Ian Birrell writes: At dinner last month after a concert by the Congolese rapper Baloji, I found myself sitting next to his drummer, Saidou Ilboudo. As we chatted over the chicken, he told me the remarkable story of how as a teenager growing up in Burkina Faso he had been recruited one day by Thomas Sankara, the country’s president, to play in a state band.
Sankara is an almost-forgotten figure these days in the west, but in the mid-80s he was one of the most charismatic leaders of his age, a revolutionary known as “Africa’s Che Guevara” who pushed public health, promoted feminism and faced down the global financial institutions causing such damage to the continent.
This was an amazing break for a boy just out of school. For a few years, he enjoyed the privileges and security that went with being part of the president’s circle, while playing in a band that had a dual purpose: to entertain young people while proselytising political messages. Then, in 1987, Sankara was murdered in a French-backed coup and life became trickier.
The idea of publicly funded pop groups might sound strange, but many leading figures of African music served time in such institutions. Given the continent’s oral tradition, there is a proud history of praise singers, and musicians were for centuries vital voices, used and abused by politicians and tribal leaders who understood their power. Think only of Franco, whose liquid guitar-playing made Congolese rumba the heartbeat of Africa while promoting the messages of Mobutu Sese Seko, his thieving president.
After the end of colonialism, musicians were used to fuse countries carved out of often disparate communities. Nowhere was this truer than Mali, a nation on the faultline between the African and Arab worlds in which music is more threaded into the fabric of cultural, social and political life than perhaps any other place on Earth. [Continue reading…]