Mali’s female musicians refuse to play by the unwritten rules

October 2005 -

Music is Mali's greatest and most important export product. In fact, the sole jewel in the crown of a country where 72% of the population live below the poverty line is its cultural heritage. Performer Rokia Traoré puts it like this: "All we have here is a bit of gold, the Niger river and our music. The Sahara is advancing all the time, so all we will have left is our rich and varied culture."


Madina N'Diaye

Despite the many outside influences, Malian music has always managed to retain its original character. Since time immemorial, the griots and griottes have sung their songs of praise accompanied by traditional African instruments. One of these is the kora, a harp-lute made from a hollow gourd that has 21 strings strung across its neck. The blind female kora player Madina N'Diaye explains: "Many griots are convinced that the kora should only be played by men. They say: Women should sing but should not play any instruments. There are even people who say that I have been punished with blindness because I followed my heart and started playing the kora."

It’s worth pointing out that these days there are other female artists in addition to Madina who don’t play by the unwritten rules. Their stance has led to them being subjected to a barrage of constant criticism. Some have to rehearse in secret, have husbands who forbid them to play or find that relations repeatedly smash up their instruments. They may even be cursed at in the street. All this is the lot of these talented Mali musicians merely because of the life that they have chosen. As their numbers are few, it is doubtful whether they could engineer social change in the short term. However, this unique type of world music is becoming more and more popular internationally, so at least they will not have to leave the stage unheard.