2012: When Mali music came under attack

Malian blind musical couple Amadou and Mariam. PHOTO | BENOIT PEVERELLI 

Mali has been a shining light of African culture and especially music, because of the seamless fusion of traditional with modern influences combined with a tolerant cultural environment. The tradition can be traced back to the days of the Mali Empire, where griots sang the praises of kings and noblemen. That rich musical history is now threatened since Islamists overrun the north of the country and turned off the music, literally.

In a strange twist to the nomadic traditions of the desert people of Mali, one of the most famous music events that country is now exiled. Since 2001, The Festival in the Desert has taken place in the beautiful dunes to the west of Timbuktu. The only threats the festival has had to face are crime and banditry, never Islamic fundamentalists like today.

In 2007, the presence of Al Qaeda in the Malian desert led many Western countries to warn their nationals against travel to the north of the country. The trend of kidnappings of tourists started soon after with the worst incident being that of a British national Edwin Dyer, beheaded by militants in 2009.

Festival in the Desert director Many Ansar became a worried man after he started receiving warnings accusing him of providing a platform for debauchery and abuse of Islam through his annual event.

It took the then Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure to directly ask him to move the festival within the Timbuktu city limits in the interests of security. The Americans, meanwhile, advised their citizens against traveling to Timbuktu and especially ‘not to the world-renowned Festival in the Desert.’

The last festival to be held in Timbuktu was in January this year amidst a high security alert after the kidnappings and the murder of a German tourist by suspected al-Qaeda militants. Islamic militants have destroyed half of the World Heritage tombs and mausoleums and turned Timbuktu into a ghost town.

Tuareg rebellion

Timbuktu was added to Unesco world heritage list in 1988 to preserve its three historic mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums. This is the region that is home to the desert blues, the genre that was turned into a world music force thanks to the great Songhai guitarist and Grammy Award winner the late Ali Farka Toure.

The Takamba music, played on a traditional gourd percussion, is the sound that unifies the Tuareg and Songhai, two ethnic groups in the north who have undergone decades of conflict over allocation of the region’s resources. There has been a deep sense of mistrust between the northern black population and the Tuaregs leading to a series of insurgencies in the colonial and postcolonial history of Mali.

The Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali is what gave birth to the group Tinariwen, the legendary guitarists whose members met as exiles at a military camp in Libya in the 1970s. During the Tuareg rebellion of 1990, the lead singer of the group is reputed to have gone into battle with his assault rifle on one hand and a guitar on the other.

When the peace treaty was signed, Tinariwen not only became local heroes but hit the world music circuit using music to campaign for justice and equality for the Tuareg people. Incidentally, the world first took notice of the group when they performed at the Festival in the Desert in 2001. After 30 years, Tinariwen has played at some of the biggest music festivals in the world and shared the stage with stars like the legendary Mexican guitarist, Carlos Santana.

Takamba is the only musical style that has managed to transcend the cultural barriers between the nomadic and sedentary peoples of the Sahara and the Sahel. Some of the illustrious sons of the Songhai culture of Gao include Ali Farka Toure and his son Vieux, Afel Bocoum, Baba Salah and Ibrahim Hamma Dicko.

In August this year, a spokesman for the group Ansar al-Din (Defenders of Faith) announced the ban on all western music on radio saying: “We do not want Satan’s music. In its place will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done.” The ban on music in the north of Mali had been unofficially enforced for months before this declaration and the tag “western music” in fact, is a blanket cover for just about all forms of music, modern, traditional, foreign and local.


Due to the occupation of northern Mali by armed separatist movements, the 13th edition of Festival in the Desert was held as a Caravan of Artists for peace and National Unity with artistes departing from Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger and meeting in Oursi, Burkina Faso, 350 km north east of Ouagadougou.

Oursi was picked as a site because of its similarities to Timbuktu, including the sand dunes and the presence of Songhai, Tuareg and Fulani communities. “The brute sound of weapons and the cries of intolerance are not able to silence the singing of griots or the sound of the Imzad (violin) and the Tinde (drum),” say the Festival organizers,

The site of the Festival in the desert was sacked and equipment stolen. Other festivals in the North, like the Essakane and the Gao festivals, have all been affected by the ban on music. The edict has however been defied by musicians like Baba Salah who hails from Gao has continued to make music and even gone public with his criticism of the Sharia law.

Music has gone underground in Northern Mali. In the south, an economic crisis has seen clubs shut and tourists have kept away. 'L’Diplomat' where Toumani Diabate used to play has shut down. There is less live music in Bamako and therefore less money to hire musicians and so the clubs are all playing CDs instead.

Mali boasts some of the finest players of the 21-stringed harp, the kora, in Sidiki Diabaté, his son Toumani Diabaté and Batourou Sekou Kouyaté. The ngoni, a cross between a guitar and a lute, with three to five strings has been made popular by musicians like Tidane Kone, the founder of the Rail Band, one of the most dominant bands of the 1970s in Mali.

Since the late 1980s, the Wassoulou brand of music has emerged as one of the strongest styles from Mali, replacing the era of praise singers. The most successful singers of this southern Mali music dominated by women are the great diva Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia and lately, Fatoumata Diawara. They do not sing in praise of their patrons but instead focus on life, love, jealousy and the status of women in contemporary Malian society.

The success of Malian music has certainly not escaped the attention of international musicians. Damon Albarn of the British band Blur recorded the album Mali Music in 2002 featuring collaborations with the country’s musicians. He has returned to the country to record a follow up while Irish superstar and social activist Bono defied security warnings to attend and perform at the Festival in the Desert this year.

Meanwhile, Hip-hop has risen in stature at the expense of traditional music and is now seen as a major force for change. Just like happened in Senegal after the last elections, rappers are courageously talking about democracy and bad governance in Mali

After the coup this year, a group of rappers formed the collective Les Sofas de la Republique. “Sofas” is a Mandinka word for warriors who served in the Mali Empire from the 13th to the 17th centuries. It is rap that has turned the crisis in Mali to music. For a people who  rely greatly on cultural exports, the ban on music in parts of Mali, is a threat to the continued relevance of the country as a sub-Saharan cultural icon.


Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?

Read Story:Can Kiir deliver on his promise of peace and stability in South Sudan?