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Galerie Magnin A Malick Sidibé MS.24.1.1 (taille
Photography Karen Paulina Boswell

The Mali band that changed the face of world music

These photographs tell the story of the African and Latin musicians that blended together Malian sounds with Cuban rhythm during the time of decolonisation and Fidel Castro

There’s nothing quite like a swinging 60s coming of age tale, better yet a snapshot of ‘Swinging Bamako’, Mali’s capital and a group of young musicians that made their mark on both African and Latin music.

Known for their musical prowess, a young group of Malians set sail for Cuba to study the fundamentals of musical theory; Malick Sidibé’s work captures the group’s story of adventure, creativity, and cultural fusion. As part of the “Africa Pop” section of the Arles Photography Festival, Las Maravillas de Mali’s unique history will be exhibited from 4 July to 25 September.

The exhibition’s curator Richard Minier was drawn to the story because of the unique set of events that set the group on its musical awakening. He says: “The adventure of the Maravillas de Mali was unlike any other. They were the first west-African musicians to have access to such complete and rounded musical training. They were the first to write music, and they had all of Africa and the Caribbean dancing in the early 1970s with their song ‘Rendez‐vous chez Fatimata’, which was one of the biggest African hits in the time of independence.”

“The only band to sing in Spanish, Bambara and French. Mingling Cuban influences and traditional Malian sounds, they define that which is now known as world music” – Richard Minier

Set against the backdrop of decolonisation, preceding the authoritarianism which would grip the country for the next 23 years, the photographs chronicle the group as they tour Cuba’s universities and sugar plantations. Las Maravillas de Mali famously fused together the musical styles of their native land and the rhythm and percussion of their adoptive country and left a deep impression in the time of Castro, Che Guevara and revolution. “They become stars,” Minier adds. “The only band to sing in Spanish, Bambara and French. Mingling Cuban influences and traditional Malian sounds, they define that which is now known as world music.”

As students who travelled all the way to paradise and became great musicians, they also become the only African ‘afro-Cuban’ band to have studied and recorded in Havana for seven years. The photographs document the relations between African countries which, after colonialism formed a distinctly African type of socialism, known as “third-way socialism”, involving exchanges and contacts between non-aligned countries in a time of international solidarity.

But, setting aside the unique geopolitical climate, what really brings the story to life is the spirit of the disinhibited youth who really just wanted to listen to music and party, dancing at “arrosages” (parties) in the “maquis” (open air bars).

Minier adds: “Contemporary Malian photographers like Sibidé, Sakaly and Diakité show this post-colonial youth which is itching to swing, to dress up, to show off and to live a sort of African movida. This really comes through in their photos showing how every night people got their records out, put together a sound system as best they could and improvised a party.”

Swinging Bamako will be exhibited at the Arles Photography Festival from 4 July to 25 September