A to Z of world music

The success of guitarist Djelimady Tounkara in this year's Radio 3 World Music Awards threw Mali, in West Africa, into the full glare of the spotlights, but the invasion of Europe and America by that country's thriving music industry has long been in full swing.

If you want to know why, listen to Djelimady's debut album Sigui (LBLC 09743), which he released two years ago, when well on in his fifties. This is a fine reflection of his subtly inflected style and his predilection for acoustic sound: strings and voices ride serenely over the lightest of percussion. But it isn't ethnically "pure": when Djelimady started his career, it was under the influence of Chuck Berry and the Cuban music which flooded into post-war West Africa: the art he's refined over the years, as lead guitarist with Bamako's Rail Band, is an amalgam from both sides of the Atlantic.

But nothing could be purer than his roots. For Djelimady is a jeli - a member of that hereditary caste of musicians also known as griots - which means that his music can be traced back to its origins in the medieval Mande Empire. The jeliya art, which deals in praise and proverbs, has always had as its instrumental foundations the ngoni lute, the wooden xylophone called the balafon, and the harp-like kora. The guitar, enthusiastically embraced by West African musicians in the 1940s, is now the jelis' fourth trademark instrument.

A jeli is a musical bard, a family counsellor, and an official historian: his inherited status is at once an honour and a stigma, embodying its own hierarchy with strict rules governing who may demand obeisance - or money - from whom. Women jelis - jelimusolu - have a no less important function, presiding at weddings and naming ceremonies. Listen to the great women jelis such as Sira Mory Diabate, Kade Diawara, or Kandia Kouyate (La dangereuse). The latter, plus female stars Oumou Sangare and Yayi Kanoute, is to be heard on Banning Eyre's compilation In Griot Time (STCD1089), which accompanies his revelatory new book (Serpent's Tail pound;10.99) of the same name. Read that, and you'll want to hop on the next plane to Bamako.

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