Music Has Been Outlawed in Mali, But the Malian People are Singing Louder Than Ever

"Music is everything in Mali. Like being in touch with God.”

Voices United for Mali - "Mali-ko" (Peace/La Paix)

Fatoumata Diawara lives in Paris currently, but she is a musician in exile. In this, she is not alone. Diawara’s native Mali, a nation that, perhaps more than any other, defines itself through its music, has had its entire society torn apart in the last year.

If you’re fan of Ali Farka Touré, Amadou and Mariam, or TV on the Radio peers, Tinariwen, you are probably at least dimly aware of the conflict currently going on in Mali. Extremely, extremely, EXTREMELY simply put: Last year, there was an uprising in northern Mali by Islamists and Tuareg nationalists. Then the Tuaregs were sidelined by the Islamists and Shariah law was put in place, meaning in part that music was outlawed and musicians were beaten, their instruments confiscated, and recording studios destroyed. Now, after months of international indifference, France, at the request of the Malian government (or, depending on your worldview, in a neo-colonialist power grab) has sent in ground troops and air strikes. The French forces have recently been joined by soldiers from Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger, and Chad. As of this moment, the Islamists have withdrawn into the desert region of Kidal, though apparently they’ve been ousted from its capital (also called Kidal) by their former allies, the Tuareg liberationists.

Confused? That’s okay. It’s confusing.

Let me be very clear here; I am qualified neither to fully explain the situation, nor have too much of a public opinion on it. I, of course, have my bias and various gut rumblings, but like even many of the supposedly serious commentators on the conflict, I don’t know jack-shit. This being a music site, I’d happily avoid the subject all together and keep my ignorance in the bars where it belongs, but besides the obvious immorality of remaining blissfully ignorant from on high, the musicians of Mali produce some of the most beautiful, stirring, and awe-inspiring music in the world so, this being a music site, attention must be paid. As Diawara told me in a recent phone interview, "Music is everything in Mali. Like being in touch with God.”

A song and video called "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)" by Voices United for Mali has been making the rounds on the Internet and, way more importantly, it has been in heavy rotation all over Mali, wherever it can be played. It’s a call for national (preferably peaceful) unity by over forty of Mali’s best known musicians. It’s a beautiful song about a wretched situation that has the rare multi-artist “cause song” distinction of 1) not being a narcissistic orgy of self congratulation, 2) having a pragmatic cause (giving a population that looks to its artists for guidance a tool to stave off despair) and 3) actually being good. Making a multi-artist cause song and not having it be terrible is a feat that probably only the musicians of Mali could pull off.

Fatoumata Diawara is the young singer/songwriter who gathered all the musicians, making sure all regions and ethnic groups were represented. When I spoke to Diawara, she was emphatic in her desire for unity in Mali. She spoke again and again of how the Malian people in the South do not, and must not, bear ill will to those in the North. She said, with the instituting of Shariah law, not just musicians and artists and athletes, but thousands of others have fled to Algeria, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere. Huge segments of the population are suffering as refugees. She called musicians the “voice of the population,” and with that comes the responsibility to give the suffering people hope. She said that the song and resultant video was a direct response to her hearing Malians saying that Mali was finished. “I said ‘NO. We have to believe.’”

Now that the North is being, for the most part, retaken, musicians along with the general populace will be returning soon. There were rumors that members of Tinariwen, who were notably absent in the Voices United for Mali song and video, had been forced to fight on the side of the Islamists, but according to journalist and Northern Mali music expert Andy Morgan, “None of them were forced to fight or anything like that. Most of them have moved to Algeria with their families, although they do go back into northern Mali fairly regularly. Abdallah Ag Lamida AKA Intidao, the guitarist, was arrested by the Islamic Police in Tessalit for playing the guitar in public, but then managed to escape pretty swiftly. Ibrahim, the founder and main man, has been spending a lot of time out in the bush near Tessalit, looking after his family and his animals, but apparently things even got a bit too hot for him at one point and he had to move to safety over the border in Algeria. But now that the MNLA have regained control of Kidal (and French troops are there too since this morning), I reckon some of them might move back fairly soon.” And, for now at least, the internationally famous “Festival in the Desert” has been postponed.

The lifting of oppressive religious law in the North is, of course, good news, but it is just the beginning of what will be a long slog towards anything resembling normalcy in Mali. Fatoumata sounded realistic but hopeful. I asked if the French intervention and resurgence of the Malian Southern army affected the song’s essential message. Was she happy now? She told me that all would take time, much time, but that “something is coming. Something, a very positive energy is coming.”

The good people at World Circuit were kind enough to send me the "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)" video with English subtitles.

Rather than attempt to explain a complex situation that I only dimly am aware, I’m including a number of links to various websites that can give a curious beginner some insight into the conflict in Mali. What can you do? Tremble in impotent rage mainly. Let’s avoid the paternalistic, treating Africa as one amorphous “problem to be solved” arrogance of the whole Kony 2012 shebang, shall we? But as France’s involvement continues and, fuck it, I sort of think it, as long as the citizenry of Mali desire, should, the United States may get involved too (we’ve already agreed to assist with the refueling of French planes in the region). And we all want to be informed citizens, right? Right?

The best source for commentary I’ve found is The Guardian and (depending on the writer) Al Jazeera for the anti intervention argument and (excepting their token hard leftie, Conor Friedersdorf) The Atlantic for pro. The best general sources are easily Bridges From Bamako and the blog, Africa Is a Country, despite the latter’s unfortunate tendency to talk about those newly interested in African geo politics like they’re interrupting Africa Is A Country’s break at Kim’s Video (“Oh, you only like Mali’s new stuff? Huh.”). Mali of course has a press of its own but most of it is in French and I’d really be shooting blindly trying to recommend one. If you do speak French, MaliWeb is probably the place to start.

Mainly, I would suggest doing your own further research and also digging up the discography of all the musicians in the video and purchasing their records with actual money. We may be almost entirely useless and complicit in the horrors of the world, but there is some small degree of hope in what we share: the music and the need to give comfort through it. In the face of endless war, that has to be something, I suppose.

Zach Lipez wants to change the world. So he has a Twitter - @zacharylipez