Desert musical classics

It’s a long way from Mali to the Mississippi, but the musical distance is not as great as you might think. Richard Knight journeys to the source of the blues

Friday night is party night in Bamako. Across the city, on dusty back-streets, under the ever-starry Malian sky, sweating smiling crowds converge on one-room concrete music joints where, beneath a single ceiling fan, they press onto the dance-floor. Flag beer flows and the music roars.

These days, in the thick of the throng, you might see a red-faced Frenchman pogo past a reeling, beaming Brit. That's because the secret's out. Malian music is about as good as it gets; a rocking, eccentric, irresistible blend of electric guitars and hollowed-out gourds.

You don't have to navigate Bamako back streets to find Malian music. Stars like Salif Keita and Amadou & Mariam tour Europe often. And the musical exchange goes both ways: Ry Cooder, Corey Harris and Damon Albarn have all recorded in Mali with Malian musicians. But the connection between American, European and West African music is far older – and darker – than that. The fusion came about amid the grinding poverty of old New Orleans and on the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta. It happened about a hundred years ago.

By the mid-18th century, British ships carried 40,000 slaves a year from Africa to the New World. Other European nations traded with comparable efficiency; merchants from France, Holland, Portugal, Spain and Denmark scoured the west coast of Africa in search of men and women to sell to colonial landowners in the Caribbean, Spanish-controlled South America and the United States.

Buyers in America considered slaves from the area they knew as "Senegambia" to be more civilised than the rest. But beyond that simple-minded distinction, slaves were thrown together on ships and on plantations regardless of where they came from. That bringing together of disparate African traditions is one reason why, in the American South, a musical cauldron was created in which jazz and blues would eventually be brewed. While modern jazz and blues developed from a mix of many influences, and particular socio-economic conditions, there are a number of elements which were placed in that cauldron by those wretched slaves.

Along Africa's west coast, "griots" or "jalis" would sing alone with stringed instruments to deliver half-sung, half-stated monologues. They were entertainers and historians. Their stringed instruments included the kora, similar to a lute, and the halam, which evolved into the banjo. This marriage of voice and string, and their use of pitch and tone to heighten emotion, have clear echoes in blues.

In his book Deep Blues, Robert Palmer explains that many African tribes at that time used languages in which words had several meanings, depending on their pitch. Rising emotion was often expressed through falling pitch; "blue notes", of flattened thirds and fifths, are used in jazz and blues . There are clear echoes of "call and response" – a feature of communal African music – in American work songs and gospel music; and African-style drumming, it's thought, gave jazz its defining feature: syncopation.

The final catalyst for the fusion which created jazz was cultural – the coming together of black and Creole musicians in New Orleans. The quadrille, mazurka and schottische merged with the cadences, harmonies and, above all, syncopation which had been carried to the New World in the heads of slaves.

Blues grew from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, where slave music was at first tolerated by plantation owners. But drums and horns were used to organise rebellion and were eventually removed. Those slaves had only their bodies, their voices and clapped rhythms, with which to make music.

Not all music scholars accept the argument that jazz and blues are built on the music of African slaves. Some point to the long gap between the arrival of slaves and the emergence of jazz and blues as distinct art forms. And it's certainly true that some elements of blues – not least the 12-bar format – are not found in African music.

But it seems to me to be beyond doubt that jazz and blues would not exist as we know them had African slaves not been forced to cross the Atlantic to the United States. Apart from anything else, that grim heritage, and the ferocious racism which followed, gave those unfortunate souls a reason to sing. Blues is nothing if not a way to purge oneself of sorrow.

Whatever the strength of the connection between West African music and that of the Deep South, I felt, standing in that pounding Bamako club, transported by the music far from the broken-up road and open sewer outside, that it's real. I felt that way because I had, years ago, stood in a club with the same vibe.

It was called Po' Monkey's and it was an improvised juke-joint in a falling-down shack at the edge of a huge, flat cotton-field near Merigold, Mississippi. As we rumbled down farm-tracks in search of this forgotten place whose name I'd heard whispered throughout the Delta, we heard it before we saw it. And when we entered we were enveloped by a crowd of joyous faces.

These were people who were determined to have a good time despite the glaring poverty which stalks the sagging shotgun houses of the rural poor in that desolate and beautiful part of the States. Whether, ultimately, musicologists can prove it, there is, I'm sure, a bridge between the music of Mali and the Mississippi Delta. Even if the common thread is no more than the shared need to escape, for just a few hours, when Friday night comes around.

Richard Knight is author of 'The Blues Highway: New Orleans to Chicago', a travel and music guide

Suggested Topics
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower