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
"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