Music has a long history in Mali, and has been a part of the fabric of its history for thousands of years. From the griots, who were historians, storytellers, poets and musicians, to the tribal festivals and gatherings, to which poetry was an essential part, music and oral tradition played an essential role in ancient Malian identity and history.
Following colonialism, it was Mali’s musicians who carved out a more cohesive identity for the disparate communities in the new country, and brought their people together. The country’s politicians quickly realised the power of music and harnessed this for their own ends. While the idea of publicly funded pop groups sounds strange to us, they are an important part of Mali’s political history. Leaders such as Sankara, a revolutionary leader in the 1980s, used his band to entertain and spread his political messages and ideas for public health, the economy and feminism. Some of Mali’s most famous musicians, such as the Afro-pop singer Salif Keita and Amadou (of the famous duo Amadou and Mariam), got their break through politicians’ bands. Today, musicians remain respected and influential political voices. Oumou Sangaré made her name with an album that tackles issues such as FGM and women’s rights. The continued political importance of music is clear; Fatoumata Diawara, a leading musician in Mali, explained, “[the people] have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali. Music has always been strong and spiritual, and has had a very important role in the country, so when it comes to the current situation, people are looking up to musicians for a sense of direction."
This context makes the banning of music by the Islamist insurgents in 2013 even more tragic. When these al-Qa’eda-linked militias, many of whom were foreign soldiers, captured the vast northern desert area, they implemented strict laws, banning (among many other things) football, music and dancing. They not only banned music, but also collected instruments and burnt them, posting pictures and videos of this online. As Baba Salah, one of northern Mali’s most popular musicians said, "In northern Mali, music is like oxygen. Now, we cannot breathe." The violence meant that many musicians in the North, such as the world-renowned, Grammy-winning group Tinariwen, had to flee the country. While the insurgents were primarily in the North of the country, music in the South was also affected. Many live music venues in the capital Bamako have closed, as have hotels and restaurants, as numbers of foreign tourists dwindle.
Traditionally a very tolerant society, and a refuge for outspoken musicians, such as Senegalese reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly, this violence was unprecedented in Mali and had widespread effects. In a country that is poor in mineral resources, music and culture is a key part of the economy and draws in many tourists. The Islamist insurgence and instability in the North forced the renowned Festival in the Desert to go into exile from 2013. The festival, which was a key tourist attraction and thus a key economic event as well, is based on the ancient Tuareg gatherings. These gatherings have always been a part of the Tuareg's nomadic lifestyle, and were a place to share stories, race camels, and play music. In 2013 the Festival in the Desert, unable to be hosted in its homeland, toured as the Caravan of Peace. It travelled from Mauritania to Mali and onto the Tuareg refugee camps in Burkina Faso.
This is just one example of the musicians in Mali fighting back. Following the banning of music in the Islamist controlled areas Fatoumata Diawara brought together 40 stars from all over the country to sing together in a symbol of unity, releasing a song called Mali Ko (“For Mali”). With the efforts of French and UN forces, combined with the cultural battle waged by Mali’s most prestigious musicians, the Islamists have been pushed back. The North remains hugely unstable and Islamists still have a hold in some areas, but music is slowly returning.
In the South, the Festival of the Niger was held in 2015, and while its audience was less than a third than in 2010, it nonetheless went ahead. Alongside continuing peace talks, music is being used to bring Mali’s many ethnic groups together. A group called Malikanw (Voices of Mali) brings musicians from six different regions of the country together, promoting stability and cohesion, just as musicians did in the days following colonialism.
Perhaps the Islamists are right to fear music's strength. But they can never contain its power in a place like Mali. As Rokia Traore, one of Mali's most famous international stars says, "without music, Mali will cease to exist." But the musicians kept singing throughout the violence of 2013 and 2014, and so Mali is now on the road to recovery.