Djelimady Tounkara, Malian guitar great
Djelimady Tounkara is one of the foremost guitarists in Africa.
Born in the culturally rich town of Kita, east of the Malian capital, Bamako,
Djelimady grew up surrounded with traditional music played by members of his family.
The Tounkaras are griots, musicians and historians by birth. Djelimady played djembe
drum and ngoni, a banjo-like lute, as a boy. When he moved to Mali's capital,
Bamako, during the 1960s, he had actually planned to work as a tailor. But music
proved a stronger calling. He started playing guitar in a large,
government-sponsored neighborhood band, Orchestre Misira. Voted the best
guitarist in the band, Djelimady was selected to join the Orchestre National as
rhythm guitarist, a great honor for the young player. The band's solo guitarist
in those days was multi-instrumentalist Keletigui Diabate, who is known today as
one of the most accomplished balaphone players in West Africa. Djelimady
established himself early on as a guitarist capable of evoking the griot's three
major traditional instruments--the ngoni, the balaphone, and the kora--on guitar.
From the first time he performed solo on the national radio station, his mastery
of tradition and his innovative approach to the guitar were evident to all.
In 1972, the world of Malian popular music went through cataclysmic changes when
President Moussa Traore disbanded all of the state-sponsored bands, including
both of the groups that had nurtured Djelimady's career up to that point. By
then, the man destined to become Mali's greatest pop star, Salif Keita, had
co-founded the Rail Band of Bamako, which played regularly at the Buffet Hotel de
la Gare, next to the city's central train station. But in the great shuffle of
1972, Salif left the Rail Band to form Les Ambassadeurs, and Mory Kante--another
Rail Bander bound for international stardom--left his duties as lead guitarist
and took Salif's place as lead singer. Filling the void, Djelimady stepped in as
the Rail Band's lead guitarist.
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