Films of Growing into Music in Mali and Guinea

Da Kali - the pledge to the art of the griot 


This film, shot on location between 2009 and 2012, follows the children of four celebrated jeli (griot) families in southern Mali as they face the challenges of learning the ancient art of the griot in the 21st century. It is the first time that the process of childhood music learning in Mali has ever been documented. A film by  Lucy Durán, edited byMichele Banal.

Just turned twelve, Rokia Kouyaté is determined to learn the lyrical style of her famous grandfather the singer Kasse Mady Diabaté, and performs at noisy wedding parties, and for a popular television competition. Precocious Thierre Diarra at the age of four is already on the path to becoming a virtuoso on the jembe, following in the footsteps of his father Adama. Ten year-old Salif Diabaté, nephew of kora master, Toumani Diabaté, struggles to fit kora lessons into his busy school schedule, but begins to improve dramatically over a school holiday. And seven year-old Saran Kouyaté and her younger sister, the five year-old Ami, are taught songs by their grandmother, the charismatic and fiery Bako Dagnon, considered one of the great master-singers of Mali.  Her ideas about passing on her musical knowledge are rooted in the rural traditions of the remote village where she was born and raised,  Golobladji – where her extended family continue to sing the hauntingly beautiful songs of the countryside.

Da Kali is the first of two Growing into Music films on Mali. It shows how factors such as urban living, globalisation, and the lack of institutional support for music, are impacting on the transmission by Mande jelis of their art across generations. But it also highlights the determination of both elders and children to celebrate their art and keep it alive – only a few months before political upheaval threatened the very existence of music in the country. 

Part 2 Dò farala a kan: something has been added

This film looks in more detail at ideas around what constitutes musical progress. Our guide in the film is Lassana Diabaté, a virtuoso jeli (griot) who comes from a long line of balafon players in Guinea, now living in Bamako.  We follow the musical progress of children in two prestigious extended families of jelis, representing two distinctive regional traditions: the balafon (xylophone) of Niagassola across the border in Guinea, and the ngoni (lute) of Segou

Chapter 1 spends time with the families of El Hadj Sekou Kouyaté, the custodian of the Sosso Bala, declared a UNESCO Masterpiece of Intangible Oral Heritage in 2001, and reportedly dating from the time of the founding of the Mali Empire in the early 13th century AD.

El Hadj Kouyaté’s son Fantamady, like many balafon players, is an expert guitarist; while another son, Janguiné, is a singer. Both are settled in Bamako where they have busy careers as musicians, and both are concerned to pass on the tradition of balafon to their young children, who show a special interest in learning, but there are many distractions and talent is not always the key to progress. A visit to Niagassola by three of the Kouyaté grandsons highlights some of the tensions between town and country living, but their pride in their special connections to the Sosso Bala shines through.

Chapter 2 visits the extended family of Bassekou Kouyaté, innovative and virtuoso player of the ngoni, whose international success has given him another perspective on his Bamana tradition from Segou. Although the ngoni plays a central role in the lives of this family, the focus is on how the many Kouyaté girls, aged four upwards, learn the art of song and dance, in both Bamako and Garana, a village in Segou province where Bassekou grew up and where most of his family still live. In Garana, we watch the girls learning to sing such major pieces from the Bamana repertoire as Da Monzon, and see them play at the vibrant handclapping songs, the tegere tulon, that are fast disappearing, and were once a major creative force in the lives of Mali’s musicians.

The Voice of Tradition: Bako Dagnon and her Family

(winner of the AHRC Anniversary Award for the best AHRC/AHRB-funded film since 1998)

AHRC Judges’ comment: “A very assured piece of work, engaging, entertaining and interesting from start to finish.”

On July 7, 2015, Mali lost one of its most iconic and revered singers, Bako Dagnon, aged only 62. She was not well known outside the country, despite two international CD releases,  but at home she was feted by everyone from Mali’s presidents to the humblest farmers and taxi drivers.  Musicians such as Ali Farka Touré and Rokia Traoré were inspired by her voice, which was not only beautiful, but carried great authority. Bako transcended politics and regional styles; she represented the last of the old school of hereditary musicians, who learned her skills and knowledge with the elders, face to face. 

Between 2009-2012, the 'Growing into Music in Mali' film team were extremely fortunate to film this wonderful singer at her home in Bamako, as well as in her remote native village, Golobladji. Some of these scenes can be seen in 'Da Kali - the pledge to the art of the griots', from which this shorter film, 'Bako Dagnon - the voice of tradition', is extracted. It gives many candid and unique insights into oral transmission as it was decades ago in rural Mali. Bako explains and demonstrates her ideas and philosophy about passing on musical skills and knowledge to the next generation, and we see several of her granddaughters learning and performing. The film includes rare footage of the sansene in Golobladji – a tradition of songs sung to encourage farmers in their laborious work in the fields during the rainy season – one of the main contexts in which young children learn to sing. 

© Lucy Durán, Nicolas Magriel, Geoff Baker 2011