Mali is West Africa’s heart and soul, a country as rich in historical significance as it is blessed by an extraordinary array of sights and cultures. Some of Africa’s greatest empires bequeathed to Mali its most dramatic attractions: the legendary city of Timbuktu and the glorious mudbrick mosque at Djenné are two among many.
There’s almost as much to hear in Mali as there is to see. Mali’s music has taken the world by storm in recent decades, yet it’s anything but a recent phenomenon. For centuries musicians have served as the praise singers and storytellers of Malian society and continue to play an important role.
Mali’s two major music festivals are worth planning your trip around. Essakane, 50km from Timbuktu, hosts the outstanding Festival in the Desert which attracts many of Mali’s best musicians, especially Tuareg groups, and a handful of international groups. In 2011 it is being held from 6th - 8th January so while you probably won't make it this year, you can start planning for next year.
You might just make it to Festival sur le Niger (1st - 6th February 2011). First held in 2005, Ségou’s festival has evolved into one of West Africa’s premier music and cultural festivals.
If you can't visit Mali for the January and February festivals then some of the country's best-loved performers can be found playing most Friday nights in the capital, Bamako. The Mali chapter in our Africa travel guide also has some suggestions:
- Le Diplomate (Route de Koulikoro) - One of the best venues in Bamako, with a classy crowd, a sophisticated set-up and great music. Toumani Diabaté and his Symmetric Orchestra play here many Friday nights. When Toumani’s not in town, his band still takes the stage.
- Wassulu Hôtel (Route de l’Aéroport) - Although she doesn’t appear here as often as she used to, Oumou Sangaré sometimes takes to the stage at her hotel at 9pm on Saturday evenings.
- Moffou - Located 10km southwest of Pont du Roi, this nightclub, owned by the legendary Salif Keita, is really only worth it (and boy, is it worth it!) on the rare Saturday nights when he’s playing.
- Centre Culturel Français (Ave de l’Indépendance) - The CCF’s excellent regular program of events is always worth checking out because all the big names of the Malian music scene make an appearance here at some stage.
- Djembe (Lafiabougou) - This earthy live venue west of the centre may have a seedy feel about it and the sound system is terrible, but it remains one of the best places in Bamako to see live music. It’s mostly up-and-coming local bands with a few Guinean groups. This place really rocks on Friday and Saturday nights into the wee small hours.
Travellers on Thorn Tree have also been discussing live Malian music venues.