Robin Denselow writes: Nowhere does music have a greater social and political importance than in the vast desert state of Mali. It is shocking, therefore, that it has been banned across much of the two-thirds of Mali currently controlled by Islamic rebel groups.
As “Manny” Ansar, the director of the country’s celebrated Festival in the Desert, which has now been forced out of the country, explained: “Music is important as a daily event. It’s not just a business, for it’s through our music that we know history and our own identity. Our elders gave us lessons through music. It’s through music that we declare love and get married – and we criticise and make comments on the people around us.”
Malian musicians have become household names in the west. The list is remarkable, from the late Ali Farka Touré to the soulful Salif Keita, from Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the kora, to the bravely experimental Rokia Traoré. Then there’s the rousing desert blues of Tinariwen, who have performed alongside the Rolling Stones.
There is the passionate social commentary of Oumou Sangaré, and the rousing, commercially successful African pop fusion of Amadou & Mariam.
These musicians, with varied, distinctive styles, have educated western audiences about Africa and their country’s ancient civilisation, and the way in which traditional families of musicians, the griots, had acted as advisers to the rulers and guardians of the country’s history, and kept alive an oral tradition for generation after generation.
And yet the Islamic rebel groups are trying to wipe out this ancient culture – and in the process have forced Malian musicians to examine the role they should now play.
Ansar said he was “ashamed at what has happened has happened – and it was provoked by people who call themselves Muslims, like me”.
When I met him at a censorship conference in Oslo, he said the militias were stopping the music “to impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them”. He added: “That’s why they are attacking the traditional chiefs and musicians. And they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old and have never been applied. I find it strange that these ideas are being imposed now. It’s as if they took a computer and wiped the hard drive, and then imposed their ideas instead.”
The situation is particularly painful for musicians from the north of Mali, for bands such as Tinariwen from the nomadic Touareg or Kel Tamashek people, whose international popularity has been helped for the last 12 years by the Festival in the Desert. [Continue reading…]