Melodic Links between Mali and Mississippi ; Musicians in the US Are Journeying to Mali to Explore Long- Forgotten Musical Connections between the Blues of Mississippi and Sub-Saharan Africa

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Located in the West African country of Mali, Timbuktu is more than a sandier version of the mythical Atlantis. After years of Saharan obscurity, the once powerful trading metropolis turned wind- swept ancient ruin is making a cultural comeback. And its triumphant return comes with a soundtrack.

Western musicians have become fascinated with Mali ever since Ry Cooder recorded "Talking Timbuktu" with Ali Farka Toure, a Malian farmer, in 1994. Since then, Living Color's Vernon Reid has worked with vocalist Salif Keita, while Damon Albarn, frontman for the British rock outfit Blur, recently collaborated with Malian musicians on a critically acclaimed CD entitled "Mali Music." Last year, former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant played at Mali's Festival in the Desert, an annual gathering of Sub-Saharan musicians, where he reveled at the opportunity to jam with Farka Toure around a campfire.

The most intriguing musical collaborations are coming from the US, where African-American blues artists are finding strikingly common ground with their West African peers. Blues musician Taj Mahal, for one, has been exploring the common roots between the two traditions since he was a child.

"As a kid, I always felt connected to Africa, it was something I was very proud of," says Mahal. "I was always looking for evidence of these common musical roots, but I was too young to know that what I was doing was called ethnomusicology."

When first introduced to the music of prewar blues artists like the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Lee Hooker, Mahal had a sense that there was something deeper, older in the music.

"They had a sound that indicated it had come from further back," says Mahal. "Their music suggested that it was something that has been passed along."

The connection between Mali and the African-American musical tradition has been recently highlighted in the first installment of filmmaker Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary series "The Blues."

It is quite obvious that several African musical traditions have had a major impact on Western music styles. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, salsa, funk, and hip-hop would not have existed without Africa's influence and genetic pollination. What's intriguing about the Mali connection is that it is so direct and palpable.

In Scorsese's film "Feel Like Going Home," US musician Corey Harris explores possible ancestral links that survived despite hundreds of years of isolation thanks to the slave trade, playing with Malian luminaries Ali Farka Toure and Habib Koite. Upon completion of the film, Harris recorded "Mississsippi to Mali," in which it's sometimes difficult to tell the Mississippi tunes from the Malian traditionals.

Of the musical similarities, Harris remains purposefully vague. "I didn't want to hit anybody over the head with it. It was a natural enough fit, so the music just spoke for itself," says Harris. …