At Bridges from Bamako, Bruce Whitehouse identifies each of the musicians in the video above and where they come from, and provides his own translation of the lyrics. He goes on to write:
On the surface, this looks like an anti-war song. The lyrics repeat the notion that Malians constitute one family, sharing the same blood, the same mother and father. Kinship is the strongest idiom governing social relations in Mali, and rhetorical appeals to kinship have great power to end conflict.
Yet this song also carries a message of defiance. Even as some artists decry war (as Kouyaté points out, Malians really aren’t used to it), others exhort their audience to set aside their differences and mobilize in defense of the fatherland (faso). Tiken Jah and Master Soumy are not alone in urging Malians to get ready for war. Ethnomusicologist Ryan Skinner of Ohio State University tells me the verse by griot singer Babani Koné begins with
a dramatic “sow wèlè,” or “calling of the horses.” This staple form of the griot verbal art… connotes the gathering of forces in preparation for conflict, for war. [Koné] calls on the horses (“sow“) and their “great warrior princes” (“sukèlèmansadenw“) to converge. This suggests that the Malians she calls on (literally) may not like war, but they are not unprepared for it.
A bit later, Oumou Sangaré sings “N’an m’an cɛ siri Maliba bɛ bɔ an bɔlɔ dɛ,” which I translate above as “If we don’t get ready, Maliba will slip away from us.” The verb k’i cɛ siri literally means to tie one’s waist – like girding one’s loins to prepare for a fight. When they sing about standing together, I suspect the message is directed more at Bamako’s still-divided political class than at their rebellious northern compatriots. These Malians want the world to know that while they hate war, they’re now facing an enemy that does not share their disposition to dialogue and compromise. They will do what’s necessary to defend their country.
The multiethnic, multilingual display of artistry in “Mali-ko” is an inspiring reminder of another thing I’ve come to love about Malian society: its long history of peaceful conflict resolution and inter-group harmony. Yet the absence of the country’s best-known Tuareg musicians from this project is conspicuous. The project’s lone participant of Tuareg ethnicity is Ahmed Ag Kaedi, leader of the group Amanar. I can’t avoid wondering if he was only pressed into service after Mali’s more famous Tuareg artists (Tinariwen, Tartit, Takamba Super Onze) either espoused the separatist cause or had to flee Mali fearing for their safety. Many Tuareg viewing this video are probably wondering the same thing.
Nonetheless, the most important message from the artists behind “Mali-ko” is that the Malian people are ready and willing to stand up to the threat before them. The Malian armed forces, still reeling from a string of battlefield defeats, badly need to hear this message. Mali is a place where words can conjure victory even in the darkest hour.