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The day the music died in Mali

On Music Freedom Day (3 March) this year, Freemuse, the international organisation dedicated to free expression for musicians, pays tribute to Mali's artists. Here is 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

Renowned Malian singer Khaira Arby (front) said she had to leave her home in Timbuktu when militants controlled the north
Renowned Malian singer Khaira Arby (front) said she had to leave her home in Timbuktu when militants controlled the north

In Mali's northeastern city of Gao, a group of teenagers sat around a ghetto blaster listening to Bob Marley. A Landcruiser pick-up loaded with Islamic police came by and accosted them. "This music is haram [forbidden by Islamic law]," said one of the men as he yanked the cassette out and crushed it under his feet. "Listen to this instead," he barked, handing the reggae fans a tape of Cheikh Abderrahmane Soudais, the highly revered Quranic chanter from Saudi Arabia.

A group of at least 30 women gathered on the dirt airstrip near the small northern town of Kidal, listening to and playing the tindé drum. The beat of the tindé powers the communal joy of major feasts and gatherings in Touareg lands. Like so much traditional Touareg music, it's played by women and only women. But as men gathered around to watch, as they had been used to doing for as long as they could remember, militiamen with black headbands and AK47s from the rebel group Ansar ud-Dine sliced into the crowd, shouting at the men to keep away from the women, and for all to go home.

At a checkpoint on the outskirts of Gao, a local takamba musician on his way to a wedding was stopped and searched at a checkpoint by a militiaman from the al-Qaeda offshoot MUJAO. Takamba is the sound of Gao, the preferred style of musical entertainment at weddings, baptisms and Tabeski. It's a style that also unifies the Touareg and Songhai people, often at odds with each other, as it is performed and listened to by both ethnic groups. At the checkpoint, all the instruments were taken out and piled up by the side of the road: guitars, teherdents (lutes), amps, speakers, calabashes. The pile was doused in petrol and set alight.

These are just a few snapshots of musical life in what was the most literal and brutal Sharia jurisdiction in the world. Music was banned inside much of the west African nation by al-Qaeda linked militants who seized power after a military coup destabilised Mali last March. They controlled the north of the country until French and African troops started unseating them earlier this year.

Last August, MUJAO spokesperson Osama Ould Abdel Kader, declared, "We, the mujahedeen of Gao, of Timbuktu and Kidal, henceforward forbid the broadcasting of any Western music on all radios in this Islamic territory. This ban takes effect from today, Wednesday. We do not want Satan's music. In its place, there will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done."

The declaration was disingenuous: music of any kind – not just "Western" – had been effectively banned in the north for several months already.

Mobile phones became one of the only ways to listen to music, but they too attracted the attention of the Islamic police. In Timbuktu, a teenager reported having the SIM card on his phone confiscated by Ansar ud-Dine fighters who had heard his mobile phone ringtone playing "godless music" – a song by local artist Seckou Maiga.

The militants had even forced an end to this year's famous Festival in the Desert, normally in Timbuktu, organised by Manny Ansar. "The MUJAO can exist," Ansar said, "but not among this people. Everything is transmitted in Mali through music, through poetry… Mali without music is impossible. Life would have no meaning for the people, because music is their daily reality. It's the only thing that many have to distract and amuse themselves. They have no television. They have no Internet. They don't play chess. They don't gamble. Music is the only thing that makes live worth living."

Dozens of musicians went into exile, or fled south to the Malian capital, Bamako, outside the rebel-controlled area. But there they faced different problems. The rebellion, the military coup and the Islamist takeover in the north delivered a flurry of blows to Bamako's music scene, already being pounded by piracy, the recession and the trend of replacing live music with DJs. Political strife and social unrest robbed many people of any desire to go out and be entertained.

"Musical life has stopped in Bamako," said singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum. "Everybody is scared of going to Mali now and it's tourists who make musicians play. Hotels give us our livelihood. But none of that exists anymore.

"On top of that crisis there's another crisis. Every Bamakois has a relative in the north, and now they have the job of feeding those relatives. They don't even know where they're going to find the money to look after them."

"Musical activity has diminished by 98 percent... 98 PERCENT!" was musician Toumani Diabaté's emphatic lament. "The coup d'état was months ago, but we haven't performed since, because people don't have the head for having fun at the moment. They don't have the money. They're suffering… There's a lack of security. So if you don't have the money and you feel insecure, you're not going to leave home."

Most of the people I interviewed knew cases of fellow musicians falling below the breadline and being forced to beg for money, or selling their instruments for a song. "It's dramatic," singer Rokia Traore said, "the number of artists who came along and who hadn't eaten for three days, who had kids who go to school and who hadn't been able to buy what they need, who were ill and hadn't been able to get treatment."

Many an eyewitness report of the Bamako mood during the crisis of 2012 remarked on the resilience of daily life in the capital and how it refused to succumb to panic and fear. It seems clear that while Bamako club life might be resilient, even defiant, it no longer provides local musicians with a livelihood.

Click here to listen to some of the music that Mali's musicians put out in the face of musical censorship.

This article containing edited chapters written by Andy Morgan was published with the permission of Freemuse. The full report, Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali, has been published in connection with Music Freedom Day on 3 March.

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