From Mali, With Love

26 September 2023
By Erica Helgerud ’20
Malian musical group Bamako Fòli
Photo by Erica Helgerud ’20

As soon as drums sounded in Chérif Keïta’s classroom, every other French class in the building came to the door to watch. “Everyone was on their feet dancing,” Keïta says. “Carleton is second to none when it comes to bringing artists to campus and truly valuing them.”

The performers of the hour are Bamako Fòli, a trio from Mali invited to Carleton this spring by Keïta and visiting professor Rainer Polak. Polak, who conducts ethnomusicology research in Mali and has performed with Bamako Fòli since the 1990s, calls its members “culture bearers”—and for good reason. They each have a self-appointed responsibility to keep Malian traditions alive.

“We are the guardians of this music,” djembe player Drissa Koné says. “Culture can disappear so easily. We want to preserve Malian culture so it is clearly recognizable.”

Koné, konkoni player Madou Diakité, and vocalist Oumou Mariko all traveled to Mali’s capital as young musicians to follow their dreams. Now, their group is in such high demand that Malians will change their wedding dates just to book them. Fame, however, is not why they perform. The trio most enjoy the collaborative nature of music, where they can come together with a common purpose.

“It’s beyond music, it’s a way of life,” Mariko says. “When we play together, we have the same heart.”

“We understand each other on the deepest level. That is how we make good music,” Diakité says.

Keïta was overjoyed to bring to Carleton such a skilled group of musicians from the country where he grew up to his class Francophone Literature of Africa and the Caribbean. “You can’t really know anyone until you go to their home,” he says, “so I’ve brought students to Mali and now I’ve brought Mali to my classroom. It’s full circle. I love it.”

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