Zabo delivers a message of unity to his country that will also have you out on the dancefloor grooving to his Malian Afrobeat.
The year has started well for Arouna Coulibaly, better known as Ben Zabo, after he and his band took part in the mammoth Caravane Culturelle pour la Paix tour that took them across the Sahara desert in February.
The griots make that music, it’s their job, not just when people go farming but also when they are hunting and even preparing for battle
Beginning in M’Hamid El Ghizlane, Morocco, where the valley of the Drâa River meets the sand dunes, the caravan would normally continue down to Timbuktu to reach Ségou in Mali for the second leg at the Festival sur le Niger.
But the road is more dangerous these days with the risk of being captured by armed gangs operating in the country’s volatile north.
Mali is still recovering from an armed crisis that began in 2012.
Over the years a number of Malian musicians have used their art to call for peace in the country.
“For us, music is not primarily for listening,” says Zabo. “Music provides a rhythm for work, especially in the field. The griots make that music, it’s their job, not just when people go farming but also when they are hunting and even preparing for battle.
“Their music and rhythms fire people up so it’s only natural that when you see my band on stage you feel that energy too.”
During one of Ségou’s legendary nocturnal jam sessions Zabo tears up the stage with his high energy guitar and percussion-driven groove, rooted in the culture of his own people, the Bwa, who straddle the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso.
“I am a torchbearer for my culture,” he says.
Zabo studied music at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers Multimédia in Bamako, against the will of his parents who only later reluctantly agreed with their son’s choice to become a professional musician rather than a pharmacist.
He worked as a sound engineer for a while, and played reggae under the name Ras Arouna until he settled for his current dazzling musical style.
His second album, Wa Maliba (Our Great Mali) was released late last year. It preaches peace and unity for his troubled country.
“The crisis in Mali is far from over … As artists, we watch those things closely and we launch appeals because people listen to us, rather than to politicians.”
Zabo calls on Malians themselves to help move the country forward. “You cannot leave that to the president or the government, it concerns all of us.” ●