This article aims to contribute to an understanding of the evaluation of musical artistry in Africa, through Mali as a case study. The discussion focuses on the informal discourses of the occupational group of Mande artisan-musicians known as jeli (pl. jeliw, jalilu), concerning the ideal of musical greatness, signified by the polysemic term ngaraya; while there is consensus about the ideal, there is much debate about who qualifies. Drawing on extensive interviews and fieldwork with leading jeliw over the past twenty years, it pays special attention to the views of and about Malian women singers, who since the 1980s have – somewhat controversially, as explored here – been the “stars” on the home scene. The article shows how local discourses challenge the widely accepted view that only men are the true masters (ngaraw). Many women jeli singers (jelimusow) have a special claim to ngaraya, and some also seek to position themselves within the canon, as they increasingly move into centre-stage of Malian popular culture. The importance of learning directly from senior master jeliw remains a core issue in the evaluation of ngaraya for both men and women, encapsulated in the phrase “the true ngaraw are all at home”.
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