Listening to the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali on a record is like watching a movie on the screen of an iPod: you get an idea of the plot, but it can't compare to the experience of seeing it in the cinema. Seen live in Bamako the ensemble offers an extra dimension, not just in sound but also in vision.
The ensemble was founded in 1961 by order of president Modibo Keita. Talents from the wide range of Malian cultures were recruited and the ensemble soon became a prestigious ambassador for Malian culture. The early line-up consisted of musical virtuosos like kora legends Sidiki Diabaté (on the photo with the green scarf on his kora), Djelimadi Sissoko (left from Sidiki) and Batourou Sekou Kouyaté (left from Djelimadi), but also of singers like Fanta Damba (Koroba) (2 rows above Sidiki Diabaté, on the right of the singer with the gold bracelet), Nantenedie Kamissoko (behind Djelimadi Sissoko), Mokontafé Sacko (with the gold bracelet??) and Waldé Damba. In later years, the ensemble saw a stream of talent passing through, with great singers like Hawa Dramé (post coming up!), Tata Bambo Kouyaté, Wandé Kouyaté, Coumba Sidibé and Bako Dagnon.
Reports that Kandia Kouyaté was ever a member of the Ensemble have been contradicted by the vedette herself.
To give you an inkling of an idea of the visual brilliance of the ensemble here is a video from Malian television, recorded during a concert in the Palais de la Culture in Bamako. The singer is -the in my opinion underestimated- Djelimadi Sissoko (also known as Djelimadi Sissoko II, to distinguish him from the kora-player), one of the few (if not the only?) male singers with the Ensemble.
And here is a classic album of the legendary Mali Kunkan label. It contains the epic tale (in two parts) of Dah-Monzon, king of the Bambara of Segou, and his general Bakaridian.
I am not sure who are the lead singers in these tracks, but I suspect one of them is Nantenedie Kamissoko, and the other is one of my favorite Malian singers: Hawa Dramé.
KO 77.04.11 (new link November 27, 2011)