Mamadou Kelly is a master guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist from Niafunké, a small town on the Niger River in the Malian delta. He hails from the same town as Ali Farka Touré. Kelly has been playing since he was a child and his style is steeped in the Niafunké tradition that many have called "Malian blues." The roots of his music go back centuries; it relies less on modern modal drones and more on cyclical traditional melodies.
A young prodigy, Kelly was mentored by Farka Afel Bocoum and later by Farka Touré (who was also Bocoum's mentor). Kelly has appeared with both men on stages across Africa, Europe, and the United States -- including Festival au Desert -- as well as on their recordings. He is a respected and highly sought-after session guitarist by artists from Mali, Niger, and areas of North Africa.
In 2012, armed rebellion broke out in northern Mali, initiated by extremists. Islamic Sharia Law was imposed. It included a ban on all secular music. Musicians, including Kelly, were sought out, and instruments were burned in public streets. Some even had their hands amputated. Kelly was forced to flee his home in 2012. He relocated to Bamako, the capital city. Though it too was in turmoil, it provided a higher degree of safety.
As the Malian cultural center, the city continued to produce recordings from a great many African artists from all over the region. In Bamako, Kelly made contact with the Clermont Music organization and signed with its label. His debut album, Adibar, produced by Chris Nolan, was released in September 2013. It was recorded with his longstanding band Ba Kai Na -- Alpha Ousmane "Hama" Sankare (an oft-recorded Malian music legend in his own right) on calabash and bassist Baba Traoré. The album took off, placing high on African and international music charts. It made numerous radio and critics' year-end lists.
Kelly toured Europe and the United States, playing not only club and theater dates but festival stages. When it was time to record again, Kelly wanted to expand his sound. The group assembled in a Woodstock, New York studio with Nolan. They were joined by Brehima "Youro" Cisse, a master of the monochord djourkel (a finger-plucked string instrument made from a gourd), some local musicians brought in by the producer, and backing vocals by Malian singer Leila Gobi. Entitled Djamila, it was issued in the fall of 2015. ~ Thom Jurek