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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).

Educator Conversations: One Night in Bamako

Editor’s note: This post is a part of a series of conversations between educators in the K-12 community. Educators will offer suggestions and answer questions about integrating UMS School Day Performances or the arts into classroom curriculum, as well as share advice on organizing a field trip to UMS. To volunteer to be a Teacher Lobby Moderator e-mail Or, check out other Educator Conversations.

This week’s questions:

  • Who are these two artists, Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba?
  • How should I prepare my class for the performance?
  • Bamako? What? Where? And who cares?
  • Isn’t taking a class on a field trip too much trouble?

jeff-gaynor-150This week’s moderator: Jeff Gaynor. Jeff has been teaching for 35+ years, 20 years at Elementary, and the last 15+ at Clague Middle School, where he teaches Math and Social Studies. He integrates music and art into the curriculum, often prior to field trips, or by bringing guest artists in his classroom. Jeff is on the UMS Teacher Insight Committee has an interest in classical, jazz and world music. He has participated in month-long teacher study trips to Belize, Turkey and South Africa.

Q: Who are these two artists: Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba?

Ha – this was my first question – and I can save you the same embarrassment. Bassekou Kouyaté is the lead musician. He plays an ancient traditional stringed instrument, like a lute, but he has also modernized it in amazing ways. This instrument is called the ‘ngoni.’ “Ngoni Ba” is the name of the band he leads. Check them out.

Q: How should I prepare my class for the performance?

It’s important that students look forward to the trip with anticipation. The level of academic preparation depends on the grade, subject, and how much time you can spend (pressing issue, I know). At a minimum, I go through the UMS Learning Guide and choose 1 or 2 activities to do with my students. Also very helpful, especially with unusual instruments or genres, is to play audio or video clips in class, and have a discussion to focus attention on how this music is alike or different from other music they have heard.

You can find videos on YouTube, and the Guide has more suggestions. Seeing or listening to the music in your classroom isn’t the real thing, though curiously, the appreciation for the live performance will be increased if students have seen the performer before hand, if on a screen. At a minimum go to the UMS web page and click on “Listen & Learn.”

Of course, the more curriculum connections you make, the more students will take out of the live performance, which leads us to:

Q: Bamako? What? Where? And who cares?

“‘I mean, what is music itself? Music is everywhere, every day. If you’re gonna genuinely do that, you prohibit all sound because music is in language, it’s in everything. It’s totally abhorrent to any musician to be told they can’t play music… It’s a very particular interpretation of the Koran that prohibits all music,’ said Damon Albarn, an Africa Express co-founder.”

Quote from BBC News.

And suddenly, music is more than just music. And Bamako, the capital of Mali, in the horn of Africa, is more than some far away place. And we are teachers – it is our job to show the commonalities and the uniqueness of people in all parts of the globe.

Explore geography – with a map of West Africa, and a map of Mali, point out the the capital of Bamako, the fabled city of Timbuktu (Tombouctou), the Niger River, and the seven countries that border Mali. Find images of these places.

Read folk tales from Mali (or West Africa) as folk tales are universal and also particular. Point out that Bassekou Kouyaté is a griot – a historian and storyteller, through his music.

Most of the northern tier of Africa is heavily Muslim, as is Mali. This is part of their culture and influences the music. Islam is one of the five world religions covered in the Ann Arbor middle school social studies curriculum and may be integrated during the study of Islam or the Middle East or Northern Africa.

The quote that led this section was in response to a crisis in Mali during which Islamic fundamentalists took control of the northern part of the country. France (Mali was a French colony until 1960) then intervened militarily. This is a vital area for research with parallels and ramifications throughout the region.

Q: Isn’t taking a class on a field trip too much trouble?

No! It does take preparation but the benefits far outweigh the effort. And it will be an experience your students will remember for years and link to their classroom learning.

As an elementary teacher, and now middle school social studies teacher, I feel it is eminently important to help students link classroom experiences to the world around them. Reading about a country, or culture, or listening to a CD is one thing; attending a live concert is a visceral experience that brings learning to another level. This music may be different, but music is universal.

UMS keeps the cost of their School Day performances low. As I teach in Ann Arbor, I also choose to have my students travel on the City Bus – a $1.50 round trip, with the benefit that they get more real life experiences. I ask parents to pay the cost (under $10) or what they can, and the School PTSO makes up the difference.

Check out the AATA website for route maps and schedules. You do not need to contact them ahead of time. Do have students go to the back of the bus while you pay the driver for everyone. Do not have each student pay his or her own fare as it takes much too long.

I prepare my class not only for the concert but for taking the bus and walking through city streets: how to wait for and behave on the bus, how to leave space on the sidewalk to allow other pedestrians to pass, how to cross the street – all real life skills that they take seriously. They understand they are now off school property and the expectations are obligatory, not arbitrary. Of course I also prepare them to be good audience members, referring to the UMS Learning Guide for valuable reminders.

In fact the Learning Guide has important and worthwhile resources for pre- and post-concert links, resources and activities. Do take the time to read through it.

Do you have questions or comments for Jeff about his approach to this performance or about teaching through performance more broadly? Share your responses or questions in the comments section below.