as told by — Daniel White
photography — Malick Sidibe

In the 1960s, Africa was undergoing tremendous change. The continent gained its independence from their colonial powers in the West. In addition, the youth were having their first encounters with Western pop culture. A photographer in Mali documented the period’s nightlife to humanize the country’s young, black faces. Malick Sidibé the “eye of Bamako”, who passed away last April is best remembered for his nightlife photography and portraits in Mali’s capital city that fulfilled each subject’s desire to be immortalized in his prints.

Mali was experiencing a cultural shift in the 1960s, with parties springing up around the country playing early Rock N Roll and R&B records. Also, kids doing their version of the twist. Sidibé would float around nightclubs in Bamako to take pictures of party-goers in their revelry.

“We were entering a new era, and people wanted to dance,” Sidibé told the Guardian in 2010. “Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women; hold them in their hands.Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.”

Young men and women would pose for Sidibé in his studio with their finest worldly possessions Including motor scooters, images of their favorite stars on record covers, magazines and posters. Sidibé sold many of his portraits for as less than a quarter, making him immensely popular with the country’s youth.

“Young people enjoyed having their photo taken in their best attire, with their new earrings, curled hair, showing off their best watch, their bracelets,” Sidibé told an interviewer after receiving the 2009 Baume & Mercier Award. “Everyone likes to be beautiful in photographs.”

Over the years his small studio in Bamako became a destination for tourists and his work spread outside of Africa. For patrons in the West expecting exotic images of Timbuktu, Sidibé’s photos were the opposite. Seeing young Africans having fun, dancing to music and going out on the town, much like Americans, did much to normalize them in the eyes of Western viewers.

“The studio was like no other," Sidibé said. “Looking beautiful was everything. Everyone had to have the latest Paris style. We had never really worn socks, and suddenly people were so proud of theirs, straight from Saint Germain des Près!”

There were the record players that boys would use to attract girls, according to Sidibe in a 1999 interview. Young Malians were using their newfound obsession with Western pop culture to connect with one another. 

“They would get close to each other through the music they played. The parents would literally try to break their boxes. But the young generation always won because they had to work in the field, and if there was no music they would say, "We're not going to work." So they got to keep their music.”

Various regime changes and culture shifts led Mali away from the country’s 1960s embrace of the West, but the period lives on through the images of Sidibé. He remained working in his studio until his death.

According to Sidibé it was, "a fantastic period."