Meet the Malian musicians playing on their heritage

The desert nation is a musical hotbed, and its stars are global names. Joe Boyd watched them play on the banks of the Niger
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Bassekou Kouyate's Segu Blue is BBC Radio 3's World Music Album of the Year, the press is full of features about the kora maestro Toumani Diabaté's new release The Mandé Variations, Salif Keita drew raves in the recent African Soul Rebels tour, celebrities, tourists and rock stars flock to northern Mali's Festival in the Desert, and the memory and recordings of music giant Ali Farka Touré still resonate around the world two years after his death.

Malian music is on a high, and a wide variety of its best was on offer at the beginning of February at the Niger River Festival in Ségou, a few hours down the river from Bamako. This was the event's fourth year and, although more and more outsiders are discovering it, the audience remained overwhelmingly local. And no white rock stars got up to jam.

The festival celebrates crafts as well as music, with markets and performances of traditional music and dance during the days and concerts on the riverbank every evening. Locals pay a tenth of the tourist ticket so the shows are packed.

Salif Keita was the great star, the Saturday-night closer, whose songs every Malian knows by heart. Doubly alienated from his royal family, once for being albino then again for choosing the lower-caste career of musician, Keita's powerful voice has brought him to the summit of African music. His Ségou set was louder and more bombastic than any other, but the band was all Malian and full of traditional instruments. The Ségou crowd adored him – yet he stole the show at the recent African Soul Rebels UK tour by going totally acoustic.

Watch footage of Bassekou Kouyate

Earlier on Saturday evening came a triumphant set by Bassekou Kouyate's Ngoni Ba ensemble. The ngoni is the original griot instrument, accompanying praise-singers in royal courts for centuries, if not millennia. It looks too simple for its tasks – four strings around a dowel neck attached to a half-gourd covered in stiff hide – but it is hugely flexible. In Morocco, it generates the funkiest bass lines this side of Bootsy Collins: the rounded neck allows a player to bend a string far beyond what can be done on a guitar. The fingerpicking that most players employ, as well as its size and construction, have led folklorists to call it the forerunner of the banjo.

Kouyate's group has four different ngonis, from tenor to bass, along with percussion, and the leader's wife, Amy Sacko, on vocals. Bassekou took the kind of solos that excited audiences who heard him on tour and on record with Farka Touré and Diabaté. He got a standing ovation from Malians and "toubabs" (white foreigners) alike. It is tempting to imagine Ngoni Ba being equally popular with African audiences and the world music crowd.

Friday's highlight was the appearance of Mali's star of the moment, Mangala. He took to the stage in theatrical fashion, long leather coat and immense scarf billowing behind him, making him look like something out of an African touring company of Nicholas Nickleby. With his bad-boy history of self-destructive behaviour, Mangala has become a kind of Maninka-language Keith Richards, adored in spite of himself.

In Bamako after the festival, some local experts expressed the view that Kouyate's CD would never achieve Mangala-level success at home, despite the fact that they are both graduates of Diabaté's Friday-night jams and that both draw on ancient source material. Lucy Duran, the producer of Segu Blue, suggests ths is because Mangala's Maninka (seven-note scale) music is more familiar in Mali than Bassekou's Bamana (pentatonic) melodies.

But I sense something else at work here: Mangala's CD is full of koras and balafons but the sound is unashamedly modern, with double-tracked vocals and little electronic touches that signal its desire to be heard as pop music. Bassekou's CD does the opposite, sending subtle signals to the Radio 3 audience that it has been made as honestly and acoustically as possible. Thus is the tension between tradition and modernity in Mali manifested.

Festival sur le Niger 2008 was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for 'World Routes', Sundays at 3pm (see radio3/worldroutes