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State of the Union: After a Year of Silence, Music Returns to Mali

State of the Union: After a Year of Silence, Music Returns to Mali
French and Malian Troops push into Northern Mali (Photo: Getty Images)

As Islamists Occupying Northern Mali Flee, Rhythm Returns to the Desert

By Marlon Bishop
February 8, 2013

Last March, when the cities of Northern Mali were occupied by armed Islamist groups, many in West Africa and around the world watched in tense anticipation. But perhaps no single group was as affected by the turmoil as the members of the traditional world music industry and its fans.

That’s because no other country in Africa is as well-regarded for music as Mali. For decades, Mali’s many musicians have traveled the world’s stages, building a reputation for the country as a peaceful, multi-ethnic paradise with vibrant traditional customs. Since 2001, Mali even hosted one of the world’s most remote music festivals, the Festival in the Desert, attracting visitors and star performers from around the globe, as well as support from Bono.

After all that, how could the music just suddenly stop?

Slowly the reports came in. When the Islamists arrived, they quickly banned all music except for Koranic recitation. Once festive cities like Timbuktu and Gao suddenly became silent. Some musicians received grisly threats, and ordinary people were reprimanded for improper ringtones. Then, after almost year without music, the recent advance of French and Malian forces sent the Islamists fleeing from major cities into the Northern deserts. According to reports, citizens celebrated by playing music in the streets long into the night.

Vieux Farka Toure, son of guitar legend Ali Farka Toure

“Everyonce in Mali is [French President Françoise] Holland’s biggest new fan. We are extremely grateful to him and to France for intervening in the war,” says Vieux Farka Touré, musician and son of the famous “desert bluesman” Ali Farka Touré. Touré’s hometown is Niafunké, one of the occupied cities. “Without them I don’t know where I and my family would be today. But thanks to this effort, freedom has returned to the North. Music has returned to the North, which is to say life itself has returned to the North. We were dead for a year and now we are reborn.”

Although tensions in Northern Mali have been brewing for decades, the current crisis began when a group of young military officers unexpectedly toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The officers justified their takeover by claiming that the president had failed to equip the military properly in their fight against Tuareg separatists in the North.

Jay Ruteledge, the German manager of Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate, was in the Malian capital of Bamako at the time of the coup, working in the studio. He says it was eerie seeing the streets so empty. “I’ve been to Bamako ten times, and you could always walk around at night – you could sleep on the road if you had to and nobody would bother you,” he said. “After the coup, there were curfews, and we became scared to drive back from the studio at night. It felt a bit a strange.”

In the confusion caused by the coup, a complex tangle of rebel groups seized the desert cities of the North and declared themselves an independent nation under the name Azawad. The rebels ranged from secular Tuareg nationalists to a regional Al-Queda splinter group. But it was a well-armed, hard-line faction called Ansar Dine came to dominate, led by a Tuareg born-again Islamist warlord named Iyad Ag Ghaly. Ghaly installed a harsh system of justice wherever his forces went.

Tinariwen, Tuareg roots band from Northern Mali.

In the year that followed, there have been various reports of persecution against musicians. Many of the sources I spoke with told me the story of one musician in Kidal, whose house was visited by gunmen one day while he was away. The men set fire to his house and told his sister that if the musician ever played guitar again, they would cut off his fingers. Another story involves a member of the well-known Tuareg band Terakraft, who was told by Islamists policing the border that they would “break his head” if he ever tried to enter Mali with a guitar again. Singer Khaira Arby told the Washington Post that gunmen entered her house and destroyed her instruments, telling her neighbors that “if they ever caught me, they would cut my tongue out.”

During the reign of Ansar Dine, harsh sentences including hand amputations and lashings were carried out for various offenses. There have been no reports of musicians receiving such punishments. But according to Chris Nolan, a producer who manages Arby and has worked with Malian artists for many years, the majority of musicians didn’t take their chances. He says most artists who had the means escaped South to Bamako, or left the country. Others simply hid their instruments, burying them in the desert to avoid problems. Nolan says that for the musicians who had no choice but to stay, getting by was a struggle.

“There was a cultural freeze,” says Nolan. “Malian culture is very musical – celebrations, weddings, everything was always accompanied by some musical event. Those shut down, leaving people without money. People couldn’t work.” Nolan says, for example, that he has received several desperate messages from the Gao-based band Super 11 pleading for money to help them get through the occupation.

During the course of the occupation, many Malian musicians have spoken up against the Islamists and their anti-music policies. “There are over 90% Muslims in Mali, but our form of Islam here has nothing to do with a radical form of Sharia: that is not our culture,” says Bassekou Kouyate. “We have been singing praise songs for the Prophet for hundreds of years. If the Islamists stop people music making they will rip the heart out of Mali.”

Indeed, the liberal form of Islam practiced in Mali is intimately tied to music. Most Malians revere the mystical teachings of Sufi saints, and many musical traditions in the country are used for religious trancing, such as the hypnotic guitar-pop of Tuareg bands like Tinariwen.

Kouyate, who plays a traditional guitar-like instrument called the ngoni, has just released an album calling for peace in Mali. It’s titled Jama Ko, which translates to “big gathering of people” in the Fula language, a reference to the peaceful relations between ethnic groups that once characterized Mali.

“People around the world know that Mali makes good music, but people don’t know how deep the role of music in our society is,” says Manny Ansar, a cultural activist and organizer of the Festival in the Desert. “The songs are our oral history, it’s who we are. It’s everywhere in our daily life. It’s not possible to imagine life without music here.”

Last week, organizers announced that this year’s Festival in the Desert would be postponed until further notice. Due to the conflict, it would have been impossible to do the festival in its traditional location in the desert outside Timbuktu. Instead, festival organizers had planned an ambitious “Caravan For Peace,” in which two caravans of musicians and fans would travel from different parts of the Sahel region, playing music along the way. The caravans would then pass through Southern Mali and end up in a “Festival in Exile” in Burkina Faso, where many refugees from the Malian conflict are currently living. But the Caravan had to be postponed as well, due to a “state of emergency” declaration in Mali that prohibits all large gatherings as the French offensive continues in the North.

Ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate

Manny Ansar says that the Festival in the Desert is much more than just a concert, especially now. As French and Malian forces push North, many are worried that soldiers will take reprisals against Tuareg, the majority of whom do not belong to the Islamist Ansar Dine group that gas terrorized the northern cities. The festival, he says, offers an important moment of reconciliation between Malians in these tense times.

“The festival is a way of bringing the people together,” says Manny Ansar. “We have had problems with the North and South for many years, but everybody comes together for this festival, having fun and playing music. It’s an important symbol right now for us. We can do much more than the politicians to bring our peoples together.”

Festival organizers say they hope to be able to do the Caravan for Peace later in 2013, after Mali’s rainy season.

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