It was July last year, under the vast, open skies of Santorini, friends from every corner of the globe came together. It was for Larry, a dear friend at Cambridge, and his radiant bride. Their love story was to be celebrated in the lap of Greece’s most cherished gem, where history whispers through the wind, mingling with the fragrance of the sea. Among this gathering of joy, laughter, and the clinking of glasses, one song seemed to capture the essence of our celebration – Salif Keita’s Madan. Day in and day out, for a whole week, it became our anthem.
George, a friend whose spirit is as free as the wind, found himself moved by Madan each time it played. His joy was infectious, reminding us that some songs have the power to touch souls anew, no matter how many times they echo in the air. Watching him spark a mischief alit in my eyes, I leaned in to share a secret that felt almost too wondrous to be true. This song, which had us all swaying and stepping to its rhythm, was, in fact, a tribute to the unsung heroes of the earth – the farmers. Just like millions worldwide on TikTok who sang the song without grasping its meaning, the look of astonishment on his face was a picture I wished I could frame.
Madan, meaning, to celebrate or fiesta is a celebration wrapped in melodies, speaking of relaxation, joy, and the fiesta that follows the harvest, referred to as “kungchaamarò” or “téréto” in Gambian Mandinka dialect. The song sang in Bambara Mandinka dialect is an ode to the time when the earth yields its bounty. Salif, with a heart as vast as the fields, sings to the “kélé mansa baalu” – the great warrior kings, who toil in the sun, turning the soil and nurturing life. The song’s lyrics beckon these heroes:
Kho lamma dongo lè, (X3)
Sing lamma dongo lè (X3)
Ayé dabakuru naliyaa
Hinnà na hinna nara sah
Hinna na felleh nariya
Hinna na inna nara
These lines, woven with the vibrancy of life, call out: Where is the celebration, the joyous dancing, and the revelry that your triumphs deserve? The harvest is home, and with it, happiness, tranquility, and joy has arrived (hinna na or hinoo nata in Gambian Mandinka) As the song weaves its narrative, Keita tells of the lush abundance all around. Bananas and the abundance of crops have ripened (ah sènenè neh, banana saita), a testament to the farmers’ resilience and hard work. He joke with them, a light-hearted tease about the frogs in the fields, now that the hard work is done—no more worries of frogs leaping at their legs in the watered furrows, ”toríè (or toto in Gambian Mandinka) taalí marrè, sene kella, toríe taali mala ” Salif’s voice, a guiding light, then calls everyone to the dance floor of life, urging: beh yè kono dong dong, beh yè kono dong dong dong-beh sing nà dong dong, beh sing na dong dong dong.
It’s an invitation to shake off the weariness, to celebrate the fruits of labour with every part of your being. “Kerre kerre,”(katta nang katta nang) he beckons—come closer, dance with joy, and let the world see the splendour of your achievements.
In sharing the story behind Madan, a song that reached number 1 in Billboard charts in 31 different countries around the world when it was released in 2002, our celebration deepened, becoming a bridge between worlds. Salif, through his art, does not merely create music; he weaves stories, connecting us to the earth and to each other.
The song is a reminder that in every grain of harvested peanut or rice, in every ripe banana or vegetable, there is a story of struggle, perseverance, and ultimately, triumph. It’s a call to not only celebrate the harvest but to honour those who make it possible—the farmers, the Greatest Warrior Kings, who, with their “dabaguru” (daboh), ensure that life, in all its forms, continues to dance. Madan is more than a song. It’s a tribute to the cycle of life, to the hands that feed us, and to the joy that follows a season of hard work. In the rhythm of Madan, we find the heartbeat of the earth, a beat that binds us all, reminding us of the beauty of life and the endless reasons we have to celebrate it.
AlaSan Ceesay is a Cambridge University scholar, entrepreneur & British Army Veteran of Afghanistan with special assistance by Mr Natta Massa, Bellevue, Nabraska, USA