Music Videos and the Effeminate Vices of Urban Culture in Mali

By Schulz, Dorothea E. | Africa, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Music Videos and the Effeminate Vices of Urban Culture in Mali


Schulz, Dorothea E., Africa


A striking recent development in Mali is the rise of extremely successful women singers who dominate the musical programmes of national radio and television and the audio- and video-cassette market. Many of these pop stars belong to a group of professional speakers and praise singers, the jeliw (1) (griots in French (2)), who, in the nineteenth century and until late colonial rule, worked on behalf of wealthy individuals and powerful families for whom they performed various tasks of social mediation and reputation management. Jeli women generally specialised in songs in which they praised and exhorted their successful patrons on public occasions. Jeli men played most of the instruments and recited the local political history and their patrons' genealogies. While women's songs were considered a routine client service, it was first and foremost men's historical knowledge and recitations that invested jeli men with great prestige and prompted generous gifts in recompense.

This distribution of tasks, social recognition and material favours changed substantially with the establishment of Malian national radio in 1957, and even more radically with national television (introduced in 1985). Television and video-cassettes have moved women singers to the front rank. Their songs are constantly heard in the street, in the markets, in shops and in courtyards, and night after night they parade with grandeur in fashionable costumes on the television screens of urban middle-class households. The most successful pop stars regularly give concerts in the capital, Bamako, in other towns and in the concert halls of Europe and the United States. They often receive generous gifts from wealthy admirers and patrons, such as cars, houses, expensive jewellery and airline tickets. To praise a faama, a wealthy or influential person, on broadcast media or in live performance has become a lucrative business (Diawara, 1997; Schulz, 1999).

While the singers draw primarily on the music and oral traditions of the countryside, they are remarkably popular among urban consumers, men as well as women. Urban women in particular, regardless of their socio-economic standing, respond enthusiastically to their performances and claim to truly `care' about the pop stars and their songs because they teach them `moral lessons'. This enthusiasm is echoed in the popular press (e.g. Afro Music, 1976a, b; Duran, 1989; Frossard 1991; Soma 1991) and by some scholars who highlight the significance of the jeli pop singers for African popular culture (e.g. Hale, 1994; Duran, 1995).

In contrast to this overwhelmingly positive response by local audiences and by Western scholars, a number of Malian scholars see the recent success of the pop singers in a less favourable light. They argue that most of the women who have entered national radio and television since the 1970s do not have the thorough historical and musical training from which jeliw of their parents' generation benefited. With broadcast media bringing the musical and visual dimensions to the fore, the spoken word and its message have declined in importance. (3) The authors thus emphasise the erosion of oral tradition by broadcast technology and see a dichotomy between an `authentic' oral tradition that is `faithful to the truth' (Keita, 1995: 190) and its `modern' broadcast version, which is produced for rapid consumption and immediate oblivion, is void of `textual depth' and is thus a `far cry from the old texts' (Diawara, 1997: 44; see also Traore, 2000: chapter 5). They link the songs' alleged loss of quality with what they see as the undermining effects of urban consumer orientation.

Adeleye-Fayemi (1994, 1997) echoes this gloomy view of the social and moral implications of broadcast technology, even though she is concerned with a different genre of popular culture. In her analysis of women's images in Nigerian soap operas she comes to the conclusion that the visual medium serves to represent women as mere objects of male desire, pleasure and dominance. …

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