Bara Sambarou: Gambari 79

This past weekend Mali and Mande music lovers throughout the world, and across the internet, paid tribute to Kasse Mady Diabate.  His passing not only cut short an active musical career but also accelerates the passing of an era; that of the master griots, who were born in rural Mali, raised deep in the tradition, and who learned and earned their craft through countless ceremonies and local rituals, a generation of musicians that created a modern Malian music in the 1960s and 1970s and who pushed Mande music beyond the Sahel.  I was lucky to attend a memorable and emotional concert that Kasse Mady gave in Ouagadougou in January 2016, just one week after the first terrorist attack that traumatised the capital of Burkina.  Kasse Mady Diabate was laid to rest this weekend in Bamako after a ceremony that was led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali.  Over at worldservice, the blog of reference for Malian musical treasures, Stefan has paid a nice tribute to Kasse Mady that features a collection of some of his great recorded moments.

Earlier this year another Malian music legend passed away to much less fanfare (I only learned the news this weekend while searching through Malian YouTube videos).  Bara Sambarou, perhaps the Sahel's most renown Fulani griot, died in his sleep in the early hours of Sunday January 7, 2018.  He was born Ibrahim Sambarou Sarré in 1946.  For most of his life he lived in the village of Konsa, in the Mopti region.  He was a disciple of Hamdoum Birinta Djiga, the first Fulani griot to have sung on Malian national radio, and Emana Patal, a master of the hoddu, the traditional lute.

Bara Sambarou recorded hundreds of cassettes, for as many patrons, over the course of his career but the foundation of his regional reputation was built on one composition in particular, Gambari.  Sambarou recorded his first version of the composition in the late 1970s.  The song takes its name from a highly valued fabric that Fulani cattle traders brought back to Mali from Nigeria.  Bara Sambarou composed the melody and recorded the song for his 'producer' Alpha Kola Bocoum, also konwn as Kola Hampoulo, who duplicated and sold the recording from his stall in Mopti.  The recording soon travelled to Bamako and from there spread throughout the Fulani Sahel becoming one of the best-selling and most duplicated recordings of Sahelian traditional music.  I have purchased dubs of the cassette in Nouakchott, Dakar, Ouagadougou and Bamako.

In the mid-2000s the French journalist Jean Ducasse heard Gambari playing in a Bamako market.  He came under the spell of the recording and travelled to Mopti to meet Alpha Kola Bocoum and on to Konso to meet Bara Sambarou.  His trip led to the international release of Gambari, remastered from the original master cassette.  The reissue, on the Totolo label, included a 20 minute documentary on Bara Sambarou and the story of Gambari.  I purchased the reissue in Paris in the fall of 2009 and waited for the world to share my excitement.  This remains, in my opinion, one of the most important reissues of African music yet released.  Ducasse and his production team took the time to document and share the story behind the music and the artist, introducing a key Sahelian document to a new audience and preserving the recording for posterity.

(Bara Sambarou and his 'producer' Alpha Kola Bocoum)

There are many other quality reissues that put equal care into their research and presentation but this is one of the few reissues that presents a recording that is deeply important, aesthetically and historically, to a regional African audience, as opposed to the many reissues devoted to African novelty recordings (throwaway singles from the 1970s unknown to most African audiences, then or now).  The reissue of Gambari however seems to have vanished without leaving much of a trace.  Never widely distributed back in 2008, the reissue is now out of print, unavailable even via online distribution platforms (itunes, amazon): with the exception of an uninteresting DJ remix of the Gambari melody.

Here is Bara Sambarou's Gambari, a canonical recording of Sahelian music, remastered from the master cassette, as released in 2008 by the Totolo label.  Sambarou returned to the Gambari melody throughout his career, making several dozen recordings of the composition.  This set features two versions, the first, recorded in 1979, remains the most iconic.  The second version is undated.

Download Bara Sambarou - Gambari 79 

Bara Sambarou continued to perform until relatively recently, notably, and unusually, travelling to France in 2014 for performances with a jazz trio composed of Cooper Moore, Chad Taylor and Assif Tsahar.  He recorded hundreds of compositions over his long career (I have over a hundred of his cassette recordings in my collection).  Many compositions were made for individual patrons and each tells a story.  As Bara proudly explains in the 2008 documentary, his voice, hoddu and creative imagination sustained him, financially, socially, and spiritually.


This video of a Malian national television broadcast features a terrific version of Gambari that starts at minute 35 (the video starts with footage of Yero Aissé Koulé, also a legend of Fulani music).  Thanks to original uploader of this footage!! And very special thanks to Jean Ducasse for making the effort to share Bara Sambarou's art with a larger audience.  The YouTube documentary posted above is the film included with the 2008 reissue.  The picture of Sambarou and Alpha Bocoum was taken during the production of the documentary.  Most of the recordings featured on this blog were purchased from market stalls across Africa that were much like Alpha Bocoum's stall in Mopti (shown in the documentary).  



  1. Thanks very much, Matthew. The information as well as the music that you share is priceless.

  2. Thank you very much Matthew for remembering Bara Sambarou, we are losing the best men, the impossible ones to relieve, Ali Farka learned some of his Peulh songs from the hand of Bara, Kassémady is also irreplaceable, I have prepared a group of videos all in Mali and live to remind him.

    I also bought this digipack from Bara years ago, and I was wondering about the meaning of the title.
    It is interesting, as in the spoken cultures the words evolve, for the Soninké Gambari is the name of the instrument (ngoni, hodou) but for the Peulh Gambari it is the great celebrations, those in where you have to dress with the big boubous of Rich Bacin, called Gambari in the Mopti region.
    At the end ,the word Gambari evokes the guitar, the gala clothes and the feast, thanks Bara, rest in peace.


Post a Comment