One of the cool things about traveling is that you have an opportunity to gain new perspectives on parts of the world that get lost in the noise when you’re back home. Here in Singapore (I’m at the Music Matters conference this week), some of the talk turned on what’s happening with music in Mali.
If you’ve been following international events, you’ll know that Mali is being wracked by civil war with Islamists in the north trying to push into the southern part of the country. The Islamists are firmly in control of the north, which means people are being forced to live by their rules. One of their rules is that music is forbidden.
About nine months ago, the militants declared that all music was illegal and banned all of it. Local musicians were threatened with death. Some chose exile. Venues have been shuttered. The world famous Festival in the Desert (which has attracted artists such as Damon Albarn and Robert Plant in the past) was chased out of the country. The militants even rounded up guitars and drum kits and set them on fire.
This tragedy flies in the face of the fact that Mali has produced some amazing musicians, including Ali Farka Toure (check out his version of the blues), Afro-pop star Salif Keita and soul singer Rokia Traore. There’s also a thriving hip-hop scene exemplified by the socially- and politically-conscious Amkoullel.
Music has been an entrenched party of life in Mali for centuries. It’s been use in ceremonies, rituals, celebrations and storytelling for as long as people have occupied this part of Africa.
But why ban music? In a county where the average household gets by on $246 a year and a literacy rate of under 30%, aren’t there more pressing issues?
There are theories. Some say that the religious fanatics view music has a distraction from worshiping and obeying God. Others say that this is economic sabotage. By banning one of Mali’s largest exports, the rebels hope to bring the central secular government to its knees. Or maybe it’s just a tactic for terrorizing the population.
But musicians are fighting back. Fatoumata Diawara, a singer from the south, recently organized a protest event featuring some 40 other musicians. Their goal is to mobilize people against the repressive measures of the Islamists and to spur the government in the capital of Bamako to do…something.
The situation is worth watching. We should wish them all the luck in the universe.