The music of Mali is dominated by forms derived from the ancient Mande Empire. The Mande people make up most of the country's population, and their musicians, professional performers called jeliw (sing. jeli, French griot), have produced a vibrant popular music scene alongside traditional folk music. Influences also come from the hundreds of ethnic groups surrounding Mali, as well as Moorish and European musical forms.
The jeliya (sing. jeli, fem. jelimusow, French griot) are a caste of professional musicians and orators, sponsored by noble patrons of the horon class and part of the same caste as craftsmen (nyamakala) like blacksmiths. Because the jeli class is endogamous, surnames are caste-based; thus, certain names are held only by jeliw. Common jeli surnames include Kouyaté, Kamissoko, Cissokho, Dambele, Soumano, Kanté, Diabaté and Koné.
Jeliya are supported by their noble sponsors. Their job is complex. They recount genealogical information and historical family events. They also laud the deeds of their patron's ancestors and praise the patron himself (for the patrons are always male), as well as exhort them to behave morally to ensure the honour of the family name. They also act as dispute mediators. The position is highly-respected, and jeliw are often trusted by their patrons with privileged information because the caste system does not allow the jeliw to be a potential rival of the nobleman.
Few non-jeliw have taken music as a profession, though Salif Keita remains an extremely prominent example of a noble-born Malian who became a singer, adopting traditional garb and styles. He has, however, made it clear that he sings as an artist, in order to personally express himself, and not as a jeli.
The jeli repertoire includes several ancient songs; the oldest may be "Lambang", which praises music. Other songs praise ancient kings and heroes, especially Sunjata Keita ("Sunjata") and Tutu Jara ("Tut Jara"). Music is typically accompanied by a full dance band, often using electric instruments in recent years. Songs are composed of a scripted refrain (donkili) and an improvised section. Improvised lyrics praise ancestors, and are usually based around a surname. Each surname has an epithet used to glorify its ancient holders, and singers also praise recent and still-living family members. Proverbs are another major component of traditional songs.
The political and historical aspects of the jeli's task fall within the male jeli's realm, as does the playing of instruments. Their work is considered to be a form of speech, whereas the work of the jelimusow, which is to sing praises and exhortations, is viewed as song.
The kora is believed to have come from what is now Guinea-Bissau, and is known to have existed by 1796, when Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, reported seeing one. There are two styles of playing the kora. The western style is found mostly in Senegal and The Gambia, and is more rhythmically complex than the eastern tradition. The best known player of the western style is the Gambian musician, Jaliba Kuyateh. Eastern kora-playing is more vocally-dominated, and is found throughout Mali and Guinea. Respected players of the kora include Sidiki Diabaté, Toumani Diabaté, Djeli Moussa Sissoko and Batouou Sekou Kouyaté.
The ngoni is known to have existed since 1352, when Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveller reported seeing one in the court of Mansa Musa. It is believed to have evolved into the banjo in North America after Mande slaves were exported there en masse. Battuta also reported the existence of a balafon, which is a complex xylophone popular especially among the Susu of western Guinea.
The end of World War 2 saw the guitar become common throughout Africa, partially resulting from the intermixing of African, American and British soldiers. Dance bands were popular in Mali, especially the town of Kita's orchestra led by Boureima Keita and Afro-Jazz de S´gou. Imported European dances were popular, especially rumbas, waltzes and Argentine-derived tangos. By the 1960s, however, the influence of Cuban music began to rise.
After independence in 1960, Malians saw new opportunities for cultural expression in the burgeoning media of radio, television and recorded music. Under President Modibo Keita, orchestras were state-supported, including the first electric dance band, Orchestre Nationale A, as well as the Ensemble Instrumental National, comprising 40 traditional musicians from around the country and still in operation today. Other influential dance bands included Rail Band and Pioneer Jazz. Cuban music remained popular in Mali throughout the 1960s, and remains popular today.
With the coming to power of Mali's second president, Moussa Traoré, however, Cuban music was discouraged in favor of Malian traditional music. Biennale festivals were held to encourage folk music. Old dance bands reformed in many cases, under new names, as part of this roots revival. Especially influential bands included Tidiane Koné's Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare, which launched the careers of future stars Salif Keita and Mory Kanté, and Super Biton de Ségou.
Bajourou music also became popular, beginning with Fanta Sacko's Fanta Sacko, the first bajourou LP. Fanta Sacko's success set the stage for future jelimusow stars which have been consistently popular in Mali; the mainstream acceptance of female singers is unusual in West Africa, and marks Malian music as unique.
Not all bands took part in Traoré's roots revival, however. Les Ambassadeurs du Motel formed in 1971, playing popular songs imported from Senegal, Cuba and France. Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band were the two biggest bands in the country, and a fierce rivalry developed. Salif Keita, perhaps the most popular singer of the time, defected in 1972 to Les Ambassadeurs. This was followed by a major concert at which both bands performed as part of the Kibaru (literacy) program. The audience fell into a frenzy of excitement and unity, and the concert is still remembered as one of the defining moments in 1970s Malian music.
The mid-70s also saw the formation of National Badema, a band that played Cuban music and soon added Kasse Mady Diabaté, who led a movement to incorporate Maninka praise-singing into Cuban-style music.
In 1975, Fanta Damba became the first jelimuso to tour Europe, as bajourou continued to become mainstream throughout Mali.
Both the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs left for Abidjan at the end of the 1970s due to a poor economic climate in Mali. There, Les Ambassadeurs recorded Mandjou, an album which featured their most popular song, "Mandjou". The song was a major success, and helped make Salif Keita a solo star. Many of the biggest musicians of the period also fled Mali, moving to Abidjan, Dakar, Paris, London, New York or Chicago. Their recordings remained widely available, however, and these musicians-in-exile helped to bring international attention to Mande music. Salif Keita and Mory Kanté, for example, moved to Paris.
Although internationally, Malian popular music has been known more for its male artists, within Mali itself it has been completely dominated by female singers such as Kandia Kouyaté since at least the 1980s. Their music is ubiquitous on radio and television and at markets and street-corner stalls. The singers are closely followed by their wide fan base for the moralizing nature of their lyrics, the perception that they embody tradition and their role as fashion trend-setters.
During the 1980s, Les Ambassadeurs and Rail Band continued recording and performing, under a variety of names. In 1982, Salif Keita, who had spent time recording with Les Ambassadeurs' Kanté Manfila, left his band and recorded an influential fusion album, Soro, with Ibrahima Sylla and French keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel. The album revolutionized Malian pop, finally eliminating all traces of Cuban music but incorporating new influences from rock and pop. By the middle of the decade, Paris had become the new capital of Mande dance music. Mory Kanté saw major mainstream success with techno-influenced Mande music, becoming a #1 hit on several European charts.
In addition the Keita's modernization and the numerous artists who followed in his wake, another roots revival began in the mid-1980s. Guinean singer and kora player Jali Musa Jawara's 1983 Yasimika is said to have begun this trend, followed by a series of acoustic releases from Kanté Manfila and Kasse Mady.
At the end of the 1980s, public support for the Malian government declined and praise-singing, with its assumption of support for the status quo and for political leaders, became unfashionable. The region of Wassoulou, south of Bamako, became the center for a new wave of danceable music also referred to as wassoulou.
Wassoulou had been developing since at least the mid-70s. Jeliw had never played a large part in the music scene in Wassoulou, and music was a more democratic field there. The modern form of wassoulou music is a combination of hunter's songs with sogoninkun, a type of elaborate masked dance, and the music is largely based on the kamalengoni harp invented in the late 1950s by Allata Brulaye Sidibí. Most of the singers are women. Oumou Sangaré was the first major wassoulou star; she achieved fame suddenly in 1989 with the release of Moussoulou, both within Mali and internationally.
Since the 1990s, although the majority of Malian popular singers are still jelimusow, wassoulou's popularity has skyrocketed. Wassoulou music is especially popular among youth. Although international audiences have come to view wassoulou performers like Oumou Sangaré as leading feminists for criticizing practices like polygamy and arranged marriage, within Mali they are not viewed in that light because their messages, when they do not openly support the status quo of gender roles, are quite subtly expressed and ambiguously worded, thus keeping them open to a variety of interpretations and avoiding direct censure from Mali's more conservative members of society.