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Sory Bamba, Mali’s ‘unsung’ music legend

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Malian musician Sory Bamba could have become a star of the African scene like his compatriots Ali Farka Touré or Salif Keïta. But in today’s Mali, not many people know him.

Elsewhere, he is almost unknown.

For around 50 years, Bamba has been a modernizer of what he calls “Dogon country music”.

“Bamba is one of the greatest musicians in Mali,” says keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck.

This other Malian virtuoso, who knows him well, remained in the shadows for a long time, before achieving international recognition after a 30-year career.

But Bamba, “.. is not someone who puts himself forward,” adds the 67-year-old jazzman. “It’s rare to see musicians of this stature with such humility and such a willingness to always look for the real music, not the one that sells”.

The 82-year-old, who spends most of his days surrounded by his grandchildren and chickens in the courtyard of his house in his hometown of Mopti, nicknamed the “Venice of Mali”, has been a forerunner for himself and others.

“When I had Ali Farka (Touré) play guitar here, many people didn’t agree with this kind of rhythm,” he recalls.

Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) was then only in his early twenties and was a driver. He then went to Bamako to work at the national radio, before becoming one of the most famous musicians in Africa.

“And he was here, in this same house,” now smiles Sory Bamba, before taking out his flute without warning and starting to play, always passionate. “Without music, it’s over. And there’s so much left to do,” he says.

– Trumpet player –

For Sory Bamba, born in 1938, it all started under the French colony, at the end of the 1940s, when a friend offered a six-hole flute.

The little “talibé” (a student of a Koranic school) of the time, with the destiny of a marabout, radically changes his path: it will be music.

With his friends, he stretches out goat skins to make tam-tams, transforms tin cans into maracas and starts singing.

At first modest “trumpet bearer” for a local musician, he seizes the instrument, learns to play it, then quickly gives up odd jobs to devote himself to his passion.

At the dawn of his 20th birthday, in 1957, he created his first group, which quickly became popular among the young people of Mopti.

His formation became “Kanaga de Mopti”, named after a ceremonial mask that among the Dogon people evokes the creative God Amma.

After independence in 1960, the group made a name for itself in Mali by taking part in major musical competitions in Bamako, open to all regions of this immense country, set up to forge a national identity.

– From the bush to funk –

For years, the conductor of the Kanaga orchestra also scours the flooded plains of the Niger River, the famous cliff of Bandiagara, in the heart of the Dogon Country, the Fulani camps…

“His role was to find young talents, he often went into the bush to find them,” says his son, Bamoussa Bamba.

A unique fact, Sory Bamba obtained the approval of the elders to play the music of the Dogon ceremonies.

The musician and conductor mixes latin-jazz, funk and folk orchestrations with this ancestral tradition. His group is sometimes nicknamed the “Malian Pink Floyd”.

“Anything that doesn’t evolve is bound to disappear and Sory Bamba has always evolved by trying to make innovative music,” says Koko Dembélé, 66, a master of Malian reggae who was recruited at the age of 18 as solo guitarist and singer of “Kanaga de Mopti”.

If he is a “unifying musician”, according to Cheick Tidiane Seck, Sory Bamba is also trying his luck as a soloist in Côte d’Ivoire, then in France.

He released some LPs, including his reference album “Du Mali”, at the end of the 1970s, but the years passed and international success did not really happen.

In 2010, the wind finally seems to be turning when, at the turn of a Parisian concert, Universal offered him a contract and an album at the age of 72.

But “Dogon Blues” will not be as successful as expected and the old musician, who lived in France, returns home to Mopti.

His children, who find him “tired”, want him to stop playing music. But as soon as a kid passes by, he starts humming with him. “To pass on,” he repeats.