It’s been a long time coming, but, slowly, the music is returning to Mali.
A decade ago, such a statement would have made little sense. Mali is renowned for its sound – from its praise singers with roots in the West African nation’s precolonial oral tradition to the Afro pop popularized in the 1960s by the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba and given a Malian twist by native son Salif Keita to the melodies of the harp-like, 21-string kora, the province of jalis, bards tasked with passing their knowledge to the next generation.
Malian music is as diverse as it is essential to Malian culture.
“Music is our mineral wealth,” classical kora player Toumani Diabaté told The Guardian in 2012. “There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”
But that came to a screeching halt when civil war opened the door to Islamic jihadists, who seized the northern part of the country in mid-2012. Thousands of Malians fled as the Islamists went about creating a new world order that included, The Guardian wrote:
[A] gratuitous application of Sharia law in all aspects of daily life. Militiamen [cut] off the hands and feet of thieves or [stoned] adulterers. Smokers, alcohol drinkers and women . . . not properly attired [were] publicly whipped.
And music was forbidden.
In a 2012 Washington Post article, Oumar Ould Hamaha, leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of three extremist groups controlling the north, took great pains to justify the ban on one of Mali’s most precious resources:
Music is against Islam. Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.
Under a set of repressive new laws, Malians saw their cultural identity begin to fade. Nightclubs and radio stations were shuttered. Television sets were banned. And music festivals, including the annual, world-acclaimed Festival au Désert, were suspended indefinitely.
While some musicians continued to practice amid the daily threat of discovery and certain death, the only sounds Malians could regularly expect to hear were those of gunfire and bombs, as Tuareg rebels, fresh from having brought down the government, tried in vain to hold off the Al Qaeda-allied jihadists.
Refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger overflowed with Malians desperate to escape the escalating carnage. That’s when France, in response to a plea from the new government of its former colony, engaged the Islamists in battle in 2013, with the blessing of other Western powers fearful that the jihadists, if left to their murderous devices, would soon domino into neighboring nations.
It’s taken three blood-curdling years, but the French and Malian troops have finally driven back the fundamentalists, and Mali is getting back its rhythm. Popular cultural events are making a comeback, notably a biannual photo exhibition canceled in 2012 and Diabaté’s brainchild, the Festival Acoustik.
The triumphant return this year of the four-day celebration of acoustic music featured luminaries from the continent and abroad and drew audiences that, as The Telegraph wrote, seemed thankful for the chance to thumb their noses at the jihadists a mere two months after their latest attack left dozens of tourists and hotel workers dead in Bamako, the capital.
There are things, however, that the music ban has changed, possibly irrevocably. The Festival au Désert remains in exile, leading a nomadic existence as a “cultural caravan for peace.” The future of other concerts traditionally held on the banks of the Niger River remains uncertain.
And the group Songhoy Blues — formed as a direct result of the ban — fled for London, where it recorded an album before successfully touring Europe and the United States. Their struggle back home is the subject of a documentary titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Mali Music in Exile.” As band member Oumar Touré told Public Radio International:
The idea is not to make music of revolution because the crisis in the north of Mali is rooted in vengeance and rooted in hatred. There are people who were victims. Their parents were killed, and they’ve decided to foment rebellion. So we said, ‘Why take sides?’ You should sing of joy. The only message we want is one of unity and joy.
With so much still in flux and so many of the country’s best and brightest leery of returning home or practicing there, music makers are not yet ready to declare victory.
But at least nowadays the people of Mali have reason to believe that the measured return of their music may signal the coming end of their silent national nightmare.