Askia Modibo

 

In early 1968, at the maternity ward of Macina, a small town in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta, a special visitor was in town. Twelve babies were delivered that day--11 girls and 1 boy. The visitor picked up the baby boy and requested that the parents name him after himself.

The special visitor was President Modibo Keita, Mali’s first president. And the boy was the son of a local musician and dancer named Sinaly Koné. His mother's best friend was a Songhoy woman from Gao, whom she had already promised to name after Askia Mohamed, the founder of the Songhoy Empire.

Unfortunately, baby Modibo would never meet his homonym given that he was toppled in coup d’etat on November 18, 1968 and passed away in prison on May 16, 1977.

However, that sense of patriotism and pan-africanism that President Modibo Keïta espoused from Jamaica to Ghana was ingrained in him forever. And in 1996, Askia would compose "Les Aigles du Mali," a song that is considered by Malians as the second national anthem and is arguably the most popular song produced since Mali’s independence.

Mali's 4th place finish in the 1994 African Nations Cup was a huge boost the country's morale after decades of military dictatorship. Askia believed it was vital to honor them and emphasize messages  of patriotism and winning and losing in dignity.

In school, his music teacher would schedule him last to perform in order to ensure that a maximum of his fellow students would have a chance to hear him jam. He and his buddies created a band called Felen Kolon Jazz and performed using instruments pieced together instruments made from scraps of wood, string, and metal and perform all over inland Niger Delta for fun. While music was his life and Askia really wanted to be a musician, his lifelong dream was to be a soldier. He didn’t bother waiting for the results of his high school entry exam, and ended up as radio operator and grenadier posted to Mali's northern regions.

Even as a soldier, Askia’s guitar was never far from his grasp. He entertained his camarades wherever he was posted but seven years into his military service and with increasing tensions and insecurity he took a leave of absence--one that is still ongoing--to focus on a professional music career. His roots can be found in Cinzana, in the part of Mali many musicologists consider the origin of the blues. He is the nephew of the ngoni master and saxophonist Tidiani Koné (founder of the Rail Band Orchestra) and the diva Tita Koné.

Although Askia was steeped in the Manding music of his ancestors, his upbringing coincided with the availability of Bob Marley, James Brown, and Fela Kuti tapes. The place to be for a young, ambitious musician was Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and there Askia would eventually meet his distant cousin better known as Alpha Blondy, an Ivorian reggae superstar. His connection with Seydou Koné AKA Alpha Blondy was life changing. His mentor, today world renowned for his politically charged and socially conscious lyrics became a bulwark for Askia.

His first cassette was released in 1988 and when a top presenter on Ivorian TV selected his song “Allah Akbar” as the show’s theme song, Askia finally became a star not just in Cote d’Ivoire but in his native Mali and neighboring countries such as Guinea and Burkina Faso.

Askia’s album “Wass Raggae” released in 2006 Syllart Records  is a classic when it comes to African reggae. The album is distinctly African with its pentatonic musical structure but managed to seamlessly fuse it with the latest reggae vibrations. In “Héritage,” returned to his roots by adopting the Bambara blues style of music of his ancestors. 

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