Djelimady Tounkara

“Every time I make a record, I include one of the things my father taught me,” says Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.

But playing tunes his dad gave him—such as “Mande Mansa,” which tells the story of an Islamic wise man foretelling the rise of the Malian Empire in 1235—is more than just a matter of respect. Djelimady’s nimble fingers are literally conduits for history. As a griot, he was born to make music that reminds audiences of people and events from centuries ago. Djelimady’s new album, Solon Kono [Marabi], is full of drama. It’s also full of the fiery, passionate, and technical riffing that has earned Djelimady a reputation as one of the hottest guitarists in Africa today.

Djelimady made his name in Mali as the electric-guitar virtuoso in the Super Rail Band. Formed in 1970, this group pulled together Malian traditions, Afro-Cuban music, funk, rock, blues, and more. But the band’s foundation was always the Mande griot tradition—a rich, varied repertoire of songs that’s as open to development and improvisation as any jazz standard. The old Mande music featured three melodic instruments: a 21-string harp (kora), a small, fretless, banjo-like lute (ngoni), and a wooden xylophone (balafon). A big part of Djelimady’s genius is the way he transfers the distinctive tone and phrasing of these instruments onto guitar—such as the kora’s snapped “dead” notes and the ngoni’s lightning-quick chromatic ornaments—by using either a flatpick or his remarkable fingerstyle approach that employs an extended forefinger as a plectrum.

Growing up in the ’60s, Djelimady also tuned in to rock, blues, jazz, and Cuban music—hence the glorious eclecticism of Rail Band albums such as Mansa (1995) and Kongo Sigui (2003). Recently, though, Djelimady has been fronting his own acoustic group, and going back to the origins of his unique Mande style.

“This has to be done now,” he says, “because the day I'm gone, all this will disappear. You see, in Mali, the kids—the new Mande guitarists—are very, very strong. It is their moment now, and one should not criticize them. Music must progress. But there is also originality, and it should not be lost. I always start with the original, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change it—and even put jazz in.”

Solon Kono is perhaps the best showcase for Djelimady’s mastery yet. Through shades of Latin grooves, flamenco, and many varieties of Mande roots, Djelimady spews out perfect, clean, passionate lines—sometimes with blinding speed. But, he says, “It’s not about speed. It’s the choice of notes.”