- Friday, January 18, 2013
In response to the current situation in Mali, Fatoumata Diawara has gathered together over 40 of Mali’s most renowned musicians in a studio in Bamako to record a song and video calling for peace titled "Mali-ko" (Peace / La Paix). Known collectively as Voices United for Mali, the group includes Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Afel Bocoum, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Toure, and others. Watch the video and read the lyrics and their translation here.
About Afel Bocoum
Afel Bocoum, Malian singer and guitarist, follows in the footsteps of legendary musician Ali Farka Touré. Fellow musicians and farmers, both lived in the desert town of Niafunké on the Niger River bend, until Touré's passing, and both shared a deep attachment to their native Sonrai cultural traditions. Bocoum was a member of Touré’s group ASCO for more than 30 years, since the age of 13, and his mesmeric vocals and arrangements will be familiar from his collaborations with Touré on the acclaimed album The Source.
By profession an agricultural advisor, Bocoum has had to divide his time in Mali between music and work. He performed alongside Touré on some of his European tours beginning 1991; his only recording prior to 1999's Alkibar had been for The Source. His own group, featured here on the latter recording, the Niafunké-based Alkibar (meaning, “messenger of the great river” in Sonrai), is well-known locally, but has not traveled abroad, and had never been recorded before. It is the first album ever recorded entirely on location in Niafunké, and devoted purely to local musicians.
Born in 1955 in Niafunké, Bocoum has been immersed in its music since early childhood. “My father, Kodda Bocoum, was the best-known player in the region of the one-string fiddle, the njarka, and of the little lute, the njurkel. These are the two most typical instruments of the Sonrai. They’re powerful instruments, you must be well prepared spiritually to play them, otherwise, they can be dangerous, because they have connections with the spirit world. As a musician, if you don’t approach these instruments in the right way, it can revert back on you. My father is not a griot; he chose music for a profession. He specialized in a style of music called Se galarare, a kind of free-rhythm music for wedding celebrations.”
The young Bocoum often accompanied his father when he went to perform at the many all-night wedding parties in the region, learning the songs and beautiful texts of se galarare. This was his musical universe until the age of 13, he was introduced to the more inter-ethnic sounds of Niafunké’s official music troupe, which was blessed with two of Mali’s musical giants.
“There was Ali Farka Touré, who was already a star in Mali by then, and a singer called Harber Maiga. Maiga was a great inspiration to all those who heard him,” says Bocoum. “He would sing Sonrai songs, and Ali would play the guitar. They were a magical combination. Their music filled my head and heart. God only knows where such talent came from, a veritable gift from the heavens. I was only 13, but I spent all my time with them, day and night. I ran all their errands, made their tea, and would trek backwards and forwards from one end of town to the other for anything they wanted.”
It wasn’t long before Touré and Maiga discovered that their young fan had a prodigious voice. “So in 1968—I was still only 13—they invited me to join their troupe, and Maiga took me on as an apprentice. He became like a father to me, he coached me in singing and taught me to compose my own music in Sonrai. He gave me my own style: I call it Arabo-Muslim, but in the “great river” tradition. Maiga died on the March 23, 1983. It was a Friday, a day that marked me forever.”
The very same year that Bocoum joined the troupe, they performed at Mopti, a large market town south of Niafunké on the south bank of the Niger. “ It was the festival of the Semaine des Jeunes [Youth Week]," recalls Bocoum, “a competition between all the regional groups of musicians. I was very surprised, because even though I was so young and inexperienced, Touré and Maiga let me do my own solo song. Ali accompanied me on guitar. I sang a song called ‘He Who Uses the Spear,' about how the Fula were fighting over animals. The public liked it, and that was my debut in the region.”
Bocoum’s real breakthrough came four years later in 1972, when he performed as a solo singer at Mali’s second Biennale (the main national festival competition here every two years from 1970 to 1990, until the over throw of Mali’s second president Musa Traore) and won second prize.
“The ’72 Biennale was held in Bamako, and imagine, I was the only male who entered as soloist. All the other solo singers, without exception, were women. I truly think this was the first time the public had ever seen a male solo singer at a concert, unless it was with an orchestre [dance band].”
“I was lucky to have two great guitarists accompany me: Touré and also Modibo Kouyate (the husband of Jelimuso Tata Bambo Kouyate, and regular accompanist to many of Mali’s greatest singers). I sang a song in Sonrai called Sukabe Mali (Children of Mali). I had a very high voice then—Malians prefer high voices, that’s why they mostly prefer women singers. Mali national radio recorded the song, and they will play it from time to time.”
“I was nervous, because for the first time I saw an audience of 3,000 people. It was at the stadium. Everybody liked it, but the fact is, I couldn’t have won first prize, because I was Sonrai, not Bambara (Mali’s main ethnic group). That’s the way it was in those days in Mali—the Bambara ruled. If you weren’t Bambara, forget it. Luckily, that’s all changed now under our new democracy. But still now, the Sonrai aren’t dominant culturally. Why should this be so? This is something I fight against in my music. The reality is, if you sing in Sonrai, you’re understood all the way from Mopti to Kidal (on the border with the country Niger). Or if you sing in Fula, they’ll understand your music from Mopti to Segou. Or if you sing in Tamashek, the Tuareg will hear you from Lere to Kidal. So, those are the languages I sing in, so that my messages reach all those otherwise forgotten people, scattered through the countryside.”
“You know that ‘Niafunké’ means, in Sonrai, ‘children of the same mother’? Literally, it’s "Nya fo I ye." In Mali, we say that you inherit your ethnicity through your father. But your nobility of character, your moral values, those, you get from your mother. So in Niafunké, since we’re ‘children of the same mother’, we have a duty to sing out those values to our people, in the languages they understand."
Bocoum continued singing with the Niafunké troupe until 1975, when he won a scholarship to study at a government agricultural school in M’Pessoba, near Koutiala in southeast Mali. “I was there for three years, then I finished my studies and began working at Djenne (the famous market town with the ancient Mosque.) I continued to play music, but it was hard, being so far from home. Then my father, who was getting on in years, requested the government to allow me to work in Niafunke, so I could be close to him. Luckily, they accepted.”
“So I went back home in 1980, and did my agricultural work, and also I sang with the Niafunké troupe. I only ever did acoustic music, until in 1982, I was invited to join the Orchestre Diaba Regional, they’re from Timbuktu. I’m still a member of that band.”
Nevertheless, Bocoum prefers acoustic to electric guitar, and the use of traditional instruments like the one string fiddle, to create the most powerful medium for his songs. “I’m a traditionalist, you could say, but I do listen to lots of international music too. My favorites are Jorge Ben Jor from Brazil, Mamadou Doumbia who now lives in Japan, and Salif Keita. I also listen a lot to John Lee Hooker and the Cuban congas player Monguito Santamaria. I have lots of his album. I can also play the Fula flute we call coulou.”
September 1, 1999
Malian singer, guitarist, and Ali Farka Touré protégé Afel Bocoum offers his debut solo set. Time Out London praised his "laissez-faire desert blues ... no harsh electric guitars, no thumping drums, just intricate acoustic patterns on six strings and monochords, and the insistent tapping on an upturned calabash."