Africa’s most musical nation reels from a military coup and armed rebellion. What does the future hold for Mali’s musicians?
In January, a few months before an unexpected coup d’état toppled the Malian government and launched the country into a spiral of political chaos, it would have been hard to imagine that “Festival In The Desert” would be a thing of the past.
Since its founding in 2001, the festival brought thousands of locals and travelers alike to Mali’s northern deserts to listen to world class bands rock out on the most spectacular festival grounds possible: the middle of the Sahara. In January, U2’s Bono performed, alongside rebel rockers Tinariwen and ngoni player Bassekou Koyaté.
The Festival was the result of Mali’s tremendous success in the international music scene over the last several decades. The country’s mix of deep traditions, political stability and a vibrant multi-ethnic population were the preconditions that allowed for major artists like Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou and Mariam, and Tinariwen to emerge and experience stellar careers abroad. Mali was a shining example in a conflict-prone region: a country known more for its cultural riches than for violence and war.
Now it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see another “Festival In The Desert” for a long, long time.
In March, a group of junior army officers, led by one Captain Sanogo, seized control of the government from President Amadou Toumani Touré. According to reports, the coup was fueled by anger surrounding Touré’s mismanagement of the army, who claim to have been under-supplied in recent skirmishes with separatist Tuareg rebels. Those same rebels, known as the MNLA, managed to seize control of much of Northern Mali amid the confusion that followed the coup.
The Tuareg hope to turn the region into an independent country called Azawad. That ambition, once far-fetched, is now looking increasingly plausible. Malian forces have lost control of Gao and Timbuktu, and there are no signs they will get them back anytime soon. Facing pressure from the international community, Captain Sanogo has promised to hold elections once order has been restored, but so far no date has been set.
We got in touch with some of our favorite musicians from Mali to find out how the conflict has been affecting them, and what they hope is in store for Mali’s future.
“The war in the North is felt directly here in Bamako [the capital],” says a member of the hip-hop trio SMOD who didn’t identify himself. “Prices have soared, everything is four times more expensive. It has become difficult for many people to feed themselves. But above all, the military is in the streets, and we’re not used to seeing so many weapons. For the moment, a feeling of fear is dominating us. People continue their daily activities but everyone is afraid.”
SMOD’s guitarist, Sam, is the son of stars Amadou and Mariam, and is becoming quite successful in his own right. The group recently released their first album, full of rootsy rap-inflected songs produced by Manu Chao. Even before the crisis, SMOD’s music focused on humanitarian issues. Now, they say they are even more committed to making music with a positive message.
“Right before the coup, we recorded a song about keeping Mali united. Now, more than ever, we’re fighting for hope and unity,” says the SMOD member we spoke with. Artists have a responsibility, he says, to help by raising funds through charity concerts if they can.
In the case of the Malian conflict, SMOD’s hope of unity for his country is actually a contentious political position, considering that half the country is trying to break away right now.
“Mali is an indivisible, secular country. The international community must help the Malian state to regain its territorial integrity,” he says. “Negotiation is necessary and we ask the Malian army and political powers to be united together to hear the Malian people, who seek peace.”
In Northern Mali, home to some of the country’s best-known musicians, most people don’t have the luxury of taking sides. Political order has all but broken down, and it has been difficult for anyone to figure out exactly what’s going on – even for those living in the middle of the conflict.
Singer Khaira Arby is from Timbuktu, Northern Mali’s largest city. Today, it’s a multi-ethnic hub where people have largely gotten along peacefully over the years, despite their differences.
In a recent interview with Afropop Worldwide, Khaira said she still doesn’t understand exactly who is attacking and occupying her city. “No one knew who was who. No one knew who did who did this, or who did that,” she said.
The confusion is understandable, because a number of separate armed groups with varying agendas are operating in the North. Aside from the MNLA (Tuareg rebel force), there is an Arab fundamentalist group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as a Tuareg splinter group called Ansar Dine, who want to implement Sharia law in Azawad. Not to mention regular, run-of-the-mill bandits. It’s unclear to what degree these groups are working together. The MNLA denies ties to Islamists and says it supports a secular future for the North.
Despite the dangerous situation at home, Khaira risked leaving Timbuktu to go on tour in the United States. A few weeks ago at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, she and her band brought down the house with her trance-inducing Saharan guitar pop. In the middle of her set, she stopped to tell audiences about the grave situation in Mali, and ask for peace.
“She’s telling people that Mali needs the support of the West, but that she doesn’t want our arms or our bombs,” says Chris Nolan, her manager. “She wants children to be able to go back to school, for people to go back to work, for medical care to return to the city.”
Khaira reports that schools and hospitals are closed, and that commerce has all but halted in the city. She says many people have fled south, including several of her family members, and that outsiders from the armed groups have come in and occupied the empty homes. “There’s no money moving hands, and it’s very difficult to get food shipped there. Everybody’s life has been disrupted.” says Nolan.
Although she’s using her celebrity to advocate for relief, Khaira isn’t taking sides in the Mali-Azawad conflict. After all, if she picks the losing side, it can mean danger for both her and her family.
One group that has unapologetically taken a side in the conflict is Tinariwen, the Grammy-winning Tuareg band whose hard-hitting “desert blues” sound is a close musical relative of Khaira Arby’s music. Tinariwen’s members have supported the creation of an Azawad state in Northern Mali since their inception – in fact, several members were fighters in the last Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. As a child, lead singer Ibrahim Ag Alhabib even saw his father assassinated by Malian forces.
The band rose to fame during the first Festival in the Desert in 2001 and began to tour abroad, singing songs about Tuareg life and liberation.
“Tinariwen sings the voice of the Taureg people,” says Tinariwen members Eyadou Ag Leche and Touhami Ag Alhassane, writing from Northern Mali. “We support the desire for autonomy that our people have claimed for generations”
“We are a peaceful people and do not want disorder. The current situation, although unfortunate, brings back many problems that have been buried for a long time, especially the establishment of arbitrary borders in the Sahara desert,” they say.
He’s talking about the decolonization of Africa in the 1960s, when the European powers haphazardly set borders of newly minted African nations without much consideration about which ethnic groups lived where. The Tuareg ended up divided between several countries in the Sahara, and have been fighting for self-rule ever since.
The band says their families have been deeply affected since January by the fighting between the Tuareg and the Malian army, and that approximately 200,000 people have been displaced to camps in neighboring countries, or in the bush. Tinariwen’s lead singer, Ibrahim, has allegedly been stuck in such a refugee camp since February and had to miss the group’s last European tour.
“These internally displaced people have experienced catastrophic situations, and are lacking necessary supplies. Our families are far from being safe,” says the band.
Although Tinariwen supports the rebellion, they say that stability and safety for the people of the desert is the priority right now. When asked whether they plan to make music that addresses the crisis, they say that while they used to make songs about freedom fighting, their songwriting philosophy has changed.
“Tinariwen’s music is poetic and spiritual, taking from elements of the desert and the extreme feelings the Sahara can awaken within us. We speak of freedom, joy, and sadness,” says the band. “There is no specific answer we can sing about that will deal with this situation.”