Mali: Three years after the music ban

14 December 2015
Songhoy Blues. Photo by Andy Morgan

When the religious music ban in the northern part of Mali was lifted in 2013, Andy Morgan wrote the book ‘Music, Conflict and Culture in Mali’. Here is his account of what has happened in the country since then.

By Andy Morgan    INSIGHT 

One of the accusations often levelled at the West is that distance has numbed it to the suffering caused by terrorism and religious intolerance in faraway places. The Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 brought many feelings home to roost and gave France a bitter taste of what people in Baghdad, Mogadishu or Maiduguri have experienced with horrific regularity. The murder of so many innocents at the Bataclan, one of Paris’ best-loved and most revered music venues, was ‘justified’ by ISIS / Daesh in a statement which declared that the venue was hosting a “profligate prostitution party” that night. This misjudgement brought home a new flavour of extreme religious hatred that had never been expressed with anything like the same violence in Europe before, at least not since the 17th century: the hatred of music and all its sensual by-products.

Atrocities of this scale always throw the workings of fate and irony into sharp relief. The night before The Eagles of Death Metal’s fatal appearance, the stage of the Bataclan was occupied by the French electro-house legend St Germain, whose latest album Real Blues is an elegant sonic homage to the deep roots of the blues in Mali and West Africa. St Germain spent many months in southern Mali recording traditional hunter musicians and masters of the kamel’n’goni, balafon and kora. On Saturday 12 November he was joined on stage at the Bataclan by the great Malian diva Nahawa Doumbia.

Why the irony? Because apart from Afghanistan during the reign of the Taleban, Mali is the only country in recent history where music has been banned by religious extremists. Not even Saudi Arabia has had to endure this joyless fate. The ban became official in August 2012 when a spokesman for the jihadist group MUJAO went on the radio in the eastern town of Gao to proclaim that all ‘Satan’s music’ – in other words, everything except Qur’anic chanting – was henceforward forbidden in the two-thirds of the country then under occupation by armed jihadi groups. It officially came to an end in February 2013 when the north of Mali was finally liberated by the French army.


Music in Bamako – economic crisis
Almost three years later, it’s hard to ascertain precisely what effect the ban has had on a country where music has long been the milk, blood and water of daily existence. The answer depends on the region, culture and social stratum in question. In the capital Bamako and the south, which were mercifully spared from extremist occupation but suffered a military coup and the deep political and economic crisis that followed, the ban has left few traces, at least in the spirit of modern urban musicians.

“The Islamists are the last thing that Malians are worried about right now,” says Bassekou Kouyaté, the great Malian griot from Segou. “After the civil war came the economic crisis and to hear music, to go and see concerts, you need a bit of money. It’s an economic problem. You can’t say that it’s the jihadists who are stopping people playing music.”

Mamou Daffé, founder and director of the Festival on the Niger in Segou, concedes that war and insecurity have made life difficult for musicians and music promoters, but insists that Mali’s musical spirit remains defiantly alive. “The music ban and the advance of religious conservatism have merely put the brakes on certain initiatives and projects in the northern part of the country, but they haven’t diminished the morale of Malian people,” he says. “The attitude of Malians towards music hasn’t changed one iota. They’re still great music-lovers.”

After being forced to cancel its 2013 edition due to the heat of battle between the French and Malian armies and lingering Islamist mujahedeen in the north, the Festival on the Niger celebrated its 10th birthday in February 2014 with a bumper programme and record attendance. Daffé is busy preparing for the 2016 edition of the festival, which is due to take in Segou from 3 to 7 February 2016. He’s also developing plans to stage itinerant Festival on the Niger events in major Malian cities, up and downstream, including Bamako, Djenné, Mopti and Gao in 2017.

Even the terrorist attack on the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in downtown Bamako on 20 November 2015 seem to have dealt only a short-lived blow to Mali’s musical spirit. “Many concerts were cancelled,” Daffé tells me, “as was an important conference of the International Organisation of Francophone countries, which included a musical programme…everything stopped!” But only for a short period it seems.

“We were closed for three days after the attack,” says Corinne Micaelli who programmes the French Institute Bamako, one of the capital’s most steadfast music venues. “Our cultural programme – including a TV Festival, our weekly concert in ‘Le Patio’, a play by Sirafily Diango and a show by Kasse Mady Diabaté – were cancelled for a whole week… But bars like the Bla Bla and Radio Libre have already reopened. Things are starting again for us this week [seven days after Radisson attack] and I’m really looking forward to it.”

The very fact that so many events were affected by the Radisson Blu attack was, in a strange way, a testament to the growing confidence of Mali’s cultural activists. After the dearth of 2013, when the six month long state of emergency and the almost daily news of jihadist attacks in the north relegated culture to bottom of most agendas, Mali is beginning to reclaim its former status as a West African cultural powerhouse.

This year, in early November, Bamako hailed the return of Les Rencontres de Bamako, a massive festival of photography curated by the Nigerian Bisi Silva. Like every other cultural event, Les Rencontres was forced to cancel its 2013 edition. But in 2014, Silva went to the Festival on the Niger and realised that any further postponement would be defeatist. “When I was in Bamako last year, I felt the sadness in the air, “she told the French newspaper, Le Monde. “The artists breathed in that sadness because there weren’t any projects to feed their daily existence.” But then Silva saw the crowds dancing at the Festival on the Niger, and the entire diplomatic community, the ministry of culture, the mayors of Segou and Timbuktu, all fighting back with culture rather than AK-47s and RPGs. “I felt the need to carry on,” she said. “I was fascinated by the resistance of those people… In Mali, culture is really considered as a tool of development.”


Culture is radicalised
In times of conflict and uncertainty, culture is radicalised. Artists develop new muscles, and events radiate a higher sense of purpose. The Afro-Reggae superstar Tiken Jah Fakoly promoted a huge festival this October in the little town of Siby, just outside Bamako, which he called the Festival Historique Manding. Its stated aim was to reinforce the pride of West African youth in their history and the ties between the sedentary Bambara people of the south and the semi-nomadic Touareg of the north.

In Timbuktu, a city that was firmly under the cosh of the Islamic police three years ago, a ‘Artistic and Cultural Weekend’ was slated to take place on the weekend of 21 and 22 November 2015. It had to be cancelled in the wake of the Bamako hotel attack. The organisers wanted to “reunite the daughters and sons of the Timbuktu region around the sounds of music, dance, storytelling, song, conferences, awareness-raising theatrical sketches, cookery competitions, and a story-telling grand prix with a first prize donated by MINUSMA.” MINUSMA takes culture very seriously and is the first UN peace-keeping mission to employ a full time team to look after cultural affairs, which is in itself a tribute to Mali’s artistic energy.

More and more events dot the horizon. Bamako’s first Festival of Jazz since the beginning of the conflict in 2012 is due to take place in December 2015, with Inna Modja, Archie Shepp, Will Calhoun, Bassekou Kouyaté, Habib Koité, Toumani Diabaté and the ubiquitous Cheick Tidiane Seck heading the bill. Inna Modja’s video clip for her song ‘Tombouctou’ – a stylish black and white homage to the pioneering Malian photographer Malick Sidibé – features an image of the young singer bare-chested with the word ‘Freedom’ splattered across her breasts with white paint; it’s as bold a riposte to the religious puritans as could be imagined.

Next January will hopefully see the launch of a new acoustic festival organised by kora maestro Toumani Diabaté and local cultural activist Fatoumata Sow. Rumours about that Damon Albarn will be performing alongside Toumani, Fatou and the young turks of the Malian music scene: Songhoy Blues.


Rap music rules
Meanwhile Malian rap continues to fill stadiums and palaces of culture. It’s pulling power outstrips that of every other style of music, and every political figure in the land. Only the country’s charismatic Islamic preachers can draw the same crowds. “Rap is what’s working in Mali right now,” says Abdoulaye Diallo, manager of Mylmo, one of Mali’s most prolific rap stars. “It’s youth music and it dominates the whole world, not just Mali. But Malian youth are only listening to Malian rap now, whereas before we used to listen to a lot of American or French rap.”

On the downside, rap has introduced the very ‘un-Malian’ habit of posse-baiting and ‘clash’ aggression in the landscape of Malian youth culture, with Bamako’s southsiders’ and ‘northsiders’ regularly slinging insults at each other at gigs and on social media. On the upside, Malian rappers have provided the starkest, smartest and most courageous voice of protest in Malian music over the past decade and a half. Thanks to its overriding popularity, rap has also helped to forge badly needed new business models of record production and income generation, models that are turning mobile phone companies into the new record labels and concert promoters of Africa.

Mylmo has signed a lucrative sponsorship contract with Orange Mali, and his new releases are only available from Orange shops, paid for with the online payment system Orange Money. Other rappers have signed up with Malitel or Sotelma. The smartphone is Mali’s new all purpose creative tool; the SIM card its cultural battleground.

But what about piracy? What about all the téléchargeurs along Bamako’s Fankélé Diarra St, hunched over their laptops, happily ripping playlists from Spotify, iTunes or Pandora and despatching them to mobile phones or USB stick for a few hundred FCFA. “There’s a lot of bluetooth piracy,” Diallo admits, “but it sometimes helps us too. If we release an album and sell 1000 copies, that’s very small. But if via bluetooth, many more people get to hear it, then thanks to that we can get big audiences at our concerts all over Mali.”


K7 on knees
The Malian Federation of Musicians (FEDAMA) don’t agree. In June 2014, a ministerial decree granted them a levy worth 500 FCFA (about EUR 0.80) on every new SIM card sold by the mobile phone companies. But the Patronat du Mali, that country’s confederation of business leaders, challenged the decision in court and won. FEDAMA lost their appeal this October. Meanwhile Mali K7, the old record label once part-owned by Ali Farka Toure, is on its knees. “Days can go by without the presses working,” the new owner Boubacar Traoré told the website Maliactu. It seems that Malian musicians will have to carry on relying on weddings, tabeski feasts, a diminishing number of paid gigs and, for the lucky few, international tours to earn their living.

So the challenges facing Malian culture are multiple. Its record industry continues to die a slow death. The low level violence in the centre and north, and the unwelcome southward move of jihadism, increase the difficulties of staging cultural events a hundred fold. The steady rise in petty crime in Bamako and other major cities discourages cultural participation and nightlife. The absence of foreigners – notwithstanding those western artists courageous enough to keep coming to Bamako, like St Germain, rockers Midnight Ravers, French pop duo Lilly Wood and The Prick and Damon Albarn – saps the ability of Malian artists to make the connections and launch themselves on the international circuit.

But the bars are still open. Bands are still playing in the recessed corners of capital, almost every night, without much fanfare or international attention. Bajani ‘bloc’ parties still animate the street corners. Festivals and Cultural Weekends are still being dreamed up by groups of young activists hungry for a better future, with their mission statements and yearning for peace. Malian music, so deeply rooted in everyday life, is proving tenacious.

The music ban has even had its silver linings. One is the immense international success of the Songhoy Blues. Three members of the band come from the northern towns of Diré and Gao and they owe their very existence to the conflict that drove them south to Bamako, where they met and formed a band to bring some musical relief to other northern exiles like them. That crucial international connection was made because Africa Express decided to go to Bamako in October 2013 and seek out new artists for collaboration. As the band’s bassist Oumar Touré often says, “without the crisis, we would never have existed at all.”


Khaira Arby
Khaira Arby. Photo by the author

Collective altruism
Another unexpected benefit is a noticeable resurgence of collective altruism amongst Mali’s musicians, exemplified by the 2013 recording of ‘Mali-Ko’, which starred the cream of Mali’s musical talent in a we-are-Mali style moment of togetherness and national affirmation. There have been numerous other collaborations, benefit gigs and fund-raising telethons over the past two years. There are also signs that the more enlightened members of the country’s political class are rediscovering the value of Malian culture, and realising that music, dance and theatre have a valuable role to play in educating, building peace and cementing national cohesion, just as they did in the 1960s and 70s with the Semaines de la Jeunesse and the Biennales.

Mali’s Ministry of Reconciliation recently organised a caravan called Azalaï, which travelled from Kayes in the far southwest of the country up to Kidal in the north east giving talks, hosting debates, staging small concerts, all in support of the peace process.

Music has become Mali’s only soft power around the globe, and it was only when the world woke up to the learn that music had been banned in this most musical of nations that the depths of Mali turmoil and suffering became real for many. It was the music ban that impelled documentary film maker Johanna Schwartz to start work on the project that was to to become They Will Have To Kill Us First, a film that follows four musical protagonists from northern Mali – Songhoy Blues, Khaira Arby, Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar and Moussa ag Sidi – as they come to terms with the ban and the wider conflict. The film was premiered in London back in October and is gathering in glowing reviews. It’s set for a major release in the USA next March.

But whilst there are silver linings, and clear signs of revival in the major cities of the south, this feeling of slow renaissance is by no means universal. Mali’s most famous musical event, the Festival in the Desert, is still in exile. For the past three years, the Festival has teamed up with the Festival on the Niger and the Festival Taragalte in southern Morocco to organise caravans of peace that have travelled through Morocco, Mauritania, southern Mali and Burkina Faso. Next year, the dream is to bring the caravan to Segou, Djenné and Mopti before ending up in Timbuktu with a small concert featuring local artists. But the fully fledged Festival in the milky white dunes of Essakane is still some years away, at least.

“There are different opinions: some say, the situation is getting better. One can do a Festival in Timbuktu, no problem,” explains festival director Manny Ansar. “People are waiting for the return of the festival so much – the population, ourselves, our friends. But I don’t want a return that goes badly wrong. Because as you know, you can deploy thousands of soldiers, you can get all the armed movements – The Plateforme, the CMA, all of them – to give us their guarantee. And the government too. But nothing can stop a few Islamists coming along and sabotaging the event. You understand. Or attacking foreigners. Honestly, that’s what scares me.”


Foreign cash flow
In the eastern city of Gao, which was the ‘capital’ of an independent jihadi-controlled state for ten whole months in 2012, a war-economy has taken hold. Thanks to the military infrastructure projects, the presence of immense UN, French and Malian military bases, as well as scores of security and NGO personnel, the city is reaping a deceptive economic boom. Many local people have found temporary work as translators, guides, cooks and construction workers. This false gold has even attracted southerners desperate for income of any form, among them prostitutes and drug dealers hoping for rich pickings from the foreign presence. Local traffickers, whose stock in trade is illegal fuel, illegal migrants, black market food-stuffs, car-parts, and occasionally hashish or cocaine, are disgruntled at the sums extorted from them by the local armed groups. Techno-afrobeat from Nigeria booms in the few bars and shebeens. The streets are unsafe at night.

Moussa ag Sidi, a local Gao musician and one of the stars of the film ‘They Will Have Have To Kill Us First’, says that things are getting better. He returned to live in Gao about a year and a half ago, after a spell in exile staying with his cousin Jimmy ‘The Rebel’, aka Hassan el Mehdi, a Touareg clan leader who’s married to Disco, the lead singer of Tartit Ensemble. Even though the Islamic police kept a close eye on him during the occupation, ordering to shave off his dreadlocks and refrain from playing music, it was the arrival of the Malian army that finally made his mind up to leave. Such are the complexities of life in northern Mali.

“I get by with my music, little by little.” he says, “There have been many concerts here in Gao, on Independence Square, La Maison des Arts et de la Culture and other places. Gao has a good atmosphere now, and it’s been like that for a while. I recently played at a concert organised by the youth of Djebok, a concert for peace. We often organise events here in Gao, or out in the bush, in the villages. We do stuff together, for the people – whether its for GATIA[1], for the MNLA[2], for Mali or for Azawad. All those are the same children of the same country. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all my brothers, my people, my race, my ethnicity.”

Further north, the situation is more disturbing. Reports from the Kidal region tell of the slow retreat of musical life. The lingering presence of Salafist hardliners who were once members of AQIM or Ansar Dine, and have since turned their coats and taken positions of authority since the French intervention, makes people fearful of outward public displays of cultural joy and music-making. Even more worrying, there’s evidence that the hardline puritanical ethos of the Salafists has infected local attitudes. People have less of an appetite for music than before.


It is all about security
“There are no concerts in Kidal,” says Ahmed ag Kaedi, a guitarist from Kidal and leader of the band Amanar. “The few musicians who want to play guitar go off and do it in hiding somewhere. It’s all about security. And it’s not just guitar music that’s affected. Even out in the bush, the iswat[3], the tindé[4], the camel-dancing, all of that has almost stopped. The attitude of the beardies[5] has infected a lot of people. They’re are scared now. That’s really really hard for us, because in the past all pleasure was based around music.”

Traditionally in September and October, after the rains have come and gone, the nomads celebrated the rebirth of the land and the greenness of the pastures with music, singing and poetry. But this year, all that joy was muted or non-existent, even though the great feast of Tabaski[6] fell within the period. “It was a really timid festivity, really exhausted,” Ahmed says. “Because the only thing that people did was sacrifice the sheep, eat meat and hang around. Normally out in the bush, in the days leading up to the festivities, there would be tindé, camel racing and people preparing for whole months. This time it was just a jihadist party, you know.”

Ahmed isn’t only concerned about traditional music, but Touareg music as a whole. “It’s like we’ve been cut at our roots,” he says. “Because that iswat, and that tindé was what inspired us, and gave us the desire to transpose that music to the electric guitar, and to give it some value in the wider world. So when you see that right there, at the source, there’s nothing left, well I fear a blockage. When you see nothing at the foundations, I don’t think we can build much on top of it.”

In the past, distance and remoteness always isolated, and in some ways protected Tamashek culture. Chris Kirkley, music producer and founder of the ground-breaking blog-cum-record label Sahel Sounds sees the ability of musicians in the desert to escape prying eyes and find freedom in the immensity of the desert as crucial to their survival: “I think that’s one of the most interesting effects of the prohibition [of music]. There aren’t so many westerners travelling up north. There aren’t as many shows happening. But at the same time we’ve had this huge growth of independent publishing for bands. So you get artists like Groupe Adagh de Kidal or Kader Tahani from Tamanrasset using social media and YouTube to launch their careers, solely on the Internet. Even if there’s a potential risk with playing a concert, in places like Kidal, they can go off into the desert, film themselves playing and publish it on Facebook.”

The puritanical erosion of traditional music making isn’t confined to the far north east of Mali. Even in the south west, in the lush and verdant forests and savannah of the Wassoulou region, reformist hardline Islam is turning people against their own traditional culture.


Creeping conservatism
“What’s really affecting the Wassoulou area is a kind of creeping conservatism, as well as just money,” says Paul Chandler, founder of the Instruments 4 Africa NGO that goes out into rural areas to record and archive local music. “They’re transitioning from a kind of collective system of living, to one of money and individualism. All that, combined with religious conservatism, is taking its toll. There are imams coming into villages saying ‘What you’re doing isn’t good.’ There’s this judgement and critique of everything related to their animist past, which amounts to a lot of their art. It’s amazing how much of the culture is being left behind and isn’t being passed on to the next generation. It’s really alarming actually.”

These moralising imams were often born and raised in the village to which they later return with reformist ideas gleaned from Salafist mosques and madrassas in the larger cities, or the ‘video’ sermons of conservative preachers. Money from the Middle East finances a large part of this Salafist network in West Africa.

Will there be a backlash? Will Mali’s intellectual elite wake up to what is being lost? Or are we condemned to watch a dismal repeat of the cultural damage wrought by zealous Methodist or Wee Free preachers in the rural parts of Wales and Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps in twenty, fifty or a hundred years time, song collectors – the Malian equivalent of Cecil Sharpe – will fan out from Bamako to find the last few wizened guardians of Mali’s dying rural culture in a desperate effort to record their musical treasure for future generations. Pray God it doesn’t come to that.


Andy Morgan writes on the politics and society of West Africa and the Sahara. He has contributed reports about the Touareg and the crisis in northern Mali to The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC Focus On Africa and is the author of ‘Music, Conflict and Culture in Mali’, published by Freemuse in May 2013.

In 2010, Andy Morgan ended a seven-year stint as manager of the Touareg rockers Tinariwen and a 29-year stretch in the music industry to concentrate on journalism and writing. During his career in the music business, Andy Morgan worked for a wide range of music companies.

The author standing under a ‘Sharia’ sign outside Timbuktu. Photo by Johanna Schwartz

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published in December 2015.

[1] Groupe Autodefense Touareg Imghad et Alliés – A pro-government Touareg militia

[2] Mouvement Nationale pour la Liberation de l’Azawad – Anti-government rebel force

[3] A traditional form of poetry sung by young unmarried men and women

[4] The traditional drum made from a mortar and goatskin, played almost exclusively by women.

[5] i.e the Islamists.

[6]Local name of Eid al-Adha or ‘Festival of the Sacrifice’.



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