Tag Archives: mali

balani show takeover

In 2012, I traveled to Bamako to research “Balani Shows,” sound system block parties with a dancehall vibe that feature Malian electronic music. A frequent occurrence throughout residential neighborhoods (particularly during school vacations) I had stumbled across them over the years, but had never paid much attention. Internet research was a dead end, besides a few Youtube videos (though one documentary trailer seems promising). Over a few weeks in Bamako, I met with DJs, scoured the mp3 market for remixes, photographed, filmed, and even threw a few Balani Shows of my own (vimeo link).

A Balani Show is a public street party organized for a myriad of reasons: a birthday, a wedding, a baptism. The mobility means that it often happens right in front of the house. DJs install massive speakers and hundreds of chairs to encircle the “show.” Music begins in the early evening as the block fills up with hordes of seemingly parent-less children wandering about. After a pause for evening prayer, the real Balani Show begins – the little ones pushed aside to make way for the adolescents and teenagers. Dressed in loud combinations of neon hats, dark sunglasses, and colorful sneakers, they come for the spectacle and participation: dance battles, performances, comedians, party games, fashion contests, and some acrobatic, limb twisting, hyper stylized choreography. The MCs direct the action, bouncing about the improvised stage with wireless mics while the DJ cues up tracks with a laptop and Virtual DJ. Balani Shows play danceable, high energy music – Coupé Décalé, Kuduro, and Hip Hop. But most of the music is Malian. Samples of Balafons cut up over pounding electronic beats, recognizable Malian hits remixed as unofficial bootlegs, and fast paced Bambara rapping over insane djembe rhythms. For some reason, there are lots of samples of bells and whistles.

In fact, the music of the Balani Show – colloquially known as “Balani Show” or “Ambience” – hints at the origin of the party. While many individuals lay claim to the creation, the Balani Show as music style seems to have emerged around the late 90s/early 2000s. Balanis (literally “little Bala” or “little Balafon”) had long been organized in the villages, particularly in Southern Mali. These village parties were much the same in style, but instead of DJs, featured electrified Balafons. But Balafons and Balafon players were expensive. The same DJs who rented out sound systems began to offer a cheaper alternative, Balani Show sans Balafon at a fraction of the cost, playing prerecorded Balafon music from cassettes. The phenomena caught on, and soon someone introduced a pair of CD turntables. With this latest innovation, DJs had a new ability – to remix and compose their own tracks, updating Malian music and overdubbing it with the signature Coupé Décalé rhythm (check this amazing digital compilation of Balani Show remixes) Using rhythm boxes and samplers, these “Balani Show” creations began to circulate – informing a new style of electronic music, a sort of “Malian Coupé Decalé” founded in the origins of traditional Malian Balafon.

Today the “Balani Show” continues to evolve and mutate into something new. While in Bamako, I saw many CDJs gathering dust and it appeared that many if not all DJs have switched to laptops, the preferred tool for performances. The task of remixing has been handed off to an army of anonymous bedroom DJs and producers, songs loaded and distributed by cellphone and PC. Any number of these “megamixes” can be found at cellphone markets, or playing on the radio. But most interestingly, the Balani Show phenomena has spawned innumerable new musics by a generation that grew up under the sound system. These homegrown productions sample Balafons and have that distinct sound of the remix – but they are original creations, not remixes. Songs are sung in Bambara and are based on traditional rhythms. While this new music is undoubtedly modern, like the Balani Show parties it too pays homage to an ancient tradition. It reveals a different narrative of the old vs new – and suggests that maybe the best way to preserve culture is by reinventing it, keeping it modern and relevant in a faster world.


The new Balani Show Super Hits compilation includes music from over a decade of Balani Show – from early musicians like DJ Bamanan and DJ Balani to the contemporary stars like Kaba Blon and Supreme Talent Show (both whose tracks were produced by the Sidiki Diabate, son of the legendary Toumani Diabate). The vinyl available at the shop, as well as through bandcamp. It doesn’t come with liner notes or photos, but with a glossy digital low-fi jacket that lies closer to what I imagine it would look like if it were released in Bamako. If you want to play it for that distinctly Malian feel, a very loud volume is recommended.

*For more info see my “Global Ear: Bamako” piece in Wire Magazine #342

medium and the message

Super Onze – Gao

Around the fall of Gao in 2012, I met a cassette vendor in Niamey’s grand market. For years he has sat on a bench in a busy corridor with stacks of cassettes and an array of simultaneously spinning duplicators. One of a few vendors left in a vanishing trade, a steady clientele of old men maintain the fledging business. Recorded live on tape decks, dubbed and re-dubbed, they vary in quality from slight tape hiss to degraded into a magnetic distortion. The aquamarine semi-translucent tapes are packaged in plastic cases with recycled paper j-cards. Some of them bear handwritten description, some with fine stencils, more often marked simply with symbols, as if in a secret codex.

Nearly all the cassettes are Takamba.

In the 1980s and into the 90s, Takamba rose to prominence. Empowered by newly amplified instruments, griots toured throughout Mali and Niger and takamba music and its ghostly dance became a signature of the Sahel. And then came the guitar. Circulating in the underground cassette trade, the revolutionary anthems and homesick ballads spread across the diaspora – first as strictly revolutionary discourse but soon becoming expression of popular culture. By the late 90s, guitar music found itself in respectable company, in weddings, political campaigns, and even state sponsored soirees. Takamba drifted out of fashion, retreating to its home in Gao and the sleepy Songhoi villages alongside the lazy river.

Takamba (previously), with the raw shrill guitar and the clattering percussion, continues to be played today. But most often, today’s experience is through the format of the cassette and the hundreds of sessions, recorded years ago, dubbed and re-dubbed, in disintegrating reproduction. The slightly muddied sound and persistent hush of white noise, temper the clatter and crash and buzz – defining a new signature – the Takamba cassette. The old ghosts dance under the stars, blaring out of a boombox of the shopkeeper, shaking the dying embers of that third and final tea, as the town drifts off into sleep.

Super Onze de Gao * was, and is, a Takamba super group (more info here). One of the most prolific Takamba outfits, its membership has including stars such as Douma Maiga and Yehia Samaké. One of the highlights found in the market, a cassette recorded sometime in the early 90s, has recently been pressed into vinyl. As the group never had released an official cassette, we indulged in a bit of creative indulgence to re-envision what such a release may have looked like, with screen printed covers featuring hand-drawn artwork – as the session plays with that slight background hiss of the tape, a tribute to the cassette. Available in 500 limited edition vinyl at the Sahel Sounds shop (or your local record retailer) and bandcamp.

*Super Onze is also the name of the Brazilian-dubbed version of Japanese anime show based on a Nintendo DS game Inazuma Eleven, owing to some confusion on Google.

Tuareg Drone

There are two worlds in the Northern country. If there is any global access to Tuareg culture, it is a window into the city life: the Tuareg who live in places like Kidal, ride motorcycles, swap songs on their cellphone, and dance at the guitar soirees. But outside of the islands of infrastructure, there is another world, a way of living impossible even to the inhabitants of the city. Nomadic families are scattered across the desert, living under tents, surrounded by herds of animals that are both possessions and sustenance. Amongst the majority of families, there is no money, no electricity, no cellular phones, no transport except for your feet. There is, needless to say, no guitar. Conditions in the dry season are difficult and food is sparse. Then finally, Orion disappears from the evening sky for 40 days, and soon the rains come.

The rainy season of the Northern deserts of Mali and Southern Algeria are a time of meeting and celebrations. Nomadic families usually spread out over the parched scrubland gather around the seasonal and intermittent water holes. The animals grow fat and give enough milk to drink to exhaustion. Clothes are cleaned from months of dust and sand and children bath freely in the lakes. Every night, the air is filled with chanting and clapping as the youth play isswat.

Isswat is characterized by singing with a vocal drone. Much like the families who subsist on nearly nothing, the music is sparse and composed of few elements: voice, clapping, stomping, and the drumming on bowls or water drums. The single note drone is accomplished by a circle of men who maintain a low vocal humming while a woman vocalist sings a melody that dances over signature rhythms. (see previously)

For those familiar with Tuareg music, there is something eerily familiar to the guitar based desert rock that has come to define the folk style. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that this was the inspiration for ishumar guitar – rebel fighters in Libyan camps sought to recreate the sound of their far away home, and adapted isswat to the guitar. The guitar melody was created to mimic the female singer, the droning low note of the bass string as the vocal hum.

This recording of Idassane Wallet Mohammed was made in Kidal, Mali in 2008. The Tuareg run studio “Maison de Luxembourg” produced a handful of CDs and cassettes sold in Kidal (It has since been looted and destroyed by the Islamists who briefly occupied the town). The recordings stand out as professional/local Tuareg productions. They are love songs, songs that speak of nomadic life, songs that reference Adrar and local geography. Today, while the guitar music may reign supreme in towns like Kidal, the nomads live in world apart. Isswat is the real music of the desert.

The record is available now from the shop or via bandcamp – a collaboration w/ Mississippi Records. We’ve made 500 of them with handmade covers, a homage to the some of the motifs of Tuareg design.

Below is a video of Idassane Wallet Mohamed performing. Currently she is near the border of Algeria.