30 Jan 2013

Musicians and militias: what next for Mali’s music?

Music can once again be heard on Mali’s streets, as land is taken back from Islamist control. But with musicians threatened and festivals cancelled, fears for Mali’s cultural future remain.

Interactive Mali map: what next for Mali's music? (R)

The Malian city of Timbuktu used to be the Western world’s short-hand for no man’s land. So much so that few people realised it existed as an actual city at all.

But despite being 2,400 miles away, Timbuktu – and Mali – is far closer to the west than we realise. That is mainly down to its music, which has penetrated everything from American blues to indie rock. Malian musicians themselves have also stormed the world stage in their own right, winning Grammys, playing Glastonbury and collaborating with the great and the good. In the UK, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express tour had its fair share of Malian headliners, from Rokia Traore to Salif Keita.

But after extremist jihadis took control of the north last year, all popular music in northern Mali itself was banned. “We do not want Satan’s music,” said a spokesman for the Ansar Din group in the city of Gao last August. “In its place will be Koranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done.”

Click on the interactive map below to see Malian musicians from the four main traditions and their songs, alongside the main areas of conflict and the French army’s takeover.

Threats and kidnappings

In a country where music is its greatest export, nightclubs were torn down, radios banned and musicians forbidden to play. Khaira Arby, known as the “nightingale of the north”, fled south to the capital Bamako after being told her tongue would be cut out if she continued to sing. The guitarist of the Tuareg band Tinariwen was also captured in early January, and later released.

“For Malian people, that’s really hard for us. Music is everywhere for us,” singer Fatoumata Diawara told Channel 4 News from Paris. “When I was there for one month [last year], it was really sad. Everyone was giving up, [saying]: ‘it’s finished’.”

Some hope has been restored in recent weeks after French and Malian armies began to move north taking back control of towns seized last year. The Malians who did not flee emerged from hiding and welcomed back the freedoms that were banned, from wearing glasses to holding hands. And yes – listening to and playing music.

That’s really hard for us. When I was there for one month, it was really sad. Everyone was giving up, (saying); ‘it’s finished’ Fatoumata Diawara

But many fear the relief will be short-lived. Northern Mali has been unstable since the eary 2000s, the French army will not stay in Mali forever, and the jihadis may return from the wilderness into which they have disappeared. The now famous Festival au Desert was cancelled this year due to insecurities in the region, and will now take place in neighbouring Burkina Faso instead.

“It’s very worrying,” record producer and Malian music expert Lucy Duran told Channel 4 News. “The most important thing now is for some kind of democratically elected government to be restored for stability.”

Ms Duran is a frequent visitor to Mali, and says the music ban has taken its toll, even in the south where wedding parties – musicians’ “bread and butter” – have been cancelled. “Because of the emergency situation, no public gatherings are allowed,” she said. “That includes weddings. So they’re all sitting around wondering where their next meal is going to come from.”

“It really is true that music is the heart and soul of Mali,” she adds. “This is what keeps people going, from when they get up 5am for their prayers. It’s unthinkable, how these people survived without their music.”

Read more from Lindsey Hilsum: A beginner’s guide to Mali

Ethnic divisions

Within the vast land-locked country, there are many ethnic divisions, and at times frictions between them.

This is reflected musically in a range of different styles and traditions, some of which date back to the thirteenth century, but which coexist (see map above) together. Many of Mali’s musicians see music as a way to bridge these divisions.

A super-group of 40 of them – including Amadou and Mariam and Bassekou Kouyate – came together to record a song calling for peace in Mali. Released on 19 January, Voices United for Mali (see below), it was intended to give silenced musicians a voice – but it was also a symbol of unity.

“I did the project to talk about the unification of our brothers in the north and the south,” said Ms Diawara, who organised the joint single. “We needed to talk about peace. It was necessary, because music was in danger.”

Musicians as ‘journalists’

Unlike other parts of Africa, where American hip-hop looms large, Malian music has since the 1970s revisited its ancient traditions, preferring to bring them up to date rather than look elsewhere for influence.

But music also fulfills a documentary role in Malian society, says London-based kora player Kadialy Kouyate, who is from a family of griots – the traditional caste of musicians.

“Musicians tell the stories and history of society,” he told Channel 4 News. “It’s based an aural history. So the griot musicians, are like the journalists of society basically. If you take that away, you leave Mali with nothing.”

The northern-Mali based band Tamikrest would agree. They told Channel 4 News that they are spokesmen for the Tuareg people: “Maybe the importance of the music, is that it helps people who don’t know to learn about the reality of the situation,” adding, “Music, it connects everyone”.

The thousands of Malians in exile in neighbouring countries will return to a country wrecked by war, with the Islamic centre torn down, music venues ravaged and recording equipment destroyed.

But Ms Diawara at least is hopeful. “We have to be – that’s why I did the record,” she says. “We need to save our story, our culture, we can’t give up everything so fast.”