Mali traces its musical tradition back to the ancient kingdom of the same name, an empire which stood at the center of the trans-Saharan trade and acted as a crucial link between the Maghreb and West Africa. The gold rich city of Timbuktu boasted an Islamic university of world-renown, and the region continued to be a vibrant center of cultural exchange through French colonial rule. In the tradition of the Mande speaking people, musicians belonged to a social caste known as jali, or griot. The music of the griots carried oral histories, political commentary, and collective memories, and its unique sound incorporated the sophistication of Islamic melodies and the power of Subsaharan polyrhythms.

Throughout the twentieth century, Malian society underwent a series of rapid changes, and its culture emerged irrevocably altered by colonialism and the struggle for independence. While the jalis no longer hold the same position of power in post-colonial Mali, modern music is deeply rooted in the griot tradition, even as it embraces outside influences.