The four manifestations of Malian culture, according to Google

Manuscripts, music, monuments, and modern art.

Google’s Art and Culture platform was launched in 2011 to highlight cultures all around the world. Using high resolution videos and images, it encapsulates a wide range of artsy knowledge about places and eras of public interest. Recently the program executed one of its most brilliant packages yet, ‘Mali Magic’, an extensive dive into the cultural history of Mali. 

The West African nation features prominently in the continental history of trade. Having formed the earliest basis of African interaction with the outside world, trading posts along the Sahara were identifiable structures of economic prosperity as early as the 14th Century. 

Its city of Timbuktu would be renowned in latter centuries as a great learning center, benefiting from the teachings of great Islamic scholars and the diplomatic qualities of its leaders who built some of the greatest mosques and universities of its period. In Timbuktu were kept scrolls wherein knowledge of vast subjects were embedded. These were ultimately threatened in 2012 after insurgents seized the Northern part of the country. Around that period the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Timbuktu an endangered World Heritage Site while Google made plans to digitise the scrolls. 

Beyond that, Mali Magic’ comprehensively spans the breadth of Malian culture by viewing them through four M’s: Manuscripts, Music, Monuments and Modern Art. It’s a pretty immersive experience, so to this end, we made sure to check it out for things to watch out for.


The Timbuktu manuscripts represent some of the oldest documented knowledge on earth. The vibrancy of the city’s literary scene used to attract enthusiasts from far and wide, and in popular culture, would come to be seen through this central feature.

After the takeover of Northern Mali, the librarian Dr Abdel Kader Haidara was amongst those that smuggled them to safety and consequently worked with Google to make them available to anyone. In their digital form they number about 40,000 pages, initially written on materials that ranged from animal skin to Italian paper. These classic manuscripts were written as early as the 11th Century, and encapsulate Philosophy, Islamic Jurisprudence, Education, History, Medicine, Mathematics, Poetry, Astronomy and more.

However, a glance through the manuscripts show that they’re completely digitised in their original form, which means they’re mostly in Arabic. This undoubtedly limits the number of people who can actually read their contents. Still it’s important enough that these manuscripts however exist on the internet from where further translation can take place. The gallery’s presentation is as well nostalgic, mirroring the atmosphere of someone entering an ancient library.


The music of Mali is interwoven with its history as a people. Although there are different ethnicities within its vast lands, the Mande people who are descendants of the ancient Mali Empire are the most represented in its mainstream sound, taking centuries-old oral traditions into string-based music.

Malian acts Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Toure were prominent among the many African musicians who made international entrees in the eighties with stirring folk-based music. Diabaté comes from a family of kora custodians who’ve played the instrument for centuries. His son Sidiki also plays the instrument.

Fatoumata Diawara produced the soundtrack of Mali Magic’, and fittingly so. Not only is the Grammy-nominated artist among the most accomplished Malians today, her discography echoes of the nation’s musical legacy. The seven-track Maliba showcases her virtuosic ability to evoke strong emotions with scintillating vocal turns and delicate guitar-playing. Another influence of the 2012 coup on the Mali landscape was the hate on music that was deemed secular by Islamic insurgents. Many musicians resident in the severely affected northern region fled the country, but kept making music. Fatoumata’s singing channels the rebellious streak of that period.

The music section also features annotations of Fatoumata’s album, highlighting the relevance of its themes in relation to the project’s mission. I especially found the posse cover of Ali Farka Toure’s “Howkouna” by modern Malian acts to be delightful, layering expressions like Rap to propel the vision of Niafunké, the 1999 album where it’s housed, into something more contemporary and urgent. If you’re in anyway unfamiliar to Malian music, the five-minute cover is a good place to start. 


As befitting of its rich history, Mali has a number of remarkable monuments to show. Dating back centuries, structures such as mosques, libraries and schools can be explored by visitors of the gallery. Some of the places available to view are The Great Mosque of Mopti, Tomb of Askia, The Great Mosque of Niono, Bandiagara Escarpment, Hamdallaye and others.

The highlight of the monumental showcase is The Great Mosque of Djenne, with its importance represented through the expansive space the mosque’s details takes up on the gallery. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Djenne is itself a Malian landmark, and famed, just like Timbuktu, for its involvement in the Saharan trade and as well Islamic movements that penetrated into Mali.

The Djenne mosque has a number of fascinating traditions. From its day-long music festival during a yearly replastering (to prevent its muddy structure being washed by rain) to its long association with magical practices, there’s a lot to check out within Google’s gallery. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Google Arts & Culture (@googleartsculture)


To offer a modern perspective on art, there’s an appraisal of diverse artists expressing flair beyond the dusty streets of Mali. This section of the gallery has profiles on the contemporary creators Abdoulaye Konate, Opa Bathily, Souleymane Guindo, Seydou Camara, Ange Dakouo, Dramane Toloba, Aboubacar Traore, Mohamed Dembele, King Massassy and Mohamed Diawara. Their disciplines range from textile art to photography, painting and sculpture, influenced strongly by their navigation of the Malian landscape.

The artists also discuss their creations, sketching its motivations which range from the spiritual to sociopolitical and geographical. Movement and colour in the work of Mohamed Diabagate is discussed by the artist himself and, over a melancholic score Abdou Ouologuem tells the inspiration of Blue Death, his painting which poignantly echoes the confounding terror of the sea, and the many black lives it has claimed throughout history under different circumstances.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Google Arts & Culture (@googleartsculture)