Music is one of Mali's greatest exports, having penetrated everything from the blues to indie rock, and with musicians like Toumani Diabaté and the late Ali Farka Touré becoming household names in the West. But Mali's legendary music heritage suffered a huge blow last year, after militants linked to al-Qaeda took control of the north and banned all popular music.
A group of 40 of Mali's most popular artists – including Diabaté, Habib Koité and Bassekou Kouyate – recently came together to record a song calling for peace in the country in the face of the Islamic insurgence. Released on 19 January, "Mali-ko" (Peace), was intended to give silenced musicians a voice.
Fatoumata Diawara, who came up with the idea, sings, "What is going on in Mali? Do we really want to kill each other? Do we really want to betray one another? Allow ourselves to be divided?"
Listen to "Mali-ko" here:
In recent weeks, since the French and African armies began to move north, winning back key towns, music is once again being heard on Mali's streets.
But according to news reports, many fear the relief will be short-lived. Mali has been under a state of emergency since 12 January, the day after France sent in troops. Under the government decree, public gatherings, including public concerts, are banned. A determined few have braved the state of emergency and security checkpoints to enjoy Bamako's nightclubs, but the crisis continues to hurt the music scene.
Diawara at least is hopeful. "We have to be – that's why I did the record," she told U.K.-based Channel 4 News. "We need to save our story, our culture; we can't give up everything so fast."
Around this time of year, Mali would normally be hosting the legendary Festival in the Desert, in the middle of the Sahara near Timbuktu. The festival was cancelled this year due to insecurities in the region, and will take place in neighbouring Burkina Faso this fall instead. Despite the crisis, musicians are already planning to host the festival just outside Timbuktu again in 2014.
As Manny Ansar, the festival's director, told the Guardian, "Music is important as a daily event. It's not just a business, for it's through our music that we know history and our own identity. Our elders gave us lessons through music. It's through music that we declare love and get married – and we criticise and make comments on the people around us."
A new CD featuring music recorded at last year's festival is coming out on 19 March, care of Clermont Music. You can listen to two tracks from the CD here:
"Adibar", by Ali Farka Touré All Stars, featuring Mamadou Kelly
"Democratie", by Tartit
On Music Freedom Day (3 March) this year, Freemuse, an organisation dedicated to musical free expression, put a spotlight on Mali's musicians and honoured the Festival in the Desert with its annual Freemuse award.
Click here to read an edited and condensed excerpt from their comprehensive report, Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali, about what the music scene was like in the north under Sharia law and how the capital, Bamako, was affected.