Tag Archives: mali

Supreme Talent Show


Supreme Talent Show, Facebook

Supreme Talent Show is a Malian duo, Mèlékè Thiathio and MC Waraba. Their music is hard to classify, at least in recognizable Western terms (which may suggest how far the international music scene lags behind). It’s bass heavy and the bpms are frantic and infused with movement. This isn’t accidental – this is the music of a generation who grew up in the shadow of Balani Show neighborhood sound systems.

In the late 90s, when Balani Shows became the rage in Bamako, DJs began experimenting with samplers and CDJs to recreate Balafon style village parties in the capital. The innovation was both artistic and economical. A full Balafon outfit was expensive to rent and heavy to assemble. CDJs and speakers were much easier. A class of DJs rose to prominence providing signature remixes, soundtracking the festivities. The Balani Show parties gave way to a new genre of music known as “Ambience,” or the ambient dance music that could be played during the Balani Show. Around the same time, Hip Hop was securing a foothold in Mali with influences of American Hip Hop, but equally that of the Parisian suburbs. It is no coincidence that Bamada City and RHHM, the largest promoters of Malian Rap, are both based in France.


Luka Production in studio, 2012

Today in Bamako there are a plethora of studios producing Hip Hop. The top and most well known is Sidiki Diabate, with his flourish of kora and pitch bending keyboards (and producing exclusively with Iba One), to Pap Junior, and Luka Productions. While the majority of Malian Hip Hop is unique, much is hyper modern, with punchy beats, slick crashes, and lightning fast rap. Some of it exists in a conscious defiance against ancient musics, made for the club; quite a lot of draws heavily on tradition. Supreme prides themselves on the latter: “We chose this name because we know that we have the Talent to show that our culture is the best, with Djembe, Bala[fon], and Tama. Supreme because we leave all the others behind. And we have the talent to make people move when we make a [Balani] Show.”

The high energy dance music of groups like Supreme fall somewhere between the old school Balani Show remixes of the late 90s and the new generation of synthesizer slick Battle Rap of the Sahel (they refer to their style as “human rights”). Listening to the music, it’s easy to hear transnational influences of Kuduro, Coupe Decale, and Hip Hop. While Angolan Kuduro is an established scene, the “ambience” music of groups like Supreme lie outside of the mainstream, even in Bamako. With only a handful of groups creating in this vein, it’s more akin to an electronic music subculture in the West than representative of a full fledged scene – a branch of youth culture at the fringes, like in Chicago, Berlin, or Istanbul – just much smaller. In Bamako, the fusion of ancient and modern seems to be a the driving force, with a seemingly limitless potential and deep musical history to pull from. Although it may not be live, balafons cut into samples, triggered on a keyboard, and tracked in Fruityloops, the sounds suggest a new tradition.

Featured previously on Balani Show Super Hits, the first full release from Supreme Talent Show “Danbe” is now available at bandcamp and on a limited edition cassette. The cover design is an original work from the original photoshop king, Bamako based Prinsco Production.

* Special thanks to Midnight Ravers, a French duo who recently were in Mali working with Supreme Talent Show, among others for a collaborative music and art project – and who have contributed photos and a bonus track on the digital download, Koroni Foli!

lack of better words


Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud, photo by Ibrahim Ag Aminy

Isswat, for lack of a better word, is what people have the habit of calling this particular music from the desert. It’s a style that like many things, seems to be localized and specific to one particular region of the world – a tiny circle of Azawad, North of Mali, in the Adrar D’Ifoghas. The Adrar is desert, but instead of the Sahara of dunes, it is a landscape of vast open sky, wiry bushes and twisted trees scattered across a surface of parched earth. There are low mountains, rendered spectacular in the otherwise planar landscape. In comparison, they seem enormous. It is nothing like the mountains of Air with mountaintop villages and citrus filled oases, but there is a rugged beauty to the emptiness and repeated motifs that you can name and comprehend – seven types of tree, three types of bush, three type of wild animal, four directions. But innumerable starlight.

Isswat comes from here (I’ve spoken of the music before 1, 2) Musically it consists of what a friend calls “the four elements”: singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. There is always a woman singing a melody that dances over a constant droning hum that is maintained by a group of young men, each picking up the spaces when the other one takes a breath.

There are few recordings of Isswat. Perhaps some exist in archives somewhere. Two very unique recordings, certainly the only studio recordings of Isswat, were made at a small studio in Kidal in 2008. They were released on cassette and CD, sold locally in Kidal, and distributed via mp3 on memory cards and cellphones. A few years ago, the first cassette by Idassane Wallet Mohamed was reissued. This is the second one – recorded by a young woman from Adrar, Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud.

This time, we were able to translate the songs, courtesy of Ibrahim Ag Mouhamadine, a Tamashek speaker and Portland resident, and researcher Nadia Belalimat. Translation is an art, and nowhere is that more apparent than translating from a distinctly different culture. My contribution was clarifying some words and cleaning up grammar. Since there is no objective translation, these err on literality, and may read as cumbersome. They demand a certain acceptance, a willingness to be baffled and confused, and suggest the path to profound understanding is not just in language, but culture itself.

In one case, we struggled with the translation “tarha n ibliss” which literally translates to “love of the devil.” In Tamashek, this is the term for romantic love, as opposed to the “pure” love for one’s family. However, calling it simply “romantic” would be stripping away all of the structure and poetry of language. In the end, the translation reads as “devil’s love,” so as not to confuse the reader that the singer is praising the devil. Such are the difficulties of translations.

Translation booklet available here.

One thing is sure – the songs here are all about love, and are full of the passions and follies of romance. However, while it is easy to envision these songs as archaic poems of the desert with imagery evoking tradition, they are firmly contemporary. There are lines that compare beauty to a Toyota 4×4. There are lyrics that compare love to Kalashnikovs. Heroism and power are illustrated by comparisons to the “Americans who came looking for Saddam Hussein”.

I’ve written before about the two worlds, that of the small cities and villages and that of the bush. There are vast differences between the city and the bush, but my interpretation has always been filtered through the lens of language – the cities, with French speakers that I can understand, the bush with Tamashek speakers that I cannot. It is clearly more complicated than a division of language. But there is certainly a two world dichotomy at play. In the global movement of people from rural to urban lives, there is no more striking example than trading a nomadic tent for a house. There are too many differences between the city and bush to name, but suffice to say that in the camps, there are no guitars. There is only music, or for lack of a better word, isswat.

The reissue of Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud’s 2008 cassette is now available on bandcamp and vinyl.

head dance

Group Mamelon is a Malian Balani Show outfit taking their name from a hill in Sikasso. Koumba FriFri is one of their more popular tracks, recorded in 2010 is an ancient song, updated for the electro age. It translates to “the head dance.” The video, like the song, was mostly distributed via cellphones in 3gp format, hence the low-res quality. I’ve re-dubbed the sound for maximum listening. Recommended viewing is on miniature screen.

Of the modern Malian music in heavy rotation, Mamelon is a few groups combining traditional themes and rhythms with a insanely fast paced sample based music making. Malian rap dominates the Mali soundscape today, making the groups like Mamelon, Supreme Talent Show, and Kaba Blon standout amongst the synthed out club banging Bambara Hip Hop found on sites like Bamada-City.

Koumba Frifri is featured on the Balani Show LP and has also been issued in a limited split 7″ with a bass heavy, chopped and screwed remix by Gulls from Boomarmnation, available here and at the Sahel Sounds shop.

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