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Professional musicians in modern Mali

The wealth and power of Songhay can be traced back to the Sorko fishermen who were skilled canoeists, living along the Niger, south east of Gao. By the 9th century they were part of a state known as Songhay. They began to develop trading relations with Muslim traders in Gao, which then became a part of Songhay.

During the 14th century Songhay fell within the orbit of the Empire of Mali, but the rulers of Mali never managed to collect taxes from the people of Gao.

In the fifteenth century Songhay rose to pre-eminence under Sonni Ali the Great, while Mali fell into a decline. His military forces consisted of a cavalry of expert horsemen, and fleets of canoes. He was a great military leader, with a keen understanding of tactics on land and water. He had the added advantage of being regarded as a leader with magical powers.

Songhay oral history portrays him as a conquering hero. Sonni Ali the Great expanded the territory of Songhay considerably, so that it stretched across the Niger valley, west to Senegal and east to Agades (modern Niger). He remained attached to the traditional rites of his mother's birthplace, Sokoto. He captured Timbuktu from the Tuareg and disrupted the tradition of scholarship. His lack of respect for Islam gets him a bad press from Arab chroniclers who portray him as ruthless and oppressive.

After Sonni Ali's death one of his generals, Mohammed Ture, seized power in 1493. He was a devout Muslim of Soninke origin, who established the Askiya dynasty. Continuing the expansion of Songhay that Sonni Ali had started, he brought Songhay to the height of its power.

In contrast to his predecessor, all his actions were informed by his commitment to Islam. His raids against the Mossi took on a religious dimension. These jihads (Holy Wars) were a success on the military front; but although defeated, the Mossi still refused to convert to Islam.

Mohammed Ture Askiya promoted Songhay in the Muslim world. He went to Mecca. He visited the Caliph of Egypt, who in turn made him Caliph of the whole of Sudan. Sudan was a loose term for a large area in sub-Saharan Africa usually embracing Mali, Chad, north west Nigeria, and Niger. In government matters, he took the advice of three distinguished jurists, or qadis. Generally the government of the Askiya dynasty was more centralised than that of the Mansas of Mali.

Some aspects of traditional religion were preserved, including the sacred drum, the sacred fire, and the old types of costume and hairstyle. As in Mali, there was a privileged caste of craftsmen, and slave labour played an important role in agriculture. Trade improved under Mohammed Ture Askiya, with gold, kola nuts and slaves being the main export. Textiles, horses, salt and luxury goods were the main imports. In 1510 and 1513, The Spanish Moroccan writer and traveller Leo Africanus visited Gao, the capital of Songhay. He was amazed at the wealth of the ruling class:

"The houses there are very poor, except for those of the king and his courtiers. The merchants are exceedingly rich and large numbers of Negroes continually come here to buy cloth brought from Barbarie (Morocco) and Europe…

Here there is a certain place where slaves are sold, especially on those days when the merchants are assembled. And a young slave of fifteen years of age is sold for six ducats, and children are also sold. The king of this region has a certain private palace where he maintains a great number of concubines and slaves."

Leo Africanus's visit to Timbuktu causes him to remark on the intellectual and professional classes.

"Here there are many doctors, judges, priests and other learned men, that are well maintained at the king's cost. Various manuscripts and written books are brought here out of Barbarie and sold for more money than any other merchandise.

The coin of Timbuktu is of gold without any stamp or superscription, but in matters of small value, they use certain shells brought here from Persia, four hundred of which are worth a ducat and six pieces of their own gold coin, each of which weighs two-thirds of an ounce."

In the late 16th century Songhay slid into civil war. Echoing the fates of Ghana, Mali and Kanem. The wealth and power of Songhay was also undermined by environmental change, causing droughts and diseases. But Songhay might have survived all this. The decisive factor in its downfall was the determination of the Moroccans to control the sub-Saharan gold trade.

In 1591 the Moroccan army invaded. The Songhay were caught unawares and were defeated by the superior fire power of the Moroccan army. Morocco won the war but lost the peace. The Sultans of Morocco eventually lost interest. The Moroccan garrison stayed but took to freelance looting and pillaging. The old empire split up, with the Bambara kingdom of Segu emerging as an important new force.

"In the early days of the Songhay empire there were no griots (praise singers). When the rulers returned from war, their own wives used to sing their praises. They used to massage the bodies of their husbands, saying 'My husband, you're really brave and tired. You must rest, I'm your wife....'

One day the wives had the idea of accompanying their praises with a music instrument. One wife had the idea of making a small instrument. So she went to get a calabash and a goat's skin. She covered the calabash with the skin and she started to play the instrument. Little by little she learned how to play. From then on she told her husband she would sing his praises with this instrument."

Listen hereClick here to listen to a song, dating back to the early days of the Empire of Songhay