doctors in Mali wore a blue uniform (Nick
Gold, personal communication, 2012).
Touré was a farmer and not a griot a guitarist and singer whose connection with music came
from his grandmother, Kounandi Samba, a medium of the river spirits (Gibbal 1993, 68; Durán
1996). He was inspired by the ngòni among other traditional instruments of the Niger valley, and
indeed his early recordings often featured the ngòni or similar lutes played by griots from other
ethnicities, such as gambare played by Barou Sambarou, a Soninke, and the hoddu, played by
Nassourou Saré, a Fulani.
Kubik, who dedicates a large part of his Chapter 12, Return to the western Sudanto a dis-
cussion of Touré, nds his music only vaguely related to any type of blues(Kubik 1999, 194),
and questions whether Touréspersonal synthesis could be used to conrm pre-twentieth century
historical connections [with the blues](Kubik 1999, 196). I would argue that there is only one
way of doing so, which is to look at the local styles and songs that inspired him, rather than seeing
it as a blues derivative.
Touré drew on a number of Malian styles; his favourites were the ones
from his region, the bend of the Niger and the middle Niger valley.
Some decades before Touré put Mali on the musical map of the blues, Senegambia (particu-
larly Wolof music) was considered a primary source of the blues, rst suggested by David Ames
(Ames 1955). This argument was developed by Oliver in his pioneering book Savannah Synco-
pators (1970, 4350), and then echoed by Charters (1981), Coolen (1982, 1984, 1991), and
others. As Kubik points out, the enormous success of Alex Haleys book and TV series Roots
in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which places the Gambia at the centre of the story, certainly
stimulated the African-American imagination (Kubik 1999, 188). Senegambia was an important
source of plantation slaves in the Deep South (Coolen 1991). There are undeniable resemblances
between blues guitar fingering styles and the thumb and finger interlocked plucking techniques on
the Mandinka kora (Charry 2000, 178189). Banjo enthusiasts have also put forward other Sene-
gambian string instruments, such as the Jola long-necked lute called akonting, as possible ante-
cedents to the blues,
and this connection has been explored most recently by the work of such
banjo players as Bela Fleck on his 2010 Grammy awarded album, Throw Down Your Heart.
The lack of research on music from the middle Niger valley has, however, resulted in too
narrow a focus on particular regional traditions of savannah West Africa without setting
them in the wider context. For example, Coolen suggests the fodet, a term used by Wolof
xalam players for both tunings and generic accompaniments, as a kind of template for the
blues. While not wrong, fodet as a musical concept cannot be attributed solely to the Wolof,
since similar concepts are shared by griots of neighbouring peoples all the way across the
middle Niger valley. Also, there is much oral evidence to show that many Wolof xalamkats
trace their ancestry to the Manden (the heartland of Mande culture in present-day western
Mali and eastern Guinea), and a good part of their repertoire consists of well-known Mande
jeli tunes like Manga Yira,Alfa Yaya,Tutu Jaraand Sunjata; they even sing some of
the choruses in Maninka, not in their own language, Wolof (see Charry 2000, 164; Duran
Kubik is sceptical about arguments for the Senegambia, and instead gives
stronger weight to the central Sudanic region as one core area of provenance of some of the rural
bluesmost characteristic traits: the region from Mali across northern Ghana and northern Nigeria
into northern and central Cameroon, rather than the westernmost geographical Sudan (Senegal,
218 L. Durán
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The Gambia). Other possible core areas include northern Guinea and the Sahel zone from Mali into
Mauritania. (Kubik 1999, 6970)
It is well documented that captives from Segu were sent across the Atlantic, though not in large
Curtin estimated that 80 percent of the total slave exports to the New World were transported between
1710 and 1850, or roughly during the entire era of the Segu Bambara state. Slaves from Segu destined
for the Atlantic trade were probably sent to Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Slaves from these two
regions accounted for only 1015 percent of the total slave exports from 1701 to 1867 and
Bambara slaves constituted only a fraction of this total. (Roberts 1987, 1718)
The Scots explorer Mungo Park attests to the common practice of slavery in his account of his
travels through the Mande countryside in 1796. His Chapter 22 is an interesting rst-hand
account of the various ways in which people became slaves, mainly warfare but also insolvency.
In his diary entry for 18 July 1796, he writes I was met by a cofe of slaves, about seventy in
number, coming from Sego [sic](Park 1799/1983). There are numerous other sightings of
slaves throughout his travels.
This is signicant because, as Kubik mentions, the story of the Bambara rice cultivators
brought to Louisiana specically for their technological expertise, has opened up new
aspects of the ne meshes and economics of the slave trade and its huge networks into the
interior of the west central Sudan(Kubik 1999, 70). Carneys rich study of what she metaphori-
cally calls black riceshows that rice cultivation in the Western hemisphere was indeed
introduced by Bamana slaves mainly women, who to this day are the principal rice cultivators
of the region and depended upon the diffusion of an entire cultural system, from production
to consumption(Carney 2001, 165). Bamana slaves were central to understanding Louisiana
history(Eltis, Morgan, and Richardson 2007, 1332). The banjo, derived from West
Africanlutessuchasthengòni, was one of the main instruments of Louisiana slaves
(Conway 1995, 59).
In Kubiks chapter entitled Why did a west central Sudanic style cluster prevail in the blues?
he points on the one hand to the numbers of slaves to the New World from this region during the
eighteenth century:
Senegal was part of the French slave trading network to Louisiana. Eventually, in the 19th century,
some of the descendants of deportees from Senegal, Guinea, and Mali ended up on farms in Missis-
sippi and elsewhere in the Deep South the names of ethnic groups from the geographical Sudan (as
from other parts of Africa) were well remembered in new Orleans into the nineteenth century, though
sometimes in the form of an interesting phonetic transfer into French. For example, Fulbe or Fula
became poulard(fat chicken). (Kubik 1999, 96)
On the other hand, Kubik comments that in a group of people thrown together by the hazards of
life, even one person is enough to transmit esoteric knowledge that might later become the
property of a majority in culture contact situations it often happens that minorities win
(Kubik 1999, 98). Applying that argument to a piece of music, rather than a person, one
could argue the case for Poyibeing recreated among slave communities in the Deep South,
or, at very least, providing some key musical features that contributed to the foundation of
the blues.
Rather than either Old World folkways or New World environments, we need to encompass both and
become much more thoroughly Atlantic rather than frame the issue as solely one of transfers and
conduits, we should also think of transformations and overlapping circuits. (Eltis, Morgan, and
Richardson 2007, 1332)
Here I am not arguing that Bamana jeli music was directly transplanted via the slave trade to the
Deep South, but that aspects of it stayed in the memory there during the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, though perhaps relived in thoroughly Atlanticways (Figure 6).
Journal of African Cultural Studies 219
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Flooding the ears of their hearts
: the Bamana of Segu
A few salient facts about the Bamana are required here, as this provides the historical backdrop for
how and why their music plays a part in the story of the blues. The Bamana are a Mande people in
the middle Niger with a complex historical and ethnic makeup. They rose to power during one of
Malis last pre-colonial, and non-Islamic empires, known as Segu, 17121861. The name Bamana
also refers to the language (known as Bamanan or Bamanankan) spoken throughout the south of
the country, in some cases as a mother tongue by many who would not consider themselves eth-
nically Bamana; for example, the sedentary populations of Fulbe descent living in the regions of
Wasulu and of Brigo in southwest Mali. Also, the term is often used generically to describe the
Mande peoples of Mali in general including the Maninka, the Wasulunke and Khassonke.
This section refers specically to the Bamana of historical Segu, and the representation of
Bamanaya(what it is to be Bamana) in Bamana jeli song lyrics of today as represented in
live performance and recordings. These songs are usually short and tend to be based on one
episode or character in the story of Segu; it is extremely rare to hear full-length recitations
such as those of Tayiru Banbera. Nevertheless, these songs, with their catchy pentatonic tunes
and slow swinging 6/8 rhythms, keep alive the stories of the Segu era with their chivalry and gore.
Segu is not a cosy storycomments Bassekou Kouyaté, drawing on oral traditions he heard as
a child from both his father, Moustapha Kouyaté, and his maternal grandfather, one of Malis most
iconic jeliw of the post-independence era, Banzoumana Sissoko, the Old Lion(c. 18901987).
Love does not play a role in this. There was the cult of bravery. There was no fear of death,
because if you were a coward, you couldnt marry, your family would reject you so it was
better to die.(Bassekou Kouyaté, personal communication 2006).
Bamana jeli songs glorify animist belief and practice, such as the consuming of alcohol and
the worship of shrines containing boliw (power objects). They tell of the customs around warfare,
such as the feasts (maa nyènajè) held on the eve of battle outside the walls of the town to be
Figure 6. Segou countryside, near Garana, January 2011. The Bamana are farmers.
Source: Lucy Durán.
220 L. Durán
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aggressed, in which both sides participated, consuming large quantities of capalo, beer made from
They recount the exploits of the tònjòn, the dreaded slave army, who regularly looted
villages and stole women, some of whom would be given to jeliw as wives.
The tònjòn even
had their own tònjòn dance, with humorously grotesque gestures designed to both amuse and
The history of Bamana Segu, described as a state of intrigue(Conrad 1990), has been well
documented. Much of what we know about this late pre-colonial period of Malis history comes
from the recitation of oral epics by Bamana jeliw, published in numerous transcriptions and
translations. These focus on the esoteric power of one or two rulers (especially Da Monzon
Diarra 18081827) and warriors (such as Bakari Jan Koné). The most detailed of these is a
line-by-line transcription of performances by Tayiru Banbera (Conrad 1990; Banbera
1998) and constitutes one of the longest epics recorded in Africa(Johnson, Hale, and
Belcher 1997, 34).
Conrad describes the Bamana of Segu as a society famous for maintaining its traditional cul-
tural values and characterized by a wide range of secret ritual methods of tapping into spiritual
sources of protection and power(Conrad 1999, 1001). The Bamana resisted Islam in a series
of confrontations with Fulbe armies until nally defeated in 1861 by Al-Hajj Umar Tall, a
Fulani warrior cleric.
Instead they had their own complex cosmogony that included a
supreme creator and a pantheon of less deities the carrying out of the most serious of
duties often required the use of a ritual object called a boli, which focused as a locus of sacrifice
performed as a means of calling upon and influencing the vital spiritual force known as nyama
(Conrad 1990, 3).
Founded by Biton Mamary Coulibaly (17121755), the Bamana Empire was built on military
conquest, with thousands of war captives that contributed to a vast and productive slave
population. Warfare was an inseparable component of the political economy of the
Middle Niger valley. Capturing slaves and conquering territory were its clearest expressions
(Roberts 1987, 17). Segus rulers, entitled faama, derived power from the tònjòn, a voluntary
association comprised of men from all levels of society (noble to servile), which was Segus
army (Figure 7).
The death of Biton Coulibaly was followed by a period of anarchy (17571766), with succes-
sive rule by three former war captives until a fourth, Ngolo Diarra (17661787), founded a
dynasty that lasted until 1861. His grandson Da Monzon Diarra (ruled 18081827) is the most
celebrated of the Segu rulers, remembered and revered by Bamana jeliw for his power, wealth,
ruthlessness and generosity with the jeliw.
Da was not a ruler to be tried with; oral tradition has it that Da had only one eye, and there-
fore, no one in the land could pronounce the word onewithout risk of being beheaded. The
opening chorus of the song dedicated to Da Monzon says Ask Da! If a poor man even mentions
the name of the faama [ruler], hell be sold for the price of one barrel of beer,
showing that he
valued alcohol more than human life (Figure 8).
The linking of music with esoteric power (nyama) is common to all Mande jeli culture and
also the blues.
Many jeliw express the view that the regional traditions of Bamana Segu are
deeply infused with ngaraya or musical mastery, which in turn carries high levels of nyama.
There is also the view expressed by some elder jeliw that it is more authentic, less commercial
and has greater depth than the Maninka styles that were popularized in the capital from the late
1970s onwards (Duran 2007b).
The consumption of alcohol during the Segu era is one of the themes of the Segu repertoire.
Tayiru Banbera, one of the great Bamana jeliw of the twentieth century, was a devout Muslim
(Conrad 1990, 7), but his descriptions are full of irreverent humour.
This is what the Bamana beer drinkers say:
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Figure 7. The tomb of Biton Mamary Coulibaly, founder of the Segu Empire, in Sekoro (old Segou), next to a
recent reconstruction of his palace with its seven vestibules, 2011.
Source: Lucy Durán.
Figure 8. Mud-dye (bògòlan) cloth depicting some of the major characters connected with nineteenth-
century Malian history: (upper row) European travellers and colonizers, including Mungo Park and
General Achinard; and (lower row) pre-colonial warlords and rulers, including (second from right) Da
Monzon. Note his one eye. Segou market, 2003.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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The marabout of the east says not to drink for it is bad.
The marabout of the west says there is no harm in drinking.
There are two different opinions.
But while the marabouts argue about the difference,
Let us drink and forget about the thirst of the world.
What they are talking about is lahara.
We have not been there
We know nothing about it.
We will not give up our habit to wait for that.
Let us get drunk.
The Bamana drink so much that they flood the ears of their hearts.
(Conrad 1990, 175: lines 31373148)
To this day, the Bamana are known for their relaxed attitude towards Islam, and there are (or were
until the time of writing) many places that openly brew and sell capalo, even in Bamako places
where Bamana and other peoples from around Segou, mainly of the older generation, go to meet
and socialize, and reaffirm their regional identities.
All this contributes to the people of Segou, or Segoviansas they are known locally, having a
certain reputation in Mali. Tayiru Banbera recites:
everybody who comes to power in Mali,
if it is said that he comes from Segu,
he will be feared. (Conrad 1990, 128)
And Conrad comments,
regardless of where the person in power actually comes from, this expression labels him as shrewd, or
even ruthless. It might be said, so-and-sos wife is from Segu, meaning she dominates her husband.
Similarly, if it is said that someone gave you Segu porridge’…it means they outwitted you at some-
thing. (Conrad 1990, 128)
In February 2006, as part of our preliminary research for his album, Bassekou took me to visit the
tomb of Da Monzon, which is located in Banankoroba, a village a few kilometres east of Segou. It
was a simple vaulted grave made of cement, located inside the courtyard of a house, under the
custody of family whose surname ironicall y is Coulibaly. Bassekou, for whom Da Monzon sym-
bolizes the essence of Bamanaya, took his ngòniba out of its case, knelt down by the grave and in a
solemn fashion began playing Da Monzonsfasa (praise song), over which he declaimed:
I say now to my great grandfathers king he was such a great warrior, right from the beginning to the
end of his life, no-one trod on his foot. No one dared look him in the eye and say no. I praise him for all
the great things he did for us jeliw. He used to give us cows, horses, slaves. He used to capture a village
and give the whole village to one jeli. With Da Monzon, no jeli was ever hungry. Thats what I praise
him for. And he said two things to them. He said, When I die, my jeliw will leave, because no other
king can support them like I did. And there will never be another good Bamana king after me. I will be
the last.And no other king was a true Bamana like he was. Being a true Bamana means never cheat-
ing with another mans wife. It also means giving ones word and never taking it back if a Bamana
says I will do this, he will do it. And a true Bamana will always be prepared to die for his honour
(Figure 9)
In subsequent discussion, Bassekou explained that these were the kinds of words that Da
Monzon would want to hear at his grave, even if he, Bassekou, as a man of the twenty-rst
century, abhorred the idea of slavery and warfare.
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As we left the grave, I asked the custodian, Mr Coulibaly, how he felt about being entrusted
with care of the grave of the Diara lineage, who had wrested power from the his own ancestor,
Biton Mamary Coulibaly, founder of the Segu Empire. If Da Monzon had power, its only
because we the Coulibaly lineage lent it to himwas his reply.
The concept of betrayal ( janfa) in Segu was specifically linked to the act of breaking ones
word, or reneging on a mutual agreement (Dumestre 1979, 235). In the words of Tayiru Banbera:
If a noble swore an oath they would say I am serious,
It is the word of a noble.
They pledged their honour,
If a noble swore such an oath, that was all.
that was the end of it, that was enough.
If he swore to kill a man,
He would kill him.
(Conrad 1990, 63)
This is echoed in Frobeniusaccount of a series of heroic narratives entitled Pui, to which we
return at the end of this article. In Pui, the jeli asks the ruler, how does one keep ones word,
half or whole?and the ruler replied, one keeps ones word whole completely
1921, 110). The implications of this are considerable, since, according to Bassekou Kouyaté,
Poyiwas the tune to which a noble would swear to uphold his word (as discussed later).
The seizing of power from the Coulibaly lineage and the establishment of the Diarra rule by a
captive had major consequences for social structure and music in the middle Niger valley.
This was the rst time [in the feudal societies of the western Soudan] that those who were
Figure 9. Bassekou Kouyaté plays the ngòniba at the grave of Da Monzon Diarra, ruler of Segu from 1808
1827. Banankoroba, Segou, 2006.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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noble by blood were supplanted by the power of arms it became possible for an individual to
become noble, and for member of a caste or a slave to escape their status and become a respected
warrior(Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 10; my translation).
Tayiru Banbera recites
those times were different from today.
If you could catch somebody, you could sell him.
If somebody could catch you, he would sell you.
There was no such thing as prison.
They never tied people up and beat them.
If you killed someone, it was all right.
But if somebody killed you, that was all right.
This is how the Bamana behaved.
They could do what they wanted.
(Conrad 1990, 194)
Thus, through the epic traditions and songs of Segu, we learn that it was a place where anyone
could become a captive at any time, or, conversely, go from captive status to becoming a ruler.
Might such stories not have had resonance with slaves taken from the region, infusing their mem-
ories of music in Segu with powerful emotional and psychological associations?
Bamana jeli music characteristics and repertoire
According to Kubik, the west central Sudanic belt is the style world that presents the closest sty-
listic parallel from any part of Africa to what can be heard in the blues(Kubik 1999, 6364, but
Bamana jeli music is not included in his discussion). What new evidence can this tradition throw
on our understanding of the African sources of the blues? And why has it been overlooked to
The Bamana repertoire is inextricably connected with the region of Segou. Unlike other
Mande jeli pieces from Mali, it has not migrated westwards into Senegambia (see Charry
2000, 149) and therefore was omitted from the first public exposure to Mande music in the
In fact, until the recent solo project of Bassekou Kouyaté and his quartet of ngònis, it
was little known outside Mali. Bamana music has much more in common musically with the
blues than the heptatonic styles of the Maninka and Mandinka, which are the dominant sounds
of the southwest of Mali, upper Guinea, southern Senegal and Gambia.
Bajuru(or bajourou, using the French spelling), is one of the few heptatonic tunes in the
Bamana repertoire, and virtually the only one that is also played by Maninka, Mandinka and
Wolof griots,
where it is better known by the name Tutu Jara(or Toutou Diarra). According
to oral traditions in Senegambia and western Mali, Tutu Jaraoriginated in Segu, but it has either
been Maninka-ized in its melodic features, or else, as some oral traditions suggest, it originated in
the Mande heartland, but was capturedby the Bamana.
Bamana jeli music
belongs to the style-clusterof the middle Niger valley, sharing musical
characteristics with neighbouring peoples, the Soninke, Sonrai and Fulbe, who also have the lute
as their principal instrument and have co-existed for centuries of cultural interchange, living in
the region as distinct but overlapping cultures(Kone 2000).
The instrument par excellence of the Bamana jeli is the ngòniba, the large lute (also known as
bamanangòni), with four strings, as described in more detail later on.
Kubik identies two main strands of west Sudanic traditions that might have contributed to
the blues: ancient Negriticand Islamic (Kubik 1999, 95). He outlines the following
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characteristics (amongst others) for rural blues from the Deep South, such as a primarily solo
singing tradition; wavy intonation;rather slow triple or swing tempos; a relationship
between the vocals and instrumental accompaniment of unison or heterophony, pentatonic
vocal melodies; the use of string instruments, and the absence of percussion (Kubik 1999).
Pentatonic scales are a signicant feature of Bamana jeli music. There are two main Bamana
pentatonic scales, corresponding roughly to CDEGA (major pentatonic) (for example, as in the
song Da Monzon) and CDFGB flat, sometimes described as minor pentatonic (because of its
flat seventh) (for example, as in the song Bakari Janor Sarafo). However, these scales are
not tempered, and intonation of particular pitches can vary in both vocal and instrumental per-
formance, especially the second degree of the scale, which may be either flattened or sharpened
as to sound between a major and a minor third, once again strongly reminiscent of the blues
third. The ambiguous third in a pentatonic scale is a feature of some other musical traditions
in Mali, including that of huntersassociations from the Wasulu region in the south of the
whose music also is felt to sound close to the blues. No specific research has been con-
ducted on the relationship between Wasulu hunters and Bamana jeli music, though it is well
known that huntersmusic predates and contributes to that of Mande jeliw (see Charry 2000, 89).
The pentatonic scales of the Bamana repertoire are a signicant factor in its limited circulation
outside of the middle Niger valley. Musicians who belong to heptatonic (seven-note) musical cul-
tures (Maninka, Khassonke, Mandinka, Wolof) seem to nd it difcult to perform the pentatonic
(ve-note) music and vice versa. This creates a fundamental musical divide between heptatonic
and pentatonic-based music, which in effect means that the two live in different spheres(Charry
2000, 18), and is relevant to the story of which of the two is the more likely source of the roots of
the blues. In my own experience, Maninka musicians often complain that Bamana singers cannot
voiceManinka music properly. Wassoulou artists such as Oumou Sangaré, who are firmly in the
pentatonic camp, find it challenging to perform the heptatonic songs of the Maninka.
Preliminary investigation of the Bamana jeli repertoire reveals that it is relatively small, in
terms of musically distinctive songs and accompaniments. (However most Bamana jeliw also
include many pieces from the wider Mande repertoire, such as Sunjata.) Performances usually
consist of a free-rhythm introduction on the ngòniba, which then goes into the ostinato accompa-
niment known as sen or riff. The vocals may consist of spoken recitation (tariku), punctuated by
improvised singing (tèrèmèli), and choruses (dònkili) that are dedicated to specific characters or
episodes in the epic.
While women may sing refrains or choruses (dònkili), recitation of the Bamana epics is invari-
ably considered the work of male jeliw, using the mode of heightened speech known as tariku (see
Durán 2007b). This was the mode of recitation that Bassekou Kouyaté used at the grave of Da
Monzon, as described above. This mode of heightened speech is common among all the male
griots of the middle Niger valley, including those of the Soninke and Fulbe ethnicities. There
are no recordings on the international market of Bamana jeliw performing long recitations;
mostly they are only available on local cassettes (see Newton 1999). Spoken recitation over
the slow pentatonic accompaniment of the ngòniba bears a strong resemblance to the genre of
blues known as talking blues; for example, Robert Pete WilliamsPrisoners Talking Blues,
recorded in 1957 while he was in the notorious Angola Prison on a murder charge.
It is
perhaps no coincidence that Robert Pete Williams was from Louisiana, the region to which
many Bamana slaves were taken in the nineteenth century.
The Bamana repertoire consists mainly of a series of accompaniments and pre-composed
songs that relate to specic rulers and warriors of the Segu Empire, in particular Bambugu Nce
Diarra, son of Ngolo Diarra; Da Monzon Diarra, who ruled from 1808 to 1827 (as discussed
above); and Bakari Jan Koné, a warrior by that name who was a contemporary of Da Monzon
(see Conrad 1990).
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One of the difculties of assessing the scope of the Bamana repertoire is that musicians may
collapse the time span of these characters and sing about all of them in one song, moving from one
tune and chorus to another without a break. This is the case, for example, of one of the best-known
recordings of Bamana music, an LP dating from c. 1977 by the Ensemble Instrumental National
du Mali, entitled Dah Monzon ou lépopée bambara, played frequently on Malian radio.
It fea-
tures a large ensemble with various Mande jeli instruments, a male speaker, a female chorus and a
solo female singer, Hawa Dramé. Part 1 (side A) begins with a slow version of the Bambugu
Ncesong, which, like many Bamana fasaw (praise songs), is a lament. Its chorus mourns the
passing of several rulers, by saying that their (alcohol) drinking days are over.
Then at 5
21 it goes into the tune for Da Monzon, which remains the accompaniment until 1540,
when it changes into a faster, minor tune known as Segu tònjòn. Part 2, on side B continues
with the story of Bakari Jan. After the first minute of Da Monzons tune, (including the chorus
Ask Daas described earlier on), the ensemble play Bakari Jans tune
(Figures 10 and 11).
Another praise song, also for Bambugu Nce, celebrates his building of a canal from the Niger
to his village, Bambugu, east of Segu (see Conrad 1990, 133141).
It is one of the few Bamana
tunes that is heptatonic rather than pentatonic. Nevertheless, in the popular imagination it has
retained its core Bamana values, giving it a certain weightiness as a praise song for patrons.
One of the most often recorded of the Bamana jeli tunes is dedicated to the warrior Bakari Jan
Koné. A kind of superhero with extraordinary strength, the song celebrates his victory against
Bilisi, a monstrous and powerful sorcerer who caused terror in Segu with his disdain for
human life:
When he [Bilisi] was on his way to the drinking house he would capture any child he hap-
pened to meet.
He would take him and give him to the brewmasters. He would sell him.
The next time he went out for a drink,
Whoevers virgin daughter he met,
Figure 10. Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali, on the roof of their regular rehearsal space, the Carre-
four des Jeunes, Bamako, 1986. Note the four ngòni players, from various ethnicities.
Source: Lucy Durán.
Journal of African Cultural Studies 227
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He would capture and sell her.
(Tayiru Banbera in Conrad 1990, 271)
Bakari Jan is remembered not only for his prowess as a warrior but also for his love of the ngòniba
hence the opening chorus in his song, juru naani fò, jeliw be juru naani fò (the four strings, the
jeliw are playing the four strings). The ngòni riff for this tune is in the minor pentatonic.
Two pieces that occur frequently in the Bamana repertoire are Mbowdi(variant spellings:
MBaoudi, Mbaoudi, Nbaoudi, Mbaudi, Bawdi, Baudi) and Njaaro(variant spellings:
Djarou, Jaru, Ndyarou, Njaru). Both are almost certainly Fulbe in origin. This is not surprising,
given that the Fulbe lived side by side with the Bamana for centuries, and finally destroyed the
Segu Empire in 1861. Both terms Mbowdi and Njaaro appear to be Fulbe/Fulani. In Taylors
(1995) Fulani-English dictionary, bawde is translated as powers, capabilities, and bawdo as
an able, capable, experienced person.Njaru is defined as a feast, festivities, the kind of festiv-
ity that was held the night before the battle to rally the warriors. By contrast, in Bailleuls (1996)
Bambara-Frenchdictionary, neither mbowdi nor njaaro are listed.
Mbowdiand Njaaroshare musical features with Poyi. They are pentatonic, in slow
tempo, and considered amongst the most sacredand powerful in the Bamana repertoire.
Frobenius cites the Baudi as an epic tradition of the Fulbe(Frobenius 1921, 165ff). Amongst
the Djelgobe Fulbe in the northeast of Burkina Faso, near the border with Mali, the bawdi is a
repertoire of the descendants of captives (riimaybe), who are dispossessed of their cultural
Figure 11. Cover of LP featuring the recording of Dah Monzon ou lépopée Bambara, c. 1977.
Source: Lucy Durán.
228 L. Durán
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origins after having been captured during wars or raids, or purchased from neighbouring powers
by the Fulbe. In a recording of their music made by the Musée de lHomme, bawdi are defined as
drums (sing. mbaggu), and bawdi laamu are drums of power, a repertoire formerly performed in
times of war to galvanize the warriors on their departure(Loncke 1997). Once again, we see the
battlefield as the context for this music played by captives.
There are many recordings of Mbowdiand Njaaro, played by the Fulbe, Soninke, Bamana
and even Sonrai musicians thus they are veritable songs of the Niger valley.
Ali Farka Touré
recorded Mbowdion guitar together with an ngóni player, Ousmane Gadjaka.
Sleeve notes to a eld recording of Njaruby Fulbe griots in Mopti, Mali, denes Njaruas
stimulation of the world of the Fulani. The music is a rapid-re spoken panegyric accompanied
on the Fulbe four-string lute, the hoddu (Brandes and Malé 2008). The Soninke gambare player,
Demba Fadiga, has recorded a track called Nbaoudiwith spoken recitation in Soninke, inter-
spersed with vocals by a female singer in Bamanankan, praising a Fulani patron.
Even if
Mbowdiand Njaroare Fulbe in origin, they have been thoroughly absorbed into the
Bamana tradition.
Bamana jeli music in the public sphere
Why is Bamana music not better known outside the region, either in scholarship or through
recordings? One reason is that the epic tradition of Bamana Segu has never had the kind of
wide exposure as that of the story of Sunjata Keita. There is no ritual space or time for its recita-
tion, such as the re-roong of Sunjatas sacred hut in Kangaba every seven years (Ganay 1995).
Conrad found, while rst working in 1976 with Tayiru Banbera (who was generally acknowl-
edged as one of the most knowledgeable and skilled raconteurs of Mali) that even this celebrated
jeli was performing on an infrequent basis (Conrad 1990, 45). The American scholar Robert
Newton, as part of his investigation into the Bamana epics, attended an event in 1994 in
honour of the great Bamana warrior Bakari Jan Kone at Djoforongo, but was somewhat dismayed
to find that the only music played was an old recording of the Bakari Jansong, by Malis Ensem-
ble Instrumental National du Mali (Newton 1999).
As already stated, Malisrst government under President Modibo Keita favoured the
Bamana style over others. During the height of Malis dance band era, the Orchestre Régional
de Ségou, later renamed Super Biton de Ségou, were the pioneering modernizers of the
Bamana style and repertoire. They were the rst orchestra to perform an arrangement of part
of the Bamana epic, at the rst Biennale of Arts and Culture for the Young in 1970 (Mazzoleni
2011, 81). The song, titled Da Monzon, is 12.14 minutes long much longer than most record-
ings by local dance bands of the time. It includes the traditional accompaniment and chorus, Da
nyininka (ask Da), and a spoken recitation of excerpts of the story, over a full horn section
and electric guitars. At c. 8.45 minutes into the recording, the tune changes to Segu tabali tè
(Figures 12 and 13).
The balance between the slow pentatonic Bamana style versus those of the heptatonic and
faster Maninka songs began, however, to tip in favour of the latter under the rule of Moussa
Traoré, Malis second president (19681991). One reason for this was the popularity of neigh-
bouring Guineas dance bands, who drew primarily on the heptatonic Maninka styles of upper
Guinea, with arrangements and instrumentation borrowed from Cuban as well as Congolese
music, with which they had many musical features in common.
Cuban and Congolese music
however did not mesh as well with the more harmonically static and slow, pentatonic Bamana
As is well known, recordings of Cuban music circulated widely in West Africa after World
War II. By contrast, there is little evidence of direct exposure to the blues in Guinea and Mali
Journal of African Cultural Studies 229
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during this period. It is more likely that knowledge of the blues was received via rock nroll and
jazz recordings. Louis Armstrong visited Mali in 1967, making an enormous impression on the
director of the Orchestre Régional de Ségou, trumpeter Amadou Ba (Mazzoleni 2011, 79), but
Figure 12. Cover of an LP issued in Mali in 1970 as part of the Anthology of Malian Music series (Bare-
nreiter Musicaphon BM 30 L 2601), featuring the band that later renamed itself Super Biton de Segou.
Source: Lucy Durán.
Figure 13. Cinquantenaire (50th anniversary of independence) photo of Banzoumana Sissoko, Le vieux
lion, recording Mali, Bamako 2010.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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there is no evidence that any blues musicians visited the country. The word bluesis rarely refer-
enced in the music of either Guinea or Mali until the 1990s.
With the decline in popularity of Malis dance bands from the 1980s onward, and the end of
the Biennale festivals, Bamana music had a much lower prole than some other regional
traditions. Only a few artists such as the singer Abdoulaye Diabaté, former lead vocalist
with Kéné Star, continued to champion the pentatonic Bamana style, singing in the
Segu dialect of Bamanan. In the absence of Bamana music on the scene in Bamako, some
foreign scholars even concluded that all jeliya, the music of the Mande jeliw, is essentially
The 1990s saw the meteoric rise in Bamako of the popularity of the jelimuso (female jeli) and
a style of music that developed around the wedding party circuit in Bamako, a style which con-
tinues to dominate in the twenty-first century. The Bamana ngòni has no place in the ensembles
that accompany these singers. Instead it is the smaller and higher-pitched Maninka griot lutes
(nkòni, kòni) that feature alongside electric guitars not the lower-pitched Bamana ngòniba,
whose sound is considered too masculine(Figure 14).
Even the choice of skin for the sound table of the ngòniba is conceptually masculine.
Until very recently, we only used the skin from the head of a cow for the ngòni, because the ngòni is
like the head of the family, who is always a man. So only men can play it. It was not intended for
womens ears We would talk about wars and battles, slaves and warriors; this was male conversa-
tion (cè baro).
The music of the Bamana ngòni has power. Because there are many Bamana powerful kings remem-
bered by the ngòni. Because the Bamana kings had the power of the boliw [shrines]. Now, we live in
the era of human rights and electricity. So the ngòni is changing. Now, we dont sing about wars, we
sing about the problems of life today health, money, marriage, children, schools, politics. And the
cow skin can come from any part of the cow, were in such a hurry to make new instruments and sell
them. (Bassekou Kouyaté, personal communication 2007).
Bamana jeli music is considered by its practitioners to be cèfoli music by men for men.
In that
respect, it runs counter to the musical trends in Mali described by some authors as the feminiza-
tionof Malian music, whereby women singers are the main stars, and where radio, television and
wedding parties with music are their main platforms (Diawara 1996; Durán 2000; Schulz 2001).
The Bamana sound is often described by Malians as heavy,sombre,powerful, and mascu-
line, all of which would sit equally well with the blues.
Bassekou Kouyatés acoustic band Ngoniba, created in 2006, has renewed awareness of
Bamana jeli music among local audiences in Mali, and also taken it to international audiences
for the first time. Ngoniba is a quartet of different-sized ngònis, including the ngòniba, and a
larger, bass ngòni invented especially for the group which includes percussion and the voice
of Bassekous wife, the singer Amy Sacko. Bassekous idea of making an acoustic ensemble
out of the same instruments has been influential among young musicians in Bamako, and the
ngòni is currently enjoying something of a revival
(Figure 15).
The Bamana ngòniba
Boat-shaped or round plucked lutes with skin sound tables and pole-like fretless necks are found
with a variety of names across savannah West Africa. The playing techniques and styles of the
Bamana ngòni reflect the porous boundaries between historically connected traditions of neigh-
bouring ethnicities to the Bamana, such as the Fulbe and Soninke; professional hereditary musi-
cians (griots) of the region have always made it their business to learn and appropriate each
others repertoires.
Charrys comprehensive review of these lutes classies them into two main morphological
types, differentiated by the shape of their bridges, by their geographical distribution, and by
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which kind of musician, griot or non-griot, plays them. Which of the two griot or non-griot
and from which particular culture the ancestor of the banjo comes, is not known (Kubik 1999, 16).
One issue here is the claim that griots were never enslaved,
because they possessed valuable
information for the survival and honour of lineages. Stories are common amongst jeliw of ances-
tors who were threatened with death, but always managed to talk their way out of it. Jeliw them-
selves were slave owners. If their patron was killed or overthrown, they would change allegiance
to the new rulers, rather than be enslaved. Banzoumana Sissoko, the Old Lion, famously said in
the early years of post-independence: in the rivalries between African parties, I refused to take a
firm stand on one side or the other. I like the winner; therefore I like nobody before the end of the
battle(quoted in Keita 1995, 187).
Even if griots themselves were never enslaved, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that
timbres and musical instruments from West African griot traditions were recreated by slave com-
munities across the Atlantic. The banjo provides one example of this. Although we do not know
which of the many West African lutes the banjo is descended from, the rst account of the banjo in
the New World dates as far back as 1678 (Conway 1995, 56), and it was a favourite instrument of
slaves, described in one account as their beloved banjar(Conway 1995, 58). There are many
references to black banjo players in Louisiana in the early nineteenth century (Conway 1995,
59), which, as we have seen above, coincides with the period of intense slave trade from the
Segu Empire, and to which many Bamana slaves were taken. The music of the slave
banjo was certainly one element that contributed to the birth of the rural blues (Kubik 1999;
Conway 1995).
Figure 14. Ba Issa Koné (left) playing the small Maninka ngòni, and Modibo Djan Diabate on electric guitar,
at a wedding party in Bamako, 2005.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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The fretless neck of the West African griot lutes makes it possible to vary pitches, as opposed
to the xed pitches of the kora and the huntersharp (other contenders for the origin of the blues).
Bending, sliding, wavyintonation, and ambiguous thirds, fifths and sevenths are intrinsic to the
ngòniba and cannot be attributed to contact with the blues. They can be heard clearly on older
recordings from the 1950s and 1960s featuring major Bamana artists of the time, who were
most unlikely to have ever heard any recordings of the blues and who were known to be fiercely
traditional in outlook.
The Bamana ngòni falls into the category of wooden-trough lute with a fan-shaped bridge,
which Charry calls griot lutes’–‘probably the oldest melody instrument used by griots,
dating back perhaps many centuries before it was first mentioned by Al-Umari and Ibn Battuta
in the fourteenth century(Charry 1996, 9). The Bamana ngòniba has four strings, of which
only two are stopped against the neck, while a third string, the shortest (nearest to the head of
the player), is plucked by the thumb as a kind of drone, plus a fourth string that is plucked
open as melody. This non-sequential arrangement of pitches (sometimes termed a re-entrant
tuning) is also found on the banjo.
There are two main Bamana ngòniba tunings, called (meaning white) and erediné.The
latter name is confusing, as it is phonetically close to both ardin and ordinaire, terms that
are widely used for tunings on a variety of local lutes (see Charry 2000, 162163, for lists of
lute tunings with names and staff notation). Ordinaireis probably a French-language
corruption of ardin, which is the name of the Moorish harp played by female Moorish
griots (tigiwit,iggawen). Charry cites Coolens etymology for ardin as the Fulbe word
ardo ‘“to lead, or in another context, a certain kind of Fulbe warrior leader(Charry
2000, 164). Once again, we find the connection between warriors and the lute. There is
also a kora tuning known as hardino,most probably borrowed from the koni(Charry
2000, 164).
Figure 15. Ngoniba in the Bogolan studios, Bamako, while recording their 2009 album, I speak fula. Basse-
kou Kouyaté is second from right and his wife, the singer Amy Sacko, is second from left.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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The ngòniba tuning called erediné is exactly the same as that cited by Charry as Tutu Jara
Ardin (Charry 2000, 163) (minus the fifth or highest pitch string, furthest away from the head
of the player). Tutu Jarais one of the best known pieces of the Bamana jeli repertoire, and
its use as a name for a Wolof xalam tuning, combined with ardin, reinforces the view that the
Bamana ngòni and its more northern variants, the Soninke gambare and the Moorish tidinit,
have been important sources for styles and repertoires throughout the region. As Charry says,
the relationship between these three uses of ardin Moorish harp, a koni (and xalam) tuning,
and a Mandinka kora tuning is not clear, but it does indicate some process of diffusion at
work among griots of neighbouring ethnic groups(Charry 2000, 164).
The other tuning, (white) is, according to various ngòniba players, the original tuning for
accompanying singers. Bassekou Kouyaté claims that his father Moustapha Kouyaté (died c.
1984) only ever used this tuning. It is the same as the xalam tuning called Tutu Jara ordinaire,
minus the fifth and highest string, cited in Charry (Charry 2000, 163). The use of Tutu Jara in
the name of a xalam tuning shows the influence from the Mande tradition.
The principal way of sounding the ngòniba strings is with a downwards movement using only
the thumb, index and middle fingers. The downwards strike allows the player to flick back with a
rhythmic tap against the sound table.
This added percussive element has been borrowed by kora
players, who occasionally tap the wooden handle of the instrument with the knuckle of their first
Frailing,claw-hammering, (to use banjo terminology) and damping of the strings are old
playing techniques used on all griot lutes of the middle Niger, as are bending, hammering and
sliding notes on the neck. In the mid 1980s, Bassekou Kouyaté introduced a new way of plucking
the strings, with an upwards stroke, using for the rst time all three ngers, making it easier to
produce fast solos to mirror those of the guitar but also thereby changing the acoustic, making
it sound more like a kora (Bassekou Kouyaté, personal communication 2007). For this reason,
audiences often confuse the sound of the ngòni with that of the kora.
According to Charry, the Bamana ngòniba is the largest of the griot lutes. Its wooden resona-
tor has a slight concave or waist, as opposed to the canoe-shaped resonators of the smaller lutes in
the Senegambia region and upper Guinea (Figure 16).
This larger type of lute is not exclusive to the Bamana, but is also played by griots of the Fulbe
(who call it hoddu), and the Soninke (who call it gambare). It was almost certainly the instrument
that was transported by slaves to Morocco and transformed into the gimbri, the lute of the Gnawa
Sufi brotherhoods, whose oral traditions specifically trace their ancestry to the Bambara. Charry
suggests that the name gimbri is derived from the Soninke gambare (Charry 1996, 14), reflecting
the important role of the Soninke as a point of diffusion of musical styles, instruments and linguis-
tic terms in the region (Figure 17).
In the search for the origins of this instrument type, Charry refutes Farmers theory that it
came from ancient Egypt, and calls for further investigation into movements of Soninke and
other Mande peoples north into Morocco Any link with ancient Egypt would most likely
have reached the North African Gnawa gimbri via the south from where it originated. That
link would most likely have been the Soninke gambare(Charry 1996, 1213). A full exploration
of the musical connections with Soninke culture is beyond the scope of this article; however, the
regional importance of the Soninke gambare as the ancestral lute takes on extra significance in our
discussion of the song Poyi.
The ngòniba was the only melody instrument that Segu jeliw played during the time of the
Segu Empire. There is no evidence that either the kora or the Maninka balafon ever made
their way to the courts of the middle Niger valley. So emblematic of the Bamana tradition is
the lute, that bamanangòni is used as a generic term to describe Bamana music (Brandes and
Malé 1998).
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Evidence for the existence of the ngòni as the favoured instrument of Segu Bamanas rulers
comes from oral tradition, as in the following extract from an epic recitation by Kabiné Sissoko:
Da Monzon reigned in Segu,
the city of balanzans [acacias]
Figure 16. Bassekou Kouyaté at the Niger near his village, Garana, holding the Bamana ngòniba. Note the
slight waist on the resonator, the bridge attached to the end of the neck, and four strings.
Source: Thomas Dorn, 2007, by permission.
Figure 17. The gimbri, played by a member of the Gnawa brotherhood in Essaouira, Morocco, 2009.
Source: Lucy Durán.
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where the tonjons [slave army] had built
a palace with seven vestibules
Thirty-ve guitars [ngònis] attered the ears of the king
(Kesteloot 1993, 34)
This may be hyperbole; it is usual for jeliw to boast of their importance in pre-colonial times.
However, a twentieth-century descendant of the Diarra dynasty, Gaoussou Diarra, attested that
his ancestor Monzon Diarra (who ruled Segu from 1787 to 1808) had in his entourage 740
jeliw who were fearless warriors, a law unto themselves They took the best horses, chose
the best women, and wore a silver bracelet on their left arm and a gold earring on their right
ear(Sauvageot 1965, quoted in Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 1011, fn. My translation).
Tayiru Banberas epic recitation places the jeli Tinyetigiba Danté at the centre of the intrigues
that unfold at the court of Segu during the rule of Da Monzon Diarra. It is Danté who advises
Da Monzon at all times on all matters of both war and love.
Despite the descriptions of large ensembles of lutes at the court of Segu, the only time
such an orchestra has existed in living memory is when Bassekou Kouyaté brought 50
ngòni players to perform at the presidential palace in September 2010, as part of the 50th anni-
versary of independence celebrations. Otherwise, the Bamana ngòniba is usually played on its
own or with one other ngòni, accompanying recitation
(see for example, Frobenius 1921,
108110; Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975; and also recordings of Fotigui Diabaté, in Brandes
and Malé 1998).
Falling a little differently
–‘Poyiand the blues
We now return to the piece called Poyi, with which this investigation began, and its possible
links with the blues. As we have seen in the description by the Kouyaté brothers in Garana,
Poyiis a tune played to accompany recitations of praise for bravery as are many other
pieces in the Mande jeli repertoire. But there is a special ethos to Poyi.
Poyi is a sacred [ritual] piece. It recalls three things: new life, fresh blood, fresh excrement. Its a tune
that you make an oath on. If you swear on Poyi that you will do something, youre obliged to fulfil
your promise, or otherwise, youd better hide behind your mother! Its like Janjun, but more powerful.
Janjun is for the griots, but Poyi is for the true nobility. If a noble swears on Poyi and doesnt keep his
word, hell be at the bottom of the ladder of his entire race. Its like that. (Bassekou Kouyaté, personal
communication, London 2013)
How can such oral testimony be corroborated? The picture is complicated by the paucity of
recordings with the title Poyi(or similar spellings). A bit of detective work is therefore required.
By piecing together evidence from ethnolinguistics, a few local recordings, transcriptions of epic
recitations and references in obscure literary texts, a convincing case emerges for this tune as
being different from all other Bamana tunes. In essence, it is an instrumental accompaniment
over which oaths would be sworn, or war captives would take their decision to live as slaves
or die as warriors.
One of the few named recordings of the piece, called Poi, is found on a cassette featuring
Banzoumana Sissoko, the Old Lion, who (as already stated) was one of the most inuential and
respected musicians of the post-independence era. The exact provenance or date of this recording
is not known, but it most probably was recorded for Radio Mali in the 1960s. Interestingly, the
other two pieces on the cassette are both major ritualpieces in the Mande jeli repertoire:
Sunjataand Janjon. On the recording Banzoumana accompanies himself on the ngòniba;
the traditional iron rattle placed on the end of the neck can be heard clearly. The piece begins
with a sung recitation, but quickly turns into an instrumental performance probably the only
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instrumental that the Old Lion ever recorded. Bassekou states that there are three or four
regional variants of Poyi, all of which are minorpentatonic and in slow 6/8, and that
Banzoumana Bassekous grandfather had his own individual way of playing it.
instrumental recording, cited as Poyi, le blues du griotis played by the musician Amadou
Diarra on the ngòniba.
There are surely many others, for which further research is required
(Figure 18).
The polysemous vocable poyi (with its variant spellings: poui, pui,puyi,poi) may carry as
much weight as the music itself. Poyi is listed in the main Bamana-French dictionary as a
poem or epic griot vocabulary, and also as a verb, to appear suddenly(Bailleul 1996). Its
use is widespread in the countryside of southern and central Mali, where it denotes strength
and exceptional bravery. Some informants have told me that it is onomatopoeic, conveying the
noise of an arrow or sword slicing the air, or a scythe cutting through grasses. In the Wasulu
region, which has produced some of Malis most popular music over the past two decades,
Poyi is a term for praising a strong farmer or hunter. Poyior Poyi sensenis the name of the
first song that one learns to play on the kamalengòni. The wassoulou musician Kokanko Sata
explains that Poyi sensen was the first song I learnt it means a strong worker, a brave
young man Poyi sensen means to walk slowly, in front, steadily, without fear(personal com-
munication with the author, 2005).
In her study of wassoulou music, Heather Maxwell considers that
Figure 18. A local cassette copy of a Radio Mali recording by Banzoumana Sissoko [using the spelling
Source: (Accessed 10 August 2012).
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Poyi is a borrowed word from the specialized jeli vocabulary but its meaning is polyvalent. Poyi, also
meaning foli in Bamanankan, means a poem, an epic, to greet, salute, thanks, and speak. It is a heavily
weighted word (Maxwell 2002, 181182)
Poyiwas also the name of a song from the upper Niger in Guinea, accompanied on the dan (a
now almost extinct calabash-resonated pluriarc that was one of the precursors of the Wasulu youth
harp). Meaning going,Poyiwas dedicated to war veterans and young men who achieved
something special for the public good(Camara 2002, 63).
Coumba Sidibé, one of the pioneers of wassoulou,
recorded a popular track entitled Poui-
kanpoui. It opens with a man exclaiming Poyi! Pouikanpoui!, the sound of which is echoed with
ringing harmonics on the kamalengoni (youth harp). In fact, it is not uncommon to hear exclama-
tions of poyiat the beginnings of Bamana songs, articulated in a plosive manner, as if conjuring
the sound of a bullet whistling through the air. (The late Lobi Traoré, Bamana guitarist and singer
from Segou, whose music has been called the Bambara blues,
often opened his performances
at nightclubs in Bamako by shouting poyi!.) I have also heard that the term poyi was shouted
during wrestling matches in Mali during the first decades of independence, to encourage cham-
pion wrestlers.
Such exclamations are also found in the line-by-line transcription of a little-known episode
from the Bamana Segu epic, concerning the siege of Jonkoloni (French spelling Dionkoloni), a
well-guarded fortress town some 200 km northwest of Segou, during the reign of Da Monzon
(18081827). The story goes that Da Monzon wished to annex the town to his empire, but,
according to the jeliw, Jonkoloni had recourse to great mystic power, capable of rebuffing all
the attempts of Da Monzon Diarras dreaded tònjòn army. The story revolves around a hero by
the name of Silamakan, and there are many overlaps with a Fulbe epic, Silamaka et Poullori
(see Belcher 1999).
Kabiné Sissoko, a Bamana jeli originally from Segou, performed a recitation of Dionkoloni
in Bamako in 1968 for the French scholars, Kesteloot and Dumestre, accompanying himself on
the ngòniba. Sissoko had been the apprentice of Banzoumana Sissoko, the Old Lion, for six
years (Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 22), and he may well have learnt the tune from his
master, who was the first to record Jonkoloni.
In Kesteloot and Dumestres bilingual (Bamana-French) transcription of Kabiné Sissokos
performance, the term Poyi!occurs from time to time at beginnings and endings of sections
a kind of sonic and metaphorical representation of power:
Da [Monzon] declared that he would never give up the ght to Jonkoloni; Jonkoloni said she [the
town] would never fear Da Monzon. Poyi! (Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 51);
Mariheri of Jonkoloni claims that he can drink the poyi juice ( Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 43);
Poyi! iron slurry, cold water that puts out the fire, the big drum that blocks the path, the madman
who settles in the ruin, the stranger with a dirty head at the end of the field (Kesteloot and Dumestre
1975, 113);
Jonkoloni is a waspsnest, a scorpionsnest, its a city of valiant knights, this is the truth! And now,
poyi! (Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 115).
(translations mine)
There is, however, one view that Poyi was a Bamana genre of recent origin, connected to the rise
of radio broadcasting in Mali. The Malian anthropologist and politician Pascale Baba Couloubaly
the poitends towards fantasy and boisterousness, as can be seen in the performances of Jeli Baba
Sisoko and in those of the poikanpoigroup. Jeli Baba Sissoko is a well-known griot and radio
announcer whose Tuesday evening broadcasts have attracted a substantial audience both in Mali
and in the Malian diaspora. The Tuesday evening poiis a new style of narrative that has borrowed
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from all the traditional genres, while establishing a renewed focus on eroticism, luxury, wealth, and
the miraculous. In doing so, Jeli Baba loosely translates tales from the thousand and one nights into
the Bamana language and adopts the technique of Segou, thus redrawing, according to his own
imagination, the countenance of a brave and warlike feudal Bamana society that has been morally
undermined by women and money. (Couloubaly 1993, 59)
Couloubalys description may focus on a new interpretation of Poyi, but it undoubtedly has res-
onances with the meanings that have already been explored in this article. It also mirrors an
important but overlooked literary source on middle Niger epics a little-known publication in
German by Leo Frobenius, who travelled around Africa in the early twentieth century collecting
oral traditions.
Volume six of Frobenius(1921) 12-volume publication describes a series of heroic songs
entitled Pui(clearly a variant of poyi) collected amongst a Soninke community in Benin.
Belcher, a scholar of African oral literature, questions whether these texts are genuinely of
Soninke origin, for in fact the discernable language is more often than not Bamana, and the cul-
tural horizon involved belongs not to single group but to a sort of generic heroic world that in
modern and reliable transcriptions is best represented among the Fula(Belcher 1999, 87).
Conrad, too, believed that
many of Frobeniusconclusions are highly questionable and the possibility of the existence of the
dausi and of the related genre of shorter material called pui as perceived by him, should be studied
further before being accepted as having been part of West African tradition. (Conrad and Fisher
1983: fn. 156).
Nevertheless Frobeniusdescription seems to conrm the evidence presented here on Poyi and
suggests that Poyi was once a much more widespread performance genre than it is now. It is unli-
kely that knowledge of this rather obscure and old text in German, never republished and only
available as a rare book in some libraries, would have fed back into the tradition.
Frobenius denes Pui as a collection of songs recounting the stories of 12 heroes of the region
known as Kala in the northeast of Segou province; he states that every griot (he uses the term
dialli [jeli], though mostly he does not cite indigenous names) knows at least one of these
songs, though not all of them, nor are they performed as a unity or continuous story, unlike
another genre that he cites, the Dausi. Frobenius explains that it was difficult to compile a com-
plete document of the Pui, partly because titles differ. Thus, Pui was a genre, not a specific piece
(Frobenius 1921, 93). He also provides detailed and accurate line drawings (Frobenius 1921, 41)
of what he describes as the bards lute from Seguwhich elsewhere he calls djuma koni(Fro-
benius 1921, 44), but in the stories just calls guitar.
The Pui stories Frobenius relates are infused with the kinds of Bamana values mentioned
earlier in this article. They extol the virtues of bravery and honour, of keeping ones word. The
metaphorical language is so idiomatic to that of the jeliw, that it is difficult to imagine that Fro-
benius could have made it up, and it contains some interesting references to the Pui itself.
At least one of the stories concerns a herofrom Kala, Sirrani Korro Samba, and a jeli,
Signana Samba. One day, while Sirranis wife is travelling, she is surrounded by 60 heroes
from Segu, on the lookout for booty.
She said: What kinds of robbers and vagabonds are you that even a respectable woman draws your
attention? Arent you ashamed to be standing around in the sun with your thievish thoughts, so that I
can see each one?Amazed, one of the sixty heroes said: Woman, what gives you the courage to
speak thus to the sixty foremost heroes of Segu?Sirrani Korro Sambas wife said: Oh, what great
heroes you are, daring to talk so boldly to a woman. Just wait till my husband comes: hell teach
you to fart from fear and there will soon be an end to your splendid courage in front of a
woman.Signana Samba, the jeli, struck on his guitar and said, if the courage of the husband of
this woman does not belong in the Pui, then at least one should sing about the quick-witted responses
of this woman. Woman, who is your husband?
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Sirrani Korro Sambas wife answered: Who my husband is? Do you really want to know? Then you
should hurry to look for mouse holes in the fields and birdsnests in the trees and hide there with your
ponies. Its from there that you can best get to know my husband: but take care not to be trampled
underfoot by his horse.Massassi Diadierri said: Woman, you absolutely must accompany us to
Segu, so that the king can learn something out of the ordinary. Has anyone ever heard such a bird
sing? Onwards to Segu.
The wife warns the 60 heroes that her husband Sirrani is drunk, and therefore especially danger-
ous. When Sirrani turns up, he takes three of the heroes prisoner, and the jeli taps on his lute and
You heroes of Segu, consider that you are sixty men who have been poisoned by a womans mouth,
and must now be slaughtered as sick people. Just think, that you are heroes, you sixty men from Segu.
Then the jeli rode up to the woman and said: If this matter is ever to be sung in the Pui as it deserves to
be, then we must get a jeli to do so, for these men running away are certainly not going to tell the story.
But if the jeli reports this matter in the Pui, at that point he will be far away from the brave woman he
has got to know that he wishes to sing about, too far for her to be able to make him a gift.Thereupon
the wife of Sirrani Korro Samba took off one of her heavy gold earrings and gave it to the jeli.
The story continues with the jeli creating on the spot a song that he calls One-sixty, with which
he taunts the heroes of Segu by insinuating that the 60 of them had been defeated by the one hero
from Kala. The jeli refers to the Puiseveral times as if it were a medium through which brave
deeds would be recounted, almost like a column in a newspaper. For instance, when the 60 heroes
have returned to Segu or rather, those who have survived and not been taken captives by Sirrani
the ruler demands that the jeli explain the meaning of One-sixty.
The heroes all gathered in the evening. The jeli had hung his sixty-one gold rings on his guitar. The
king asked: What is in Pui?Samba said: One-sixty.They all looked at him. Signana Samba asked
Massassi Diadierri: How does one keep ones word, half or whole?Massassi Diadierri said: One
keeps ones word whole, and the jeli said One-sixty’…
(Frobenius 1921, 106110)
Frobeniusdescriptions of the Pui are consistent with Poyias performed and later described to
me by Bassekou Kouyaté and his family in Garana, on that day in 2006. They are also consistent
with the Poyi songs in the Wasulu region, and the exclamations of Poyi! during Kabiné Sissokos
recitation of Dionkoloni, and by Bamana musicians in general. The difficulty of finding many
named recordings of Poyicould well reflect the fact that it is more of a generic concept than a
specific tune, connected with a vanished cult of bravery on the battlefield, and, as such, is fading
from memory amongst the younger generation of singers. It is also sometimes performed with the
title of Mbawdi, a tune with which it shares various musical features.
In a sense, the most important thing about Poyiis not so much what it might have sounded
like during the era of Bamana Segu, or whether indeed, as several musicians have expressed, it
can be seen as the original Bamana blues. If, via the memories of captives, Poyiand other
Bamana tunes ever did reach the New World, they would in any case have most certainly been
recreated in a thoroughly Atlantic way.
Perhaps more to the point is that Poyiis a window on the role of Bamana jeli music as part of
the little researched and complex musical traditions of Malis middle Niger valley, and their
relationship with the blues.
Mali is frequently cited as one of the sources of the blues, yet the discussion is not nuanced, since
there is almost no research available on the music of the middle Niger valley, and, until very
recently, not many recordings either. Bamana jeli music is one of these traditions. Its musical
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resonances with the blues and with the banjo have had recent exposure on the international stage
through the work of the ngòni player Bassekou Kouyaté. This article has attempted to document
the historical reasons for these similarities, taking the little-known piece Poyias its starting
point, suggesting that the context in which it was played, before and after battles, to warriors
and war captives, and its ritual or sacredethos, provide an important missing piece in the
quest for the roots of the blues.
The article provides the rst detailed account of Bamana jeli music, with its emblematic
instrument the ngòniba, its origins in the Bamana Segu Empire, its slow, bluesy tempo, pentatonic
scales, male ethos, and lyrics that glorify fighting and bloodshed.
Although Bamana music is one of several middle Niger valley musical cultures that share
traits with the rural blues of the Deep South, it may have been the principal conduit for the trans-
atlantic ows of these traits, in view of Segus culture of warfare during the eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries, which generated thousands of slaves. They may have had a broader cultural
impact than their small numbers would imply, perhaps even recreating the sonic memory of
the last piece of music they might have heard before being sent westwards.
In the words of Kabiné Sissoko: and now, Poyi!
1. Throughout this article I use two spellings for the region of Segou and its capital town. Segou is the
French spelling that is widely used on maps and in literature, as French is Malisofcial language,
while Segu is the ofcial DNAFLA spelling (Direction Nationale de lAlphabetisation Fonctionnelle
et de la Linguistique Appliquée). I use these different spellings to distinguish between references to
pre-colonial Segu (cf. Conrad 1990) versus present-day Segou (the town and region).
2. In keeping with most English-language Mande scholarship, I have chosen to use the term Bamana rather
than Bambara, the former being an endonym (that is, the term from the Bamana language itself), while
the latter is mainly used in French-language literature and conversation (and also by some other ethni-
cities to refer to the Bamana). See Vydrine (1999, 71) for detailed discussion of the term Bamana. In
general, I have used DNAFLA spelling for Bamana terms and song titles, except for surnames which
are written with French orthography.
3. At this stage, in 2006, Bassekou had yet to record his rst solo album, Segu blue (one of the first inter-
national recordings showcasing the Bamana ngòni).
4. The story of Dò Kamissa the buffalo woman is one of the best-known episodes of the Sunjata epic, and
there are dozens of versions of it. See Conrad (2004, 3051) for a line-by-line transcription of one
5. For a full account of this empire as told by a Bamana jeli, see Conrad (1990).
6. More discussion of this is found later on in the article. The main study to date of Mande music (Charry
2000), for example, does not include Bamana jeli music.
7. The blues scholar Paul Oliver points to the ‘“blue notescreated by ... slide and sideways pressure on the
stringas an intrinsic feature of the blues (Oliver 1982, 187).
8. This project eventually turned into Segu blue, the first of two albums that I produced by Bassekou
Kouyaté and his group Ngoniba (Durán 2007a).
9. A version of Poyiby Bassekou Kouyaté can be heard on track 14 of the album Segu blue. Another
version by Bassekou can be seen in a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008 at http:// (Accessed 30 March 2013). Other recorded versions of
Poyiby other Malian artists are cited later on in this article.
10. Charry states that all the pieces played by jelis are named and have some kind of story behind them ...
[they] are usually dedicated to a single person, such as a great leader, warrior, or patron(Charry 2000,
11. See Charry, Camara, and Jensen (2002: 305) for discussion of the concept of shame as a crucial orga-
nizing factor in Mande society.
12. I have been working with musicians in Mali since 1986, primarily as researcher but also as music pro-
ducer and broadcaster. I have known Bassekou Kouyaté and his family since the early 1990s, but it was
only in 2006 that I began researching Bamana music, following the encounter described above, which
culminated in two albums by Bassekou Kouyaté featuring the ngòni (see Durán 2007a and 2009). In
Journal of African Cultural Studies 241
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addition, from 2009 to 2012, I spent long periods in Mali working on a project to document children
learning music in griot families, in Garana amongst other locations, funded by an AHRC Beyond
Text major grant, Growing into Music(20092012). Research in Segou during that project has con-
tributed significantly to the present article (Durán 2013).
13. (Radio interview with Jay Rutledge, for Bayern 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Bavaria.) Ndoondo is one of
the Fulbe genres of professional music; see for example Loncke (1997); it is also mentioned in the reci-
tation of the Siege of Jonkoloni(Kesteloot and Dumestre 1975, 85). Seygalareis the title of one of
Ali Farkas early recordings, on the album Radio Mali, WCD 044.
14. (Accessed June 24, 2012).
15. While Kubik is right that Tourés success paved the way for others in Mali to be labelled as blues artists
(Kubik 1990, 196), he is misinformed about aspects of Tourés life; for example, he did not spend long
periods of time in Europe, or even in Bamako; in fact, he was well known to all those who knew him as
someone who was openly antipathetic to life in Europe, and who chose to spend as much of his time as
possible farming in Niafunke.
16. See for example the following websites, suggesting connections between the Senegambian Jola akont-
ing with the banjo. The name akonting is borrowed from the Mandinka kontingo (a variant of ngòni):;;
17. This is quoted from a line about drinking alcohol, recited by Tayiru Banbera, and cited later on in this
18. The lack of performance contexts for Bamana epics is discussed later on.
19. An example of this is the song Mbowdion the album Segu Blue (Durán 2007a). Mbowdi, its place in
the Bamana repertoire and its Fulbe origins are discussed later on in this article.
20. An example of this is the how the jelimuso (female jeli) Bako Dagnon got her name. Her paternal grand-
father, Bouloukoumba Dagnon, took her grandmother, Bako Diarra, as bootyin the late 1800s, when
passing through Segu, during the wars between the French army and Almami Samory Touré. Bako
Dagnon (personal communication 2010).
21. See Conrad (1990, 14) for a concise description of the Bamana of Segu, their language, social structure
and religious beliefs, and 1329 for references to the many other published variants.
22. Al-Hajj Shaykh Umar Tall founded the Umarian state, which ruled until 1890 when Segou fell to the
French army under General Achinard.
23. Tayiru Banbera however recites that this was not the real fasa for Da, citing instead a chorus rooster of
the canoe-bow, take us forward with you. One chief along cannot be a whole army(Banbera in Conrad
1990, 142). Ask Da for me(Nyininka, Da nyininka) has been recorded in many popular variants by
many artists and groups, including the Ensemble Instrumental National, the Super Biton, Banzoumana
Sissoko, Koni Koumaré, and most recently Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoniba. For further discussion of
this song see Conrad (1990, 62).
24. The belief in jinns as the source of some kind of divine musical inspiration is also prevalent in Mande
thought (Charry 2000, 119). See Kubik (1999, 64) for discussion of the demonicreputation of blues
musicians and their use of evil magic.
25. This speech, in French, was recorded as part of a radio documentary entitled Bambara Blues, recorded
in and around Segou, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 24 March 2007,
p005xlv6 (Accessed 1 July 2012).
26. I am grateful to Professor Owen Wright of SOAS for his translations from the original German.
27. The rst kora players to tour the USA, in the early 1970s, were Alhaji Bai Konte and Jali Nyama Suso,
both from the Gambia. Jali Nyama was the main informant in the pioneering research on Mandinka kora
by Knight (1972, 1973).
28. See Durán (1981a and 1981b), Charry (2000, 154), Coolen (1982, 8081) for further discussion of this
tune in the Mandinka kora and Wolof xalam repertoire.
29. See Bird (1999, 284285) for further discussion of capturedtunes. For the story of how this tune may
have originated in the Mande heartland and been brought to (and captured by) Segu, see discussion of
the river tunein Durán (2007a).
30. It should be noted that there are other kinds of Bamana music which are not the domain of jeliw, such as
bara drumming and dancing to the bara, a calabash drum, and balani (non-jeli xylophones). They
overlap with jeli music in that they may also be perceived as warlike(see Brandes and Malé et al.
1998, track 5), and may reference the Segu Empire, but their musicians do not recite the epic, which
is always considered the work of the jeliw. All these different factors tend to cloud the perception of
what actually constitutes Bamana jeli music. To complicate the issue, several well-known Malian
242 L. Durán
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artistes(a term used in Mali to describe non-jeli musicians) such as Amadou & Mariam, Djeneba Seck,
Rokia Traoré, and the late Lobi Traoré base their music on Bamana styles, but not the jeli repertoire, with
its stories of Segu.
31. See Strawn (2011), the most detailed study to date of the music of Wasulu hunters.
32. To hear a recording of Prisoners Talking Blues, go to
(Accessed July 24, 2012). For more information on the artist and the album, see http://thedailyguru. (Accessed February 24, 2012).
33. For further information on this LP, see
Monzon.htm (Accessed 10 March 2013).
34. Another version of Bambugu Ncecan be heard on Bassekou Kouyatés album I speak fula, entitled
Bambugu blues. A faster version of this tune, renamed Cheikhna Demba, can be heard on the
album New Ancient Strings (see Duran 2011), featuring kora duets. It was significantly adopted by
ORTM (Malis national television station) as their signature tune from c. 20002010.
35. Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali. LP recording, Kunkan Ko 77.44.11. Source: http://wrldsrv. (Accessed 30 December 2012).
36. Versions of this have been widely recorded, especially during the 1980s and early 1990s by popular jeli-
musow (female jelis) such as Ami Koita and Tata Bambo Kouyaté, to praise the Malian benefactor
Babani Sissoko. See Schulz (2001, 150, 181), and Eyre (2000, 182183).
37. See the transcription by Rosemary Bock in Conrad 1990; one of the few notations of a Bamana jeli tune,
it is an accurate representation of the melody although it is usually played in 12/8 not 4/4 as transcribed
here. An example of Bakari jan can be found on Segu Blue, track 4 Juru nani(see Duran 2007a).
38. See for example Le hoddu peul/the Fulani hoddu, compact disc (Ocora, 2006). See also Hawa Dramés
Mbaoudion her cassette, Syllart SYL 8384.
39. Ali Farka Touré, Red & Green, two compact discs, World Circuit WCD 070. Spelling of the track is
Mbaudy. Originally recorded at Radio Mali in 1988, re-released by World Circuit in 2004.
40. Demba Fadiga Camara Production présente Hommage Abrahima Diakite. Compact disc.
41. See Charry (2000: Chapter 5) and Counsel (2009) for discussion of the modernization of Maninka
42. One of the few recordings of the post-independence years that specically references the blues is the
Guinean piece entitled Kadia Blues, which is in minor key and slow triple time. It was originally com-
posed and recorded by the Guinean guitarist Kanté Facelli, and later immortalized by the dance band
Kélétigui et ses Tambourinis. Kadia Bluescan be heard on the CD The Syliphone Years 196870
(Sterns African records). Kanté Facelli and his musical partner Keita Fodéba were, incidentally, very
influential guitarists in the region; Ali Farka Touré cites Keita Fodéba as the first guitarist he ever
heard, and it could be that some of Tourés initial ideas about the blues came from here.
43. For example, Heather Maxwell notes that the music of Wasulu which is pentatonic is just a small
part of a larger genre of popular song that is only different in terms of its distinction from jeliya, which
uses a heptatonic mode(Maxwell 2002, 157; my italics).
44. Cf. the music of huntersassociations in southern Mali which is also considered to be cèfoli (Strawn
2011, 51).
45. At the time of writing, in March 2013, there is however no clear indication of how recent political events
in Mali will affect the once vibrant music scene in the country.
46. See Bird (1999, 284). The non-enslavement of jeliw has been cited to me by virtually every jeli I have
spoken to.
47. See for example the playing technique of DiaDia Fadiga and his ensemble,
watch?v=kcOiMcGwn6s&feature=g-vrec (Accessed 1 July 2012).
48. This is my translation from Kesteloots French (no Bamana version of the epic is supplied), where the
term guitarsis used, but guitarhas been used as a synonym for the ngòni by many authors including
Frobenius (1921), so it seems appropriate to reinstate the indigenous term ngòni.
49. Tayiru Banbera accompanied himself on the ngòni for the performances transcribed by Conrad (see
Conrad 1990, 35), but when performing for Dumestre a decade earlier he was accompanied by
another ngòni player called Biton (no surname given) (Dumestre 1979, 305).
50. During the making of the album Kulanjan with a group of Malian musicians including Bassekou
Kouyaté, the African-American bluesman Taj Mahal stated all you do is take these melodies and
make them fall a little differently, and you have the blues(Taj Mahal, personal communication to
the author in the studio while recording the album Kulanjan 1999). See sleeve notes to Taj Mahal &
Toumani Diabate: Kulanjan, compact disc, Hannibal HNCD 1444 (1999).
Journal of African Cultural Studies 243
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51. Bassekou recited the three in Bamanan: A be ni kènè wele (It recalls new life), A be joli kènè wele (It
recalls fresh blood), A be bo kènè wele (It recalls fresh excrement). For discussion of Janjun, a song
in the Maninka repertoire also considered ritual (see Charry 2000, 8283).
52. It can be heard at
53. It can be heard at
54. See Durán (1995, 2000).
55. Bambara Blues was the title of one of Lobi Traorés albums. Compact disc, Buda Records, 1999.
56. [1971] Musique du Mali.Volume 3.Banzoumana Sissòko.Le vieux lion.Volume 2. Bärenreiter-Musica-
phon. BM 30 L 2553. LP disc. There are very few other recorded versions of Jonkoloni. One listed as
Djongloniis by the female Bamana singer Koni Coumaré accompanied on ngòni, recorded in 1976.
See (Accessed 15 July 2012).
Other versions include Ja dugu kolo baby Bamana singer and guitarist Bassi Kouyate, on his album
entitled Mali: chants des griots bambara, and Jonkoloniby Bassekou Kouyaté on Segu Blue (Durán
57. I am grateful to Professor Owen Wright of SOAS University of London for translating the German into
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... Much research on music in the Mande cultural area has focused on griots, providing important insight into the position of musicians in social life as well as rich and dynamic traditions of instrumental and vocal performance (e.g. Charry 2000; Conrad and Frank 1995;Durán 2013Durán , 2007Hale 1998;Knight 1973Knight , 1982Tang 2008;Janson 2002;Ebron 2002). The scholarly preoccupation with griots, however, has also contributed to misconceptions regarding the range of musical practices in the Mande area as well as the role of women in performance (Appert 2018). ...
Like many newly independent African countries, Mali turned towards its cultural resources, especially music and dance, to build its national identity as part of the decolonisation process. The National Ballet was one of the national state-sponsored artistic ensembles created at the time of the achievement of independence in 1960 and as such, it had to display the music dance forms of the various Malian populations. Despite the Ballet’s claims of ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’, the traditional dances were adapted on stage by choreographers trained in socialist countries within the broader political context of the Cold War. Infused with Negritude and Pan-Africanism and entangled at the same time within a discourse on modernity, the theoretical ambition of the National Ballet was articulated in contradistinction to the colonial legacy. The article interrogates therefore the intricacy of this ideological and political background in order to apprehend the constellation of international relations and currents of thoughts that gave birth to the National Ballet. While examining the various means of postcolonial agency performed through the Ballet’s repertoire, the article demonstrates how a new music-dance genre emerged that spread widely in the postcolonial world within the subsequent decades.
Full-text available
Education has a long history and valued place in Pakistani society. From the earliest recorded history, teachers and schools, along with families and the broader community, have played fundamental roles in children’s learning as well as the development of their character (Gupta, Introduction: culture, curriculum, and points of intersection. In: Gupta A (ed) Going to school in South Asia. Greenwood, Westport, 2007a). However, the current public school system, shaped by a fairly recent colonial history, ongoing sociopolitical and religious tensions, natural disasters and a dearth of resources, is struggling. While most children initially enroll in school, many stop attending and drop out within the first year of schooling (UNESCO, Education for all global monitoring report 2013/4: teaching and learning: achieving quality for all. UNESCO, Paris., 2014). Those who stay in school often repeat grades or move through the system without gaining even basic literacy and numeracy skills (SAFED, Annual status of education report: Pakistan 2013. South Asian Forum for Education Development, Lahore., 2014).
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This chapter is in the form of an interview between Lucy Durán and Helen Penn. Lucy Durán is a well-known ethnomusicologist who has made a series of films, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Council in the UK—Beyond Text, in the project called Growing into Music (Growing into Music films:, for which she was the principal investigator. The films document how children from specialist musical families of great oral traditions acquire musical skills and knowledge, with films made by a team of four ethnomusicologists working in five countries: India, Azerbaijan, Mali, Cuba and Venezuela. In addition to the documentaries directed and filmed in Mali, which is Durán’s regional expertise, she also provides a commentary to the comparative film that covers footage from all five countries, making some interesting and important connections, with wider implications for music education.
This article examines the process of representation, dissemination, and commodification of Hassan’s music out of the Saharawi refugee camps of the Hamada desert in Algeria through its interaction with a Western record label, Nubenegra, between 2005 and 2012. Through the use of transcultural studies, this article examines both the interaction between Hassan and Nubenegra during the production of the Saharawi artist’s albums Deseos (2005) and Shouka (2010), and how Nubenegra represents Saharawi music through Hassan’s albums in the music industry. This article reveals how the transcultural representation of Saharawi musical culture through Hassan’s music in the West is powerfully negotiated by external agents such as a Western record label and the music industry.
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In this chapter, I look at the portrayal of hunters’ styles by women singers over the past decade [1990-2000] in Bamako, Mali’s capital. I analyse the “how and why” and significance of this phenomenon. The re-creation of hunters’ styles is never accorded by Malian audiences the same kind of cultural value that real hunters’ music has, and yet, women’s hunter-derived styles of music are greatly enjoyed and appreciated by Mande audiences. Here, I focus on the particular contribution of women to the mystique of hunters and what we can learn from this about social dynamics in Mali of the late 20th century.
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This article aims to contribute to an understanding of the evaluation of musical artistry in Africa, through Mali as a case study. The discussion focuses on the informal discourses of the occupational group of Mande artisan-musicians known as jeli (pl. jeliw, jalilu), concerning the ideal of musical greatness, signified by the polysemic term ngaraya; while there is consensus about the ideal, there is much debate about who qualifies. Drawing on extensive interviews and fieldwork with leading jeliw' over the past twenty years, it pays special attention to the views of and about Malian women singers, who since the 1980s have - somewhat controversially, as explored here - been the "stars" on the home scene. The article shows how local discourses challenge the widely accepted view that only men are the true masters (ngaraw). Many women jeli singers (jelimusow) have a special claim to ngaraya, and some also seek to position themselves within the canon, as they increasingly move into centre-stage of Malian popular culture. The importance of learning directly from senior master jeliw remains a core issue in the evaluation of ngaraya for both men and women, encapsulated in the phrase "the true ngaraw are all at home".
Chapter 1 1. More Than Objects Chapter 2 2. The Place of Pots Chapter 3 3. Beyond the Fringe Chapter 4 4. The Technology of Mande Pottery Chapter 5 5. The Technology of Mande Leatherwork Chapter 6 6. Mande Potters: Numumosow Chapter 7 7. Mande Leatherworkers: Garankew and Jeliw Chapter 8 8. Artistry, Cultural Choices, and Heritage