Afel Bocoum

Biography by Andy Morgan

There are times during the rainy season, which lasts from mid-June to mid-September, when the small town of Niafunké in the Timbuktu region of northern Mali is almost completely surrounded by water. Thunderstorms flood the pastures that border the town on three sides, creating marshes full of birds and aquatic life. And on the fourth side, the great Niger River flows sedately past, just under half-way along its 4,100-kilometer-long journey from the Fouta Djalon mountains of Guinea to the Niger Delta and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

The entire region, known as the ‘Niger bend’ because of the immense loop that the river traces up into the southern fringes of the Sahara, lies on the cusp between the vast empty desert to the north and the lush savannah bushlands to the south. The interactions and tensions—climactic, cultural, political, economic—between these two areas have bequeathed a rich and complex history, and, as a consequence, an abundant diversity of music and culture. Afel Bocoum is a child of that liminal land and an inheritor of its multi-cultural riches, of the deep bond that binds north to south, despite the successive conflicts that have sought to divide them. He’s also a child of the great river.

“Where I come from, the river is everything,” he says. “I always say that water has its own music. You have to see how it undulates and, when there’s wind, how it beats against the shore, back and forth.” Listen to the music of Afel Bocoum and its aquatic properties soon become apparent. Traditional instruments like the ngoni, the njurkele (two-stringed lute), the kora and calabash (percussion gourd) blend with guitars, percussion and call-and-response vocals to create a gently undulating flow that emanates from a source hidden deep in the historical and mystical traditions of Bocoum’s native land, enriched along its way by tributaries and cross-currents, ever sure of its purpose and direction. It’s music that rolls rather than rocks, graceful, unforced and minimal by design.

His new album Lindé, named after the wild expanse near Niafunké where Afel and his childhood friends played and hunted animals, delivers this flow, not only with grace and depth, but also daring. Afel Bocoum is among a dwindling number of African musicians belonging to that breakthrough generation who cross-pollinated their own traditional music with the sounds that arrived from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asian subcontinent in the mid-20th century. Lindé’s coherence—balancing deep tradition with audacious innovation—is remarkable, stitching together interventions as diverse as the drums of Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, the trombone of Vin Gordon (Bob Marley, Skatalites) and the violin of Joan As Police Woman with the age-old music of the Niger bend, making all those joints disappear. Although rooted in northern Mali’s ‘Desert Blues,’ it brings in many regional styles from across Mali—such as the Manding kora and Wassoulou kamelngoni—a celebration of the country’s diversity and its once famed sense of unity and tolerance.

What’s surprising is that music with such a buoyant rippling lilt to it is often bearer of such grave, even tragic tidings. “Mali is on the ropes,” Afel explains in his song notes, “the country is unrecognizable.” Ever since the civil war of 2012, when Touareg-led separatists in the north launched a rebellion against the central government, jihad, poverty and tribal war have brought it to its knees. Old spats about land use and grazing rights have turned violent. Symbiotic tribal relationships that have underpinned society for centuries have been torn to pieces. Angry jobless youth have been seduced by the call to jihad and the promise of money and paradise. The end of tourism has shipwrecked the local economy.

But this gloom is mitigated by defiant expressions of hope and solidarity found throughout the album: “Lord, we’re grateful to you,” Afel sings in “Jaman Bisa,” “Because today we’ve found peace again.” In “Sambu Kamba,” he holds out his hand to the rebels and jihadists, urging them to negotiate. “If you’re hiding down holes, my brothers/Come out so that we can talk.” Afel’s love for his country is fervent and constant.

Avion,” the “pirogue that flies,” is playful and optimistic with its praise of the aeroplane. The song really does “take off,” soaring skywards on a beat that’s close to Congolese soukous, with the guitars of Mamadou Kelly, Oumar Konaté and Lamine Soumano providing sweet and melodic propulsion. “Bombolo Liilo” dances along bushland tracks to an up-tempo reggae beat, opening with a sweep of Vin Gordon’s horns worthy of an old school Skatalites 7-inch, and with muted guitar from Garba Touré (Songhoy Blues), kamale ngoni from Harouna Samaké and kora from Madou Sidiki Diabaté (brother of the legendary Toumani). “Djougal” honors the man who organised the farmers of Niafunké into a cooperative, opening with a ponderous boom from the n’goni ba or “great lute,” courtesy of Yaya Dramé, with a loping curving beat that echoes the takamba (one of the most popular dance beats to this day among the ancient Songhoy people), and then breaking into a lively shuffle, with the calabash of the late great “Hama” Alpha Ousmane Sankaré blending seamlessly with the inimitable snare and kick action of Tony Allen.

Music hasn’t been an easy dream to follow for Afel. Most aspiring musicians have to face stiff parental opposition. In Afel Bocoum’s case this parental disapproval was all the more perplexing given that his father, Abakina Ousmane Bocoum, aka “Kodda,” was one of the most famous njarka players of the twentieth century. Afel barely knew his father. He was away most of the time, playing ceremonies, living another life. He remembers looking at Kodda’s njarka hanging from the rafters of their small home. “My mother told me that he was scared for me to play it,” he says. “He didn’t want me to carry on the tradition. He said that he’d been hexed by people who do bad things to make sure you don’t develop or move forward in life. It’s just jealousy.”

But Afel wasn’t deterred; music was all around him, in the holey, or spirit dances, of Songhoy, in the plaintive melodies of Fulani flute, in the gumbé drum sessions with their wild moonlit dancing, in the words of the storytellers and in the hymns of the local Protestant Mission. Music was more than mere entertainment; it taught people about life and the right way to live it. It guaranteed social cohesion and the strength of the collective conscience, especially in a society that was still largely illiterate and devoid of modern media. “There was no radio at the time, no TV, nothing. It was incredible,” Afel remembers. “When you saw someone with a guitar, you followed him everywhere.”

Little wonder that Niafunké’s greatest son, the singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, exerted such a powerful hold on the young Afel Bocoum. When he first met him in the late 1960s, Afel was barely a teenager and Ali was already famous. Local people spoke in awed tones of how Ali had been given the gift of music by the djinn (spirit) Tiowmidine as he sat under a tjayki tree, just outside Niafunké. “Whenever he came back [to Niafunké], you could see him, but you couldn’t approach him,” explains Afel. “He had charisma, and we were just children. You had to have a reason to sit down with him.”

The young Afel hung out with Ali as much as he could, and eventually became a regular member of Asco, the name Ali had given his backing band. Afel toured with Ali and Asco throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and also appeared on Ali’s studio album The Source in between his day jobs as a government agent specialising in tropical agriculture (a job which took him all over Mali) and a cultural animateur for the Ministry of Youth, organising concerts, competitions and street parties.

The idea of releasing his own music arose from a gentle curiosity rather than any self-serving ambition or desire to upstage his mentor. “Everybody seemed to be releasing albums all around me, so it was like, ‘why not?’” he says. Ali Farka Touré promised to talk to Nick Gold, artistic director of World Circuit. Alkibar (meaning “The Messengers”), his resulting 1999 debut album, established Afel Bocoum as an international star in his own right. Thanks to the album’s success, Afel was invited to work with Damon Albarn and Toumani Diabaté on the 2002 album Mali Music. He went on to become a regular contributor to Africa Express, and to collaborate with Béla Fleck, Habib Koité, Tartit Ensemble, Oliver Mutukudzi, and many more. “You have to collaborate, otherwise you’ll get nowhere in today’s world,” Afel says. “All those collaborations were positive.” Those connections have held strong, with Damon Albarn and Nick Gold now acting as executive producers on Lindé.

Back in January 2020 the third edition of Festival Alkibar, an annual showcase of local music, dance and theatre founded by Afel Bocoum, album producer Paul Chandler and Afel’s young disciples loosely known as “Alkibar Jr,” took place in Niafunké without a hitch. Local people attended in large numbers, glad of the opportunity to listen, dance and talk in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. The event demonstrated what this profoundly multi-cultural society is capable of when left in peace.

Ultimately, it’s not the style but the content that matters. Afel knows that. In the old days, before European-style education was introduced by the colonial powers, children learned everything they needed to know about life from their extended families, their villages and their communities through theatre, stories and rituals, but most importantly through music. In this way they were taught the most fundamental lesson of all, which is how to live together and be considerate towards your fellow human being.

“We have to meet each other, talk to each other, look each other in the eye and tell the truth,” Afel says. “If we’re not united, I can see no solution. Our social security is music. That’s all we’ve got left. People love music, so we have to make use of that fact.”

For more information, please contact Joe Cohen, Krista Williams or
Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.