Located in the West African country of Mali, Timbuktu is more than a sandier version of the mythical Atlantis. After years of Saharan obscurity, the once powerful trading metropolis turned wind-swept ancient ruin is making a cultural comeback. And its triumphant return comes with a soundtrack.
Western musicians have become fascinated with Mali ever since Ry Cooder recorded "Talking Timbuktu" with Ali Farka Toure, a Malian farmer, in 1994. Since then, Living Color's Vernon Reid has worked with vocalist Salif Keita, while Damon Albarn, frontman for the British rock outfit Blur, recently collaborated with Malian musicians on a critically acclaimed CD entitled "Mali Music." Last year, former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant played at Mali's Festival in the Desert, an annual gathering of Sub-Saharan musicians, where he reveled at the opportunity to jam with Farka Toure around a campfire.
The most intriguing musical collaborations are coming from the US, where African-American blues artists are finding strikingly common ground with their West African peers. Blues musician Taj Mahal, for one, has been exploring the common roots between the two traditions since he was a child.
"As a kid, I always felt connected to Africa, it was something I was very proud of," says Mahal. "I was always looking for evidence of these common musical roots, but I was too young to know that what I was doing was called ethnomusicology."
When first introduced to the music of prewar blues artists like the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Lee Hooker, Mahal had a sense that there was something deeper, older in the music.
"They had a sound that indicated it had come from further back," says Mahal. "Their music suggested that it was something that has been passed along."
The connection between Mali and the African-American musical tradition has been recently highlighted in the first installment of filmmaker Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary series "The Blues."
It is quite obvious that several African musical traditions have had a major impact on Western music styles. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, salsa, funk, and hip-hop would not have existed without Africa's influence and genetic pollination. What's intriguing about the Mali connection is that it is so direct and palpable.
In Scorsese's film "Feel Like Going Home," US musician Corey Harris explores possible ancestral links that survived despite hundreds of years of isolation thanks to the slave trade, playing with Malian luminaries Ali Farka Toure and Habib Koite. Upon completion of the film, Harris recorded "Mississsippi to Mali," in which it's sometimes difficult to tell the Mississippi tunes from the Malian traditionals.
Of the musical similarities, Harris remains purposefully vague. "I didn't want to hit anybody over the head with it. It was a natural enough fit, so the music just spoke for itself," says Harris.
For hundreds of years, the music of Mali has been left in the hands of the griots, a social caste of professional musicians whose responsibility is not only entertainment, but also recording the oral history of the people through song. Blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten could be considered transplanted griots, recording the daily goings on of their communities through songs like "Spike Driver's Blues" and "Shake Sugaree."
"The soul of the old [American] blues is the same soul [as] the Bambara people," says Malian singer and guitarist Koite, referencing one of the largest ethnic groups in Mali. Koite comes from a long line of griots and has played with US musicians such as Bonnie Raitt.
In pure musical terms, the two styles share some common characteristics.
"The use of the pentatonic scale isshared, as well as the use of the flat 7th note, or the blue note," says Harris. The fact that traditional Malian music is played primarily with stringed instruments such as the kora (a harplike instrument) and the ngoni (a small lutelike instrument, possibly the precursor to banjo) makes the bond with the guitar-dominated American blues all the more understandable.
More important, there is also a certain attitude in common. Sometime in the late 1970s, Taj Mahal was browsing through the world music section of a record store when he came upon the cover art of an early Ali Farka Toure record.
"He had a certain body posture and a way he held himself that reminded me exactly of the old bluesmen," says Mahal.
While Ali Farka Toure has been dubbed the "African John Lee Hooker," Harris is troubled by the media's attempt to quickly annoint Toure the African king of the blues. "Ali would never call himself a bluesman. He's aware of the blues, but his own tradition is so strong in itself. It's an oversimplification of what he is doing."
The most relevant proof of the shared roots, however comes when American and Malian artists perform together. In an impromptu radio performance in New York City, Mahal found himself jamming with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate. Mahal remembers starting in on the blues traditional "Take This Hammer." Diabate joined in almost immediately, playing an impeccable counterpart to Mahal's guitar.
When Corey Harris played with Farka Toure and others in Mali, he marveled at their ease with the blues progressions.
"They had to show me some of the backing parts to their Malian songs, but on the blues tunes we played, I didn't have to show them one thing."
The Malians have noticed the shift as well. Notes Koite, "African musicians know a lot about American music. But now it's the other way around. They are beginning to know a lot about us. Now we share. I think it can only be good."