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The Power of Music in Mali


Photo: Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. They perform in Ann Arbor on February 7, 2014. Photo by Jens Schwarz.

Music is culture and therefore it is a medium for social and political change. It is a potent organizational tool, one that can be used as a rallying cry to action or as a soothing message that brings hope to those struck by disaster. As a music student here at the University of Michigan, I have taken an American musicology class that focused in part on music’s ability to bring people together in various circumstances. Music helps listeners focus on what a better future will be like, but it also evokes what disaster and war can destroy. It is a strong reminder of the best and worst that humans can do to each other. In this class, examples of the power of music here in the U.S. were countless. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in 1939 borrows its words from Abel Meeropol’s poem which uses symbolism to speak about racism and lynching. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is a veiled political message that champions socialism in the 1940s. Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-Changin” in 1964 and “We Shall Overcome,” both became calls to action for the Civil Rights Movement.

The upcoming UMS concert “One Night in Bamako,” performed by two Malian musicians, made me wonder what musicians in Mali had to say about their country. How are these musicians sharing their culture with the rest of the world through music, and what are they critical of in their country? Given that the political unrest and tensions between different ethnic groups in Mali persist, even after a fragile peace has been restored, I wanted to find out what musicians had to say about events in their war-stricken country. I wanted to see what musicians had to say about the events in the last two years. During the al-Qaeda’s takeover of northern Mali, a very extreme version of sharia, the religious laws and morals of Islam, was instituted. This forced many rules upon unwilling citizens and dire punishments were handed out when the rules were not followed. Drinking and smoking were forbidden, all women were required to cover their heads, and any secular music was banned. Instruments were smashed and confiscated, and musicians were threatened with beatings and mutilations if they continued making music.

Music during violence

Mali music is internationally known for its diverse traditions and talented musicians. The country is even cited as creating some of the first music to inspire the blues. Music is part of many daily rituals in Mali, and praised singers and musical storytellers known as griots sing at birth ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. They do much more than entertain, however; they are the oral historians who know the local legends and family stories, and they are charged with passing them down to the following generation. Yacouba Sissoko, a well-known Malian griot says that the griot is a “person who creates cohesion between people, a kind of cement in Malian society.” The importance and ubiquity of music in Mali’s everyday life meant that the loss of music was especially difficult for the community. Even for musicians in southern Mali, the ban was crippling; many music festivals are held in the North, and if musicians had family in the North, they were worried that performing would put them in danger.

Despite the banning of music, many musicians worked tirelessly during the turmoil to bring hope to the people of northern Mali, and to bring the attention of other countries to Mali. In many ways , instead of silencing Mali, the ban seems only to have fortified music’s power to reunite and restore the country. Rapper Amkoullel was writing songs even before the coup brought problems in Mali to the world’s attention. His song “S.O.S.” talks about the dire situation in Mali and the tension between multiple cultural groups there. After the outbreak of violence, he and many other musicians came together to create the song “Tous UN pour le Mali”, which calls for international assistance to be given to Mali. Even after an unstable ceasefire was reached, he wrote “Vote!” to remind Malians of the importance of their voice in the election. Oumou Sangare put out “La Paix Au Mali” early in the conflict, promoting unity and order. Bassekou Kouyate, the ngoni player and bandleader who is coming to Ann Arbor in several weeks, released “Jama ko” which asked for harmony and tolerance during the crisis. In a particularly well-known responses to the violence, singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara gathered a large group of Malian musicians, including Vieux Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Toumani Diabaté to record a song entitled “Mali-ko” calling for peace.


Music festivals also worked together to keep Malian music alive and in the news. Two of the best known and most highly ranked music festivals in Africa, Festival au Desert and Festival sur le Niger, were disrupted during the struggles in Mali. Festival au Desert was forced to cancel and move its location from Timbuktu, even for its upcoming 2014 edition, due to security issues. For the 2013 and now the 2014 festivals, the festival has been renamed “Le Festival au Desert in Exile”, and organizers have created various caravans of artists who will travel internationally until they are able to return to Mali. Festival sur le Niger, due to its Southern location, has been able to hold its festival this year and invited Festival au Desert to have a performance there as well. These two festivals have been a way to continue sharing Malian culture with the rest of the world, provide income for Malian musicians, and bring happiness and hope to Malian citizens.

It’s not only musicians working through song that are working to create change in Mali; international organizations and individuals are also stepping in. In July 2012, Oxfam International, a confederation working against poverty, backed a performance in Bamako entitled “Mali Music Unplugged” bringing attention to the crisis in Mali. More recently, Malian Music in Exile is received funding for They Will Have To Kill Us First, a documentary about how musicians lived during the ban on music, featuring musicians such as Fatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate.

Return of Music to Mali?

The fight for music in Mali is not over yet. Many musicians are still in exile, frightened by the violence, and have been slow to return to music-making in Mali. Arab and Tuareg musicians, both ethnic groups which have been strongly linked to the Islamist rebels, are concerned about retaliations and punishment by other civilians as well as the Malian Army. In addition, due to a renewed countrywide state of emergency, gatherings of more than 70 people are still banned, making live performance of music difficult.

According to Rokia Traore, a Malian musician who was recently interviewed by PBS, artists want to show that despite the wars and poverty portrayed in the media to Western countries, there is more. She points out that there is a normal life for people living in Mali, filled with joyful things, and that people do not see themselves as victims. She also says that music will start again, and that more songs have been written about what has happened in Mali, than would have if there had not been so much fighting. “You cannot stop that in a whole country,” she says, “especially one like Mali.”

Fatoumata Diawara and Bassekou Kouyate &Ngoni Ba perform in Ann Arbor on Friday, February 7, 2014. Both artists have both been outspoken in their music about their desire for peace in Mali.

Interested in hearing more music? Listen to this Spotify playlist (via The Guardian).