A Malian chorus of reason hits the airwaves
As the political crisis in Mali continues, the country’s most renowned artistes are fighting back using the most powerful tool at their disposal: music.
Since March 2012, Mali has undergone a rebellion in the north, a military coup, a refugee crisis and lately, the intervention of French troops to rescue the splintered country.
In December last year, singer Fatoumata Diawara traveled back home to Mali to spend the holidays with her family.
She took the trip against the advice of many friends who warned her that she would face danger due to the unrest in parts of the country.
However, thanks to that holiday, which offered her a chance to experience the crisis first hand, the singer was inspired to bring together more than 40 of her country’s musicians to record a 7-minute song titled Mali-ko (Mali Peace) at the Studio Bogolan in Bamako.
The lyrics say: “Do we really want to kill each other? Remember, we are all children of the same mother country. When we stand together, all of Africa is stronger.”
Known collectively as 'Voices United for Mali', the group includes stars like Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Toure, Djelimadi Tounkara, Toumani Diabate, Khaira Arby, Tiken Jah Fakoly, and Habib Koite amongst many others.
“The Malian people look to us,” says the 30-year old Diawara who has established herself as one of the country’s leading female singers since the release of her debut album Fatou in 2011.
“People have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali. Music has always been strong and spiritual, and has had a very important role in the country; so when it comes to the current situation, people are looking to musicians for a sense of direction.”
She says the project acquired urgency because it came at a time that Mali’s musicians were all wondering how they could bring their influence to bear on the situation in the country. “When I brought this idea all the artistes reacted positively. We have never recorded together as the musicians of Mali. I cried because it was very emotional to see all the artistes together in the studio especially during this difficult period,“ says Diawara.
That musicians from the north joined their compatriots from the rest of Mali for the recording was a very important symbol of unity in a country that has for long had to deal with the Tuareg insurrection in the north. Diawara says that it is not every Tuareg who advocates secession but just a minority within the community. “We want to show the world that we are united. We only want to save our soul and music is the soul of Mali,” she says.
The singer has been outspoken on her country’s crisis, even appearing on French public radio early in January alongside the Prime Minister of Mali, Django Sissoko, to discuss efforts at bringing peace. On her debut album, she sings Kèlè in the Bambara language appealing to African heads of state to stop the wars and lamenting that conflict separates families.
Within the last two years, Diawara’s talents have earned her acclaim and raised her international profile. Former Beatle Paul McCartney jammed with her during last year’s Africa Express, a musical tour of Britain on train while American soul legend Bobby Womack invited her for a duet on his latest album The Bravest Man. She was also nominated for a Music of Black Origin (Mobo) Award in the UK and named Best Newcomer by the respected world music magazine, Songlines.
Many of Diawara’s famous compatriots who have put Malian culture on the world map through their music continue to speak out against the violent clashes in their country.
Two weeks ago while in the course of a tour that took him though several African cities, singer-guitarist Vieux Farka Toure spoke about the deep anguish that the fighting in the North of the country had caused him. “We are tired. We need the situation to calm down. As a musician, my guitar is the only gun I have to defend myself,” said the man who is popularly known as the Jimi Hendrix of Desert Blues.
The son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, whose hometown of Niafunke was overrun by Islamist fighters late last year, says he has not visited his village since the war broke out. “I cannot venture out of Bamako because it is too dangerous in that part of the country.”
Concerts have been banned in the captured northern towns, music venues closed, instruments destroyed and musicians forced to flee to the South or to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Vieux says it is ridiculous for people to use religion as a pretext to ban music yet there is a strong influence of Islamic religious music on all forms of Malian music.” It is absurd that even mobile phone ringtones are outlawed by the militia in Northern Mali and musicians have to travel to the South to perform and earn a living which they cannot do at home.“
Islam or Christianity comes from the heart, not from the barrel of the gun. These are not religious people but drug and gun dealers who are using faith to overrun Mali,” he said
Kora maestro Toumani Diabate agrees that the trade in narcotics has taken root in the country and the proceeds from this illegal trade has fuelled the conflict through guns and other weapons.
Diabate has described the situation as a “terrorist” takeover of the country’s North. “We have been Muslims for over 1,000 years,” he says. “This is not religion, it is something else,” he said, urging the rest of the world to be ambassadors for Mali by safeguarding the country’s great culture and history.
The plight of Malian musicians is also attracting the attention of the world music fraternity. Last weekend, London’s Barbican Hall played host to the Sahara Soul tour featuring performances by Malian singers Bassekou Kouyaté, his band Ngoni Ba, Sidi Toure and the Touareg band Tamkirest. The tour that also includes dates in Glasgow and Paris represents a musical reaction against the militant forces that have ravaged parts of Mali.
It was also a showcase of the new album Jama Ko (‘a great gathering’ in Bambara) by Kouyaté, a native of Segou in the South who is credited with revolutionising the ngoni, a stringed instrument often compared with the banjo.
However the political undertones were unavoidable: “We don’t want Al-Qaeda and sharia law,” said Kouyaté, while hailing the French intervention to reclaim cities like Gao and Timbuktu from the insurgents.
The organisers of this year’s Glastonbury festival, one of the UK’s best loved summer music events, have announced that they will invite a host of Malian performers to play at this year’s event in June.
Singer and guitarist Rokia Traoré is the first act confirmed for this year’s festival that will express solidarity with musicians from Mali. A statement from the festival organizers said: “Given the situation in Mali at the moment, it felt important to show some solidarity. We want to stay out of the politics, but if we can give the musicians a platform we will always do that