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No musical culture from Africa has had more international exposure and acclaim than that of the griots of Manden, the old heartland of the great Mali empire, back in the 13th century. Mali has produced many great stars of this celebrated and centuries' old oral tradition, who have become famous on the world stage. But behind the scenes, still largely unknown except to the connoisseurs, is one griot woman (jelimuso) who stands out as absolutely unique: Bako Dagnon.
Bako Dagnon is a singer's singer. Her clear, soaring voice and rolling melodies mirror the savannah landscape where she was born, in the west of Mali. Her songs sound deceptively simple; yet they are informed by a prodigious knowledge of Mande history and culture. She has the gift of bringing the old stories to life, making them sound utterly contemporary. She is the bridge between the old and the new.
Bako sings with the authority, passion and wisdom born of having learnt her craft the old way: not from recordings, as many young singers do nowadays, but at the feet of masters, deep in the countryside. When Bako says something, you are compelled to listen.
"No one wants to study true jeliya (the art of the griot) any more; they just want quick money. I belong to the very last generation of griots who spent hours every day with the masters of the tariku (histories)" Bako says. This is not a boast - Bako is modest and kind hearted, but she knows her own worth. "If you want to know the secrets of Mande, you have to go to the actual places where the songs come from. I went there, to study with the elders."
"I never had formal schooling, I learnt everything the hard way, by memorising it, and asking questions, again and again. I would go to sing at wedding parties, and they would give me cows, gold, money. But whatever I received I had to hand over - all of it! - to my teacher. That was my first real lesson. Money should never be the object of our songs".
"If you know who you are, what your origins are, you'll never do bad things. The jeli who really knows his art will say to you, 'you are so and so, your father did this, your grandfather did that, and therefore, you don't have the right to do something bad.' If you see someone doing something bad, you mustn't be afraid to say to them, 'this is unworthy of your culture, of your country'."
"Here in Mali, the man has all the power, especially outside the house - women have to do whatever men say. But women are more observant than men. Men go straight for the action, women check it out first."
She may be one of the last living griots to live according to the old values of griotism, but her style is timeless and current. And she is a powerhouse.
Along with her knowledge of the Mande song repertoire, both old and new, she composes her own songs, subtle, and often light-hearted comments on society today. She is comfortable with all the different regional styles of Mande - ranging from her native Biriko style, (which remains largely unrecorded except for a few songs by her protégée, Kandia Kouyate) to the lyrical sound of Maninka (Malinke) music from Guinea, and the stark pentatonic Bamana (Bambara) style from Segou. She knows the connection of each of these traditions to the land where they come from.
When Bako travels through the Malian countryside, each place comes to life with her songs and stories. She remembers the rhythmic songs she sang working the fields as a child; the pieces that a blind wandering minstrel played on the calabash thumb piano - an instrument that's almost extinct; the tales of hunters to entertain village children in the evenings; the game songs young girls like her played in the moonlight to develop their coordination skills; the romantic love songs played by guitarists from Guinea to send a bride off to her new home, reducing everyone to tears.
All these strands intertwine in her music. It is hard to listen to Bako's voice without smiling, even when at its most poignant.
This is why many of Mali's best known musicians have turned to Bako when they need information on Mali's history, - information that she gives out generously, just as the elders have done with her.
(Biography supplied by artist management 2010)