Bambara, the “people who refuse to be ruled” is the literal meaning of their name. They are the largest ethnic group in Mali, West Africa of which they make up about 35% of the population. Their language is the trade language spoken throughout much of the country and they have been the dominant people group of Malian society. They are descendants of the Mande race and up until the 1700’s ruled over much of West Africa. In the 1800’s very aggressive Muslim groups attacked the Bambara strongholds and for the next 40 years ruled over the people. The Muslims had very little success attaining converts from the Bambara actually until the arrival of the French, now the Bambara are almost 70% Muslim.
The Bambara are mainly farmers who grow millet, sorghum and tobacco as well as some cotton. They posses a small amount of livestock for farm help and they also have some that they keep on hand as an investment. They work hand in hand with the Fulani. In exchange for supplies of vegetables and trade products the Fulani will watch and herd the cattle of the Bambara. Many of the Bambara hunt for their food and skins, but they also do a great deal of harvesting honey from the local bees.
The Bambara are a very family oriented culture, as is very evident through their enormous family groups. Bambara homes will include large numbers of family members and family groups, and will sometimes hold 60 people at a time. All women are married and even widows who are very old will be sought after because a person’s status is very highly dependant on his wives. Most women have about 8 children.
The Bambara are famous for their wood carvings and paintings which are very abstract. They are meant to draw the person into a glimpse of the unknown. The Bambara love to make ordinary items beautiful and many artists are not considered successful unless the thing that they are making serves a specific purpose, whether magical or practical.
Most Bambara would consider themselves to be Muslims; however they generally practice a blend of folk religion and spirit worship combined with Islam. Tradition is extremely important to the Bambara and the practice and handing down of different practices and rituals as well as religious beliefs are very important to them.
Malians are open and tolerant. Ethnic identity is still important, but where once there was enmity, in most cases a cousinage or joking cousins relationship now exists. People from different groups commonly tease and poke fun at ethnic stereotypes and past deeds, to everyones enjoyment. The only exception is the Taureg, who remain a people apart.
In Mali, personal relationships are important, friendships are things of great value, families are the glue that holds everything together, and hospitality and generosity seem to increase in inverse proportion to a persons means. Malians worry about the dire state of the country and a perceived loss of tradition, rail against corruption and long for a better life, but deep down theyre a remarkably optimistic people who love to dance. They love it even more if you dance with them.
Malians struggle to hold fast to old ways of living, while embracing modern culture. This conflict is particularly acute because Mali is officially the 4th poorest country in the world and for most Malians daily life is a struggle. In this context, the role played by music in Malian life cannot be overestimated. Not only has Malis music proven to be a reassuring bastion of traditional rhythms and a bulwark against the encroachment of the modern world, it has also provided a refuge and diversion from difficult economic circumstances. It is little wonder, therefore, that music accompanies everything in Malian life. 80 to 90% of Malians are Muslim.