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Niafunke Man

Throughout his career, Ali has stuck to using musicians from Niafunke, as he is keen to promote local talent and help develop a local music scene. Musical collaborations, such as the one with Ry Cooder or Taj Mahal, are really all Nick’s doing. And when he does collaborate, Ali doesn’t really change much of his music. Nick explains: “When he has collaborated, as he did with Ry Cooder, musicians tend to move towards him. The pull of Ali’s music has always been very strong. Everything he plays has an extraordinary groove to it, just the bass line which he plays with his thumb… just draws you in from the moment he opens a song. And there is a strong rhythmic pulse under it, which defines the song. As soon as he plays the rhythm, the song is there already. When he played with Ry Cooder, he didn’t change his style the tiniest bit.”

Ali’s music has real breath and atmosphere and this is clear from the opening bars of each of his songs. His music is very unhurried and has a lightness of touch not heard in the playing of any of the delta bluesmen with whom he is often compared. His songs celebrate friendship, love, the land, the river and the djinns in it… who, if you’ve ever wondered what they look like, have a ”skin white as milk, teeth like diamonds, hair like a whip and a neck so straight”. Yet his music also carries a transformative aspect and many of his more political songs are a call to fellow citizens to be politically conscious. One of his more famous songs is a tribute to the late Malian hero, Ali Aoudy, a great Malian who worked with Modibo Keita to gain Mali’s independence.

Throughout his career, Ali has been adamant about preserving Mali’s vibrant musical patrimony. “I come from the north, and our culture is incredibly rich in terms of its musical history. There is still so much to explore for the next generation, we have still not come to the bottom of it today. Mali, Burkina, Niger, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritanie, they all have their roots in Malian culture. We are the roots, the trunk from which all the other musical cultures in West Africa derive.” In every view he takes, he always adopts the Malian perspective. Ali explains to me he sees himself as an ambassador of Malian music, yet when I ask him what he would bring back to Mali from his years and travels in the West, his answer couldn’t be more clear. “Nothing much.” I try again, and in terms of music? “Nothing in terms of music. Our stuff is authentic, but I can’t find anything authentic here. Sorry.”

Ali's last published interview. From fRoots 273, March 2006


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