From Segou to Timbuktu via enchanted relics of ancient empires, tunes in the dunes, tea with the tuareg and Bamako beats: Welcome to the country of legend.
Words Stefan Simanowitz
“Mali is a special country because everybody here loves music” said rock-legend Bono, during a visit earlier this year. The Irish singer was not wrong. In Mali, music is everywhere. The rhythms of Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare, and Ali Farka Toure blare out of restaurants, taxis, hair-salons and even bicycles. Every night in Bamako, Mali’s pulsating capital, people congregate in indoor and outdoor clubs to listen to live music, jam together and to dance. And in the cooler months of January and February music festivals break out all over the country.
Bono was in Mali to attend the most famous of these festivals, the Festival au Desert, a three-day musical extravaganza which takes place each January in the desert outside the fabled city of Timbuktu. Although he was not listed on the programme, the U2 frontman could not resist clambering onto the stage to join the band Tinariwin on the opening night of the festival. An excited MC took the microphone and announced the special guest: “Today we are joined by a very big star” she said, “”Bono from the YouTube”.
Such is the charm of the West African nation. It’s too busy celebrating its own sound to recognise a platinum-selling international star for anything more than a random face from the internet.
As well as its legendary music scene, Mali’s delectable food, fascinating mix of cultures with its nine main ethnic groups, and jaw-dropping natural wonders make it one of the most popular destinations for the discerning traveller. From the colourful chaos of Bamako to the immemorial tranquility of the Dogon country; from music festivals deep in the desert to the magnificent ‘monument valley’ of Hombori, a visit to Mali is guaranteed to stay with you for a lifetime.
Back in the 14th century when Europe was a place of poverty and pestilence and America was a land of teepees, the Mali Empire was flourishing and advanced. Trade in gold, salt, ivory and slaves made the empire – which stretched across seven modern-day African borders – extremely wealthy and cities were home to impressive mosques and palaces. The university at Timbuktu, for example, attracted 25,000 students and boasted one of the world’s greatest libraries. Tales of the wealth, power and learning of this distant desert empire filtered back to Europe and Mali took on a fabled allure which has persisted through the centuries. But that is not the only thing that has survived. Mali remains home to spectacular historic sites, buildings and cities that are themselves living history.
On arriving in Bamako it is well worth paying a visit to the excellent National Museum (Musee National, Avenue De La Liberation, Kolouba, open 9-6pm Tues – Sun) which offers a visually fascinating timeline of Mali’s history showcasing carvings, textiles, and other artifacts from the region. Whilst there are some historic sites in Bamako such as the ancient rock paintings in the caves at the base of Point G hill opposite the museum, the real gems lie outside the capital.
One of the most iconic sites in Mali is Djenné, a UNESCO World Heritage town that sits on an island in the Bani river, less than a day’s drive from the capital. It is famed for its magnificent mosque – the world’s largest mud brick structure and one of the great architectural wonders of Africa. Although the Great Mosque is little more than a century old it was built on the site of an older 13th century mosque.
According to archeologists, Djenné was first settled around 200 BC. By 850 AD it developed into a large walled urban comple, but after 1100 AD the population of the town declined dramatically and by 1400 the site had been abandoned. Many smaller settlements within a few kilometres of Djenné-Jéno also appear to have been abandoned around this date. Preliminary archaeological excavations at sites within modern Djenné indicate that the present town was first settled after 1000 AD.
The town of Djenné may have started out as the furthermost western outpost of the Songhay people’s migration from the east, and converted to Islam around 1050. Under, the decline and collapse of the Ghana Empire after 1076, Djenné surged forward as a major commercial centre in West Africa; a terminus of the gold, salt and slave trade of the Trans-Saharan trade route and home to fabulously wealthy clans.
Once a key centre of Islamic scholarship, Djenne is at its colourful best on its weekly market day every Monday when hundreds of market stalls are spread out before the Great Mosque’s soft contours.
One can fill one’s suitcase with bogolan, a mud-cloth fabric for which the town is famed and rest for the night at the Hôtel Djenné Djenno. Sitting and sipping tea in the cool courtyard beside the spacious garden one gets a sense of what a prince’s life might have been like during Mali’s golden age.
Getting There: Bamako—Djenné—Bamako buses leave from the Place de Djenné beside Bamako’s Grand Mosque every Wednesday and Saturday. They leave Djenné back to Bamako on Thursdays and Mondays. It is recommended to buy bus tickets the day before. Alternatively many find it easier to travel with a tour company or arrange transport via hotels such as Djenne Djenno.
Where to Stay: Hotel Djenné Djenno An affordable boutique hotel opened in 2006 and built entirely from mud in contemporary Malian style by its owner Sophie Sarin, a Swedish artist and interior designer, who has used the ancient textile bogolan to create its charming interiors. +223 7933 1526, hoteldjennedjenno.com
The first sight of Timbuktu’s distant minarets is certain to send a shiver of excitement through even the most hardened traveller. With its canorous name and end-of-the-earth appeal, Timbuktu has long been the stuff of fairytales and legend, infused with exoticism by writers like Rudyard Kipling and Renaissance-era traveller Leo Africanus. Today the city of 55,000 is an exceedingly friendly and laidback place on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, 15 Km north of the river.
Since medieval times, Timbuktu was a stop on the camel caravan route linking West Africa and the Mediterranean. It flourished under the patronage of the continent’s wealthiest empires. While today the sand-blown streets are a shadow of their former self, it’s a delight to get lost in its nooks and crannies.
The town’s three ancient mosques are among the oldest in Africa. There’s also a museum, bustling central market, a labyrinthian network of alleyways and an ancient library with an unparalleled collection of ancient books. The Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba is home to 23,000 historical, religious and scientific books from all over the world. There are manuscripts dating from the 12th Century including some of the few written histories of the continent’s great empires, 400 year-old histories of Timbuktu’s most powerful clans and works carried from Granada after Muslims were expelled from al-Andalus in 1492.
Being situated on the edge of the Sahara, a day of delving into history can be rounded off with a sunset camel trek into the desert. You can also hop aboard a 4×4 vehicle to sleep overnight in tents with the Tuaregs. If you are lucky you may even catch a glimpse of a majestic camel train as it snakes back to Timbuktu after a 250km journey from the salt mines.
Getting There: There are at least two weekly flights on Mali’s domestic airlines connecting Bamako and Timbuktu’s new airport. Return flights from Bamako average $170US.
Where to Stay: La Maison This calm oasis in the centre of town is all chic and simple interiors and mellow attitude. Come nightfall, dinner is served on the rooftop under acanopy of stars. +223/292 21 79, lamaisondumali.com
A river runs through it
Mali is divided by the majestic Niger River which cuts a life-giving swathe through the centre of the country. Just as the Niger provided an essential means of transport for travellers of old, so it provides the ideal way for the modern traveller to explore Mali.
From Djenne it is a short trip to Mopti, a lively river port, from where you can climb aboard a slowboat to Timbuktu. The flat-bottomed wooden long boat with an outboard motor called a pinasse, takes three days. The pinasse slips gently up the wide river, stopping off in villages along the way. As the sun begins to dip the boat comes ashore, and your guide builds a fire and makes a camp in a sandy clearing under the stars.
“Mali is the friendliest and easiest African country I know,” says tour guide Guy Lankester of Fromhere2Timbuktu. “The beauty of the pinasse journey is that it takes you to the heart of a Mali you might not otherwise see, bringing you into contact with the nature, wildlife and people in a way that no other means of transport could never do.”
Getting There: A number of companies arrange sailing and private pinasse trips along the river. Saga Tours, based in Bamako has a specialised sailing trip that includes birdwatching, hippo spotting and stops in traditional villages along the shore. +223.6673.1631, Sagatours.com
Where to Stay: Djenne, Gao, Mopti, Segou and Timbuktu are all located close to or on the Niger River.
TOUR DE FORCE
Two of the best tour guides
Former Shakespearean actor from London, Guy Lankester takes groups on unforgettable journeys to visit the tuareg, jive in the Festival Au Desert and experience life across the country from a thoroughly local perspective. +44 117 230 1909, fromhere2timbuktu.com
Several bespoke tours ranging from one to three weeks long, take visitors to the magnificent cliffs of Dogon Country, Hombori mountain, music festivals, and floating on the grand Niger River. +223 7621 3283, maliexperience.com
Mali’s diverse ethnic groups are highly specialised in their trades: Bozo fishermen, Fulani cattle herders, Tuareg nomads, Songhai and Bambara agriculturalists each supplying the other with the means to survive and each bringing to the table, rich displays of creative expression.
The most eye-poppingly peculiar are perhaps the Dogon, a minority group living in the central plateau region of Mopti along the difficult-to-access Bandiagara escarpment, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site. To avoid persecution the Dogon built their architecturally unique homes into the cliff faces themselves.
The Dogon respect for one another and the environment manifests in emotional rituals. In one ritual the women praise the men, the men thank the women, the young express appreciation for the old, and the old recognise the contributions of the young. During another, two people greet each other by answering an elaborate series of questions about their family. Invariably, the answer is sewa, which means that everything is alright.
But it’s the masked dances that embody real exaltation; Staged during religious festivals, funeral rites for respected elders and increasingly, for tourists. Dogons believe that spirits and ancestors reside in the masks that are kept in caves high above their villages. As such when dances are performed for visitors, consent from the spiritual world must be sought.
The masks, some over 10 metres tall represent animals and symbols of the Dogon creation legend including the kanega (or Dogon cross) which signifies deep spiritual knowledge.
Getting There: Domestic flights and buses from Bamako arrive in Sevare. Take a taxi the 12km to Mopti where guides and daytrips are aplenty. Bandiagara, Bankass, and Douentza are the main entry points into Dogon.
Where to Stay: Hotel Ambedjele Styled like a Dogon village with 24 adobe huts amidst lush gardens, this value-for-money, Spanish-run hotel, near Mopti offers river tours and traditional market visits, and boasts a lovely swimming pool and wifi. +223 21421031, ambedjelehotel.com
In the 2003 film The Blues, Director Martin Scorsese traced the lineages of the Blues from the Mississippi delta back to Bamako. Here, music is an essential part of daily life and provides an essential bridge between the past, present and spiritual realm.
One of Mali’s most celebrated musicians Ali Farka Toure was said to have been bestowed the gift of song by spirits in Niafunke at the age of thirteen and sent to Hombori mountain for a year to recover from the transformation. His son, desert blues musician Vieux Farka Toure inherited his gift. “A large part of our history is carried across generations by music.” He says. “Our music and history are deeply intertwined and are an essential part of who we are.”
Professional performers are called jeliw or griot in French. During the height of the Mali empire in the14th Century aristocratic families of griot were the keepers of oral tradition. They were poets, storytellers, and praise singers; essentially walking history books that delivered wisdom through generations.
Today, Bamako’s live music scene and Mali’s music festivals are a soul-stirring melting pot of contemporary influences alongside traditional folk song.
On my first night in Bamako I found myself in an open-air club, the Foyer de L’Armee, listening to mesmeric kora and djembe musicians. The audience were seated in a big circle around the performers when suddenly an enormous man tore off his shirt and started dancing wildly. He jiggled his way over to where I was sitting with some friends and invited us to take off our shirts and join. We joined him on the dance-floor and soon everyone had joined us, dancing until sunrise.
Where To Go: Festival Au Desert The annual Festival aux Desert brings together thousands of Malian and international visitors and musicians from all over the world in early January. Guests stay in tents in the desert, relaxing during the day and dancing through the night. As well as music the festival offers shady bars and restaurants, stalls selling traditional food and crafts and a spectacular camel race. Festival-au-desert.org
Clamorous, intense and friendly, Mali’s capital, with its population of nearly 2 million, may be the starting point for more picturesque parts of the country but the riverside city has an energy that nowhere else in the world can quite match. And for those just passing through who don’t have a couple of weeks to spare travelling across the country, a world-class museum serves as a window to Mali as a whole. The country’s cultural heritage has been captured and preserved in Bamako’s National Museum, a fascinating display that showcases sculptures, carvings, textiles, and historical artifacts. Just beyond the museum are the Botanical Gardens and Bamako Zoo. A little higher is Point G hill which has primitive caves that contain ancient rock paintings. The top of Point G also provides a vantage point to view the bustling city below.
Most of the attractions in the downtown district are in easy walking distance. For restaurants and nightlife head to trendier Hippodrome, Niarela or cross over the river to Badalabougou.
The real action, however, begins after dark when bellies are full of delicious Malian fare. Nightlife in Bamako starts late with most live-music venues only starting to warm up after midnight. Clubs are open throughout the week but the best bands are booked for Friday and Saturday nights. Indeed it is common to stumble on one or more of Mali’s biggest stars performing on any given weekend. Singer Oumou Sangare even owns her own venue (Hotel Wassulu) as does legendary kora player Toumani Diabate (Le Diplomat).
It’s impossible not to be utterly transported by the sounds of Bamako’s music. A central part of its culture, music goes hand-in-hand with the energy of the city. Regardless of whether you understand the lyrics, the sounds eminating from Bamako’s clubs manage to strike a chord with one’s deepest emotions. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
BAMAKO’S LIVE MUSIC
Rte de Koulikoro 76781707
If Toumani Diabate isn’t playing, his Symmetric Orchestra probably will be.
Rte de l’Aeroport, 2028 7373
Catch Oumou Sangare if you’re lucky.
Badaloabougou nr Pont de Martyrs
The hippest place to see and be seen in the capital. Western club anthems and Malian tunes get the crowd jumping
TOP TIPS IN BAMAKO
Pop along to the Centre Culturel Francais and pick up their monthly programme of ‘What’s On’ (called Le Dourouni). 20224019 ccfbamako.org
Bamako can be hot, dusty and tiring. If you feel like relaxing for an afternoon why not go for a round of golf or relax by the pool at the Laico Hotel. You do not have to be a guest there. Av de la Marne, Res.firstname.lastname@example.org, 20222492
Bamako has no shortage of markets. There are clothing markets, food markets, artisan markets, traditional medicine markets, fetish and spice markets. Bamako’s main market, the grand marché, is in the city centre and the artisan market in the Medina Coura district offers silver jewellery, leather goods, musical instruments, woven clothing and wood carvings. For the adventurous, head to the market’s traditional medicine area where you can see piles of shrunken monkey heads, dried chameleons, crocodile skulls and birds.
If the sight of shrunken warthog skulls has not dulled your appetite then you will be in for a culinary treat in Bamako. Food in Mali is something to savour. Bamako is scattered with French-influenced boulangeries and patisseries producing fabulous cakes, crossaints and crusty baguettes washed down with excellent coffee. There are many worldclass restaurants offering superb food and good service but even the street food bought on pavement stalls is usually good quality.
Don’t miss the Capitaine (river perch), a meaty fish served in stews and barbequed fresh from the river cooked in a mouth-watering garlic marinade. For the more adventurous eaters try the traditional dish of fakouhoye. It has the look of pureed spinach, the texture of wallpaper glue, and an unusual earthy taste but served with rice and beef it’s peculiarly moreish.
RESTAURANTS IN BAMAKO
Restaurant Le Campagnard
BPE 46, Niarela, 20219296
Now in its third decade this is one of Bamako’s best restaurants serving fine French cuisine
Les Delices de Bamako
Immeuble Nimagala, Rue Famolo Coulibaly
Bamako’s finest pastries and a selection of delectable French and Malian dishes.
Quartier du Flueve, 66720781
Rustic Malian food with laidback al fresco dining.