Malian Folk Music- The Sound of the Sahel

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Mali is a West African nation with a rich cultural heritage, and its folk music is an important part of that. The music of the Sahel region is characterized by its use of the kora (a traditional string instrument) and its distinctive rhythms.


Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, bordered by Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. It has a population of 18 million (2015 estimate) and covers an area of 1.24 million square kilometers. The capital city is Bamako. The country’s Official Languages are Bambara, French and Soninke. Islam is the predominant religion.

Malian music is renowned for its griot tradition – hereditary praise-singers who are trained in the oral tradition and play a variety of traditional instruments. The most common instrument is the n’goni – a string instrument with between four and twelve strings, played with the thumb and index finger.

What is Malian Folk Music?

Malian folk music is the music of the people of Mali. It includes the musical traditions of the Mandinka, Dogon, Songhai, Tuareg, Fula and other ethnic groups in Mali. Malian folk music is a mixture of traditional African music with Arab, French and other influences.

Malian folk music has been passed down through the generations by oral tradition. The music is performed at religious ceremonies, social gatherings and cultural events. It is also used as a form of entertainment and to communicate news and information.

The majority of Malian folk songs are sung in one of the country’s four national languages: Bambara,Dogon, Fulfulde or Songhay. However, there are also a number of songs in French and Arabic.

Traditional Malian instruments include the kora (a 21-stringed harp), ngoni (a lute), djembe (a hand drum) and calabash (a percussion instrument). These days, many Malian musicians also use Western instruments such as guitars, keyboards and drums.

Malian folk music has been popularized by a number of internationally renowned artists such as Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Touré Kunda.

The History of Malian Folk Music

Malian folk music is the music of the Malinke and Songhay people. It is known for its rich tradition of griot music and for its fondness for percussion instruments. Malian folk music has been influenced by the music of other cultures in the Sahel, including the Tuareg people and the Fula people.

The first griots were believed to have originated in West Africa, and they were eventually brought to Mali by the Mande people. Griots are traditional storytellers who preserve the history and culture of their people through song. In Mali, griots are also thought to be mediators between the living and the dead.

Malian folk music was originally passed down orally from generation to generation. With the advent of colonialism in Mali, however, many of these traditions were lost. It was not until the 1960s that Malian folk music began to be recorded and made available to a wider audience.

Since then, Malian folk music has undergone something of a renaissance, with new artists drawing on traditional methods and instrumentation to create modern interpretations of this rich musical tradition.

The Instruments of Malian Folk Music

Malian folk music is a vibrant and varied genre that employs a wide range of traditional instruments. The most prominent instrument in Malian folk music is the kora, a 21-string lute-harpsichord hybrid that is thought to have originated in Mali in the 12th century. The kora is accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments, including the talking drum, djembe, and tamani.wind instruments such as the flute, saxophone, and trumpet are also frequently used in Malian folk music.

Malian folk music often tells stories of the day-to-day lives of Malian people, as well as their history and culture. The music is used for a variety of purposes, including entertainment, education, and religious ceremonies.

The Sound of the Sahel

The Sahel is a region of Africa that stretches across the continent from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. It is a largely arid and semi-arid environment, and is home to some of Africa’s poorest people. Despite this, the Sahel has a rich cultural heritage, including a diverse range of traditional music.

Malian folk music is typically characterized by its use of the lute-like instrument known as the n’goni, as well as various percussion instruments. The music often has a griot (oral historian) singing or chanting along with the instruments, and is often used for storytelling or celebrating important events such as births, marriages and funerals.

One of the most famous Mali musicians is Ali Farka Touré, who popularized Malian folk music outside of Africa with his albums ‘The Source’ and ‘The River’. If you’re interested in hearing the sound of the Sahel, Ali Farka Touré’s music is a good place to start.


In conclusion, Malian folk music is a complex and beautiful genre that is heavily influenced by the country’s history and geography. The music of the Sahel is a truly unique sound that is definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of world music.

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