Jazz warrior defending Mali’s values

The New York Times reports: Cheick Tidiane Seck played a concert in Bamako last Saturday, the capital of his native Mali, just before he returned to his home in Paris.

A war was raging in the north of the country, as Malian and French troops bore down on the fabled desert city of Timbuktu that had been held by Tuareg rebels and their Islamist allies since spring. The jihadist fighters, as they retreated, set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts dating from as far back as the 13th century, according to reports that emerged later.

But in the concert hall that night, Mr. Seck, on the piano, made music with other well-known stars of Mali’s jazz scene, playing to an audience of people from all over the country. “There were Tuaregs in the hall, and out in the streets,” Mr. Seck recalled, “and nobody threatened them.”

Sitting at a corner table in the basement of a cafe below his Paris apartment, Mr. Seck was unmistakable: A young Malian waiter stopped by to pay his respects to the 59-year-old music legend. A large man, Mr. Seck looked larger still in a flowing brown robe, upon which he had purposely hung a colorful beaded purse. “It’s Tuareg,” he said.

If Mr. Seck has a message today — a rare moment when the world can locate Mali on a map — it is that his country’s culture must endure, as it has for thousands of years.

But until France intervened last month to stop Islamist forces from moving south to Bamako, Mr. Seck was not so sure Mali itself would survive.

“I was afraid for my country,” he said. “Once I knew that they had conquered all the cities in the north, a chill went down my spine. It was an unspeakable wound.”

In his view, the Islamists’ acts of violence — against people, but also against the ancient culture of Timbuktu — were crimes against humanity. A 15th-century Malian proverb proclaims: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”

According to some reports, much of the precious collection of manuscripts assembled in the Ahmed Baba Institute was saved by archivists and local residents before Timbuktu was seized by Islamist rebels last April; the documents remain hidden for fear that the jihadists will return.

But the wanton destruction of the graves of Timbuktu’s Sufi saints, considered idolatrous by orthodox Salafists, is undisputed, like the banning of music, the enforced veiling of women, the floggings and the amputations.

“A people has the right not to be ruled by violence,” Mr. Seck said. “They were going to impose Shariah across the whole country. They were going to destroy what was left of the harmony in the country.”

Now, he believes that danger has receded thanks to a decision by President François Hollande of France to intervene on Jan. 11. “The French knew that they had to do that in order to block this Islamic fundamentalism,” Mr. Seck said. “It must be stopped; they must be stopped.”

“So I say, ‘Bravo, Hollande,”’ he said. “I say, ‘A big bravo,’ and I am not the only one to say that. You can see French and Malian flags flying together all over Bamako.”

Now comes the hard part, as a fragile country tries to pull itself back together. Mr. Seck said he remained optimistic. [Continue reading…]

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