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While Mali struggles with political turmoil and violence, its musicians have been finding an audience in the U.S. Large numbers of Malian performers have appeared on D.C. stages lately: This Saturday night singer/guitarist Sidi Toure appears at Artisphere, while on Sunday the “Festival in the Desert II” brings Mali’s Mamadou Kelly and Leila Gobi to Tropicalia along with Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. City Paper spoke with Toure by phone through a translator and with Gobi via email and translator. Both musicians speak and sing in French and multiple Malian languages.
Sidi Toure has been singing and playing Songhai-style guitar in Mali since the 1980s but only gained attention stateside when Chicago label Thrill Jockey released his album Sahel Folk in 2011. Toure comes from the northern Mali town of Gao, which was once overtaken by the Islamic fundamentalists but has since been freed. He now lives in the capital city of Bamako and explains that this is “not because of the issues that happened but because there are better opportunities for artists there.”
Toure is currently touring in support of his latest album Alafia, which, he notes, “was recorded largely in France at a very nice studio with a good sound technician… My first one [with Thrill Jockey] was recorded with local equipment and not even in an actual studio.” Alafia, which means “peace” in Bambara, was created during the political unrest, and mixes Toure-penned songs like “La Paix (Peace)” with adaptations like “Waayey (The Butcher),” an homage to Malian butchers. No matter the subject matter, Toure’s sometimes droning stringwork and low vocals sound most effective when he duets with the high-pitched tones of Leila Gobi, who also appeared on his 2012 album Koima.
Although Toure recorded Alafia in style, he still struggles with a number of issues. He can only afford to bring one musician, ngoni player Abdoulaye Kandiafa Kone, with him on tour. He also says that while he dreams of establishing a school to teach young Malians to play traditional instruments, he has no money to do so. He worries that without such facilities the culture will be lost.
In addition to singing with Toure, Gobi has backed singer Khaira Arby, led her own band since 2010, and released two albums in Mali. Raised in the rural town of Menaka, she says that when the extremists came in, she and her loved ones fled. “We went to Bamako,” she says. “There was too much violence. It was hell.” Gobi now lives in Bamako, where she attended the Institute of Arts and played guitar, balafon, and the Tamacheq tinde, a goatskin covered percussion instrument. She’s currently recording her third album in Bamako and Saugerties, N.Y. When asked about her writing process, she says, “I compose practically all my songs. I sing about malnutrition, injustice, peaceful dialogue, education, women’s rights.” Her musical accompaniment is often trance-like and feels bluesy to a Western ear, with her high-pitched vocals buzzing overtop.
Despite their challenges, the musicians share a belief that things can work out for their fellow countrymen. Noting the nation’s recent election, Toure says “I see a promising future now with this president…We need peace to have development.”
Sidi Toure performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at Artisphere’s Dome Theatre, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. $15
Festival in the Desert II with Mamadou Kelly, Leila Gobi and Noura Mint Seymali takes place on Sunday, Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at Tropicalia, 2001 14th St. NW. $10