We Spoke to Two Malian Musicians Fighting for Their Right to Music

We chatted with producer Paul Chandler and musician Baba Salah to delve a little deeper into Mali's troubles.

For years, Mali's Festival in the Desert has been hosted as an annual block party on the dry lands of the former French colony. In the villages and rural communes of Essakane and on the outskirts of legendary Timbuktu. The festival's long been a celebration of the West African country's favorite national pastime: mind-blowingly good music.

A sandbox of dance and epic raves, involving decidedly awesome stuff like camel rides, the festival has attracted the cultish affection of local partygoers and international thrill seekers; bringing nomads and herders, the rock stars of the Sahara, together with the Robert Plants and Manu Chaos, the rock stars of the stage.

Sadly, the best bashes also tend to attract the worst crowds—in this case, the most dangerous party-crashers in the world: those buzz-killing (emphasis on "killing") religious extremists.

With large cross-sections of Mali taken over by Islamic rebel groups linked with al-Qaeda last year, music has been banned across much of the country. Artists are being threatened and their art destroyed. A ban on ringtones has been initiated and the Festival in the Desert has come under attack, replacing the decade-long sound of bass on desert sand with the rattle of gunshots and the silence of censorship.

To get to the bottom of all the shit that's been going down in the country, we spoke to Mali based musicians Baba Salah, the soul-brother extraordinaire, and Paul Chandler, a producer, teacher, charity worker and all round superhero.

Noisey: Hey Paul. Could you tell us what life's like in Mali today, especially in the north?
Paul Chandler: Until this week, most people had been living under an extreme form of Islamic law. Even listening to music and playing football were banned. For a country like Mali, that is a kind of hell. People were harshly punished for talking to members of the opposite sex. A couple was stoned to death and people accused of stealing were having their limbs amputated publicly. Their "trials" were very short and people had no legal representation. People were really living in fear. Most people left the North for Southern cities or refugee camps. Malians are patient, though. People are very discouraged and heartbroken that their country has been divided. It will be hard to build trust again.

How has the presence of the extremists impacted life in Mali?
It's been very difficult for the communities occupied by the extremists. Their entire way of life has changed. In Mali, the majority of people are religiously moderate. Most Malians are Muslim; all people are free to practice the religion of their choice openly. Mali is a model example in this way.

In the North, all this has changed. A very repressive interpretation of Sharia has been imposed. This is mainly to control people. To make them afraid. Money is scarce and there is no work. Many people have had to flee to refugee camps.

What do Malians think of Sharia Law?
Most Malians are Muslim, but they practice a moderate, tolerant form of Islam. The strict form of Sharia that the militants want to impose is foreign to them. It's like another form of colonization. Some people, even in Bamako, fallow Sharia, but it is their choice, and they live peacefully among moderate Muslims and Christians.

How hard have the extremists come down on music and popular culture?
Outside of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, music had not been banned, but in the occupied regions, music had been silenced. When the jihadists controlled the Northern areas, if you were caught playing music you would be punished. This could mean being publicly whipped or worse. If they found instruments, they destroyed them.

Culture is strong in Mali. Artists transmit important messages for their society through music and that is another reason the music has been silenced. Its not just Sharia. That's a front. It's control too. The militants want to control people by taking away their cultural identity. Most known artists have fled the North. There is nothing for them to do there, but work is also scarce for them in places like Bamako. Some artists have remained behind though. They want to stay near their families and friends. They also farm. That is how they feed their families. They are patient and waiting for this to end. Some play their guitars quietly in their rooms at night. The day the militants are chased out, they will pick up their instruments and have a big party.

Noisey: Yo Baba, you come from the Gao Region. What's the situation there?
Baba: Many like myself have had to leave because of the terrorists. Almost 80 percent of the Northern population have left, with most relocating to Bamako.

How difficult is it to make music now?
When the Islamists came to Gao, they said that the music was banned and they burned everyone's instruments. Everyone had to leave. Once we saw that these guys were serious, everyone had to hide their instruments. Those who stayed had to hide their instruments very well. Everyone else left. No one was able to confront the Islamists. These guys are very well armed. In Gao there was no longer any civil authority. If you played, they could kill you. I don't think it would be a good idea to confront them like that.

What pushes you to keep making music?
This is what we do. For many artists, their families have been making music for centuries. Malians say that music is like oxygen in Mali. If there is no music, there is no air and no life. Every aspect of life in Mali is accompanied by music.

Do you think musicians have a part to play in standing up to the extremists?
Yeah. The role of an artist is to pass on important messages. We have to denounce the situation and propose a solution for ending the crisis. We need to denounce what's bad, and educate. In a country like Mali, with such a rich cultural and oral tradition, our messages are very easily understood and received.

Have you worked with other artists to make any protest songs?
We've organized concerts in and invited other artists to perform with us. We hoped to motivate the army and politicians to take on the terrorists. The last song that we made was more about peace - to say to the world that Mali is not a violent country. An artist named Fatoumata Diawara, a singer from Bougoun, came up with the idea for the song. It's had a lot of international play.

With all the shit that's been going down, how do you keep motivated to make music?
Whenever a difficult situation arises in the country, a problem that needs to be talked about, it's my obligation to talk about it in a positive, productive way. The music comes because the situation demands it.

How has the state of the country affected the nature of your music?
It has influenced the themes that I sing about. My style is based on the Songui music from the North, but my work is definitely influenced by every passing day and new event, changing my message and what I sing about.

Many artists have received death threats. Aren't you worried that you might be attacked?
I am Malian. I am going to defend the interests of my country. If I am going to be attacked for that, it is a risk I have to take. I am a patriot. I am not worried about that.

France has since sent troops to fight the extremists. How have Malians received them?
For a long time, Malians had very negative opinions about the French. The previous President's (Sarkozy) immigration policy was very difficult for the Malian economy and Malian families in France. But since the French troops arrived, France has been considered a savior for the Malians.

Are there worries about the colonial history between the two countries?
We have the impression that with this intervention, France has paid an old debt. They are forgiven.

What do you think Malians can do for Mali?
Malians have to change their behaviour, especially the government. They need to be more serious work very hard in the development of the economy, especially in the North.

How do you think this tough period will influence Malian music in the future?
The music will stay the same. We have a musical identity that is strong. It's like petroleum. You can use it make lots of other things, but the base is still petroleum. The rhythm will stay the same.

Check out i4africa.org for more on Paul and Baba.