Mali’s Legendary Musicians Struggle to Be Heard in the Shadow of War

Music was once Mali's best-known cultural export. Why are its musicians still not performing months after the defeat of the Islamists who had banned music?

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Salif Keita performs on stage during the Celtic Connections festival at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow on Feb. 1, 2013

Before the coup d’état that overthrew an elected government, before the French-led war to oust Islamist rebels who had taken over much of the country, Mali was perhaps best known internationally for something else: its music. Mali’s was a culture recorded in rhythm, a history recounted in rhyme. No wedding was complete without a band; for that matter, neither was a Friday night. Mali may have been poor, but music was its best-known product. Damon Albarn, lead singer of the British band Blur, fell so in love with the music he recorded an album in 2002 called Mali Music with leading Malian musicians. Ali Farka Touré, chosen as one of Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 guitarists of all time, was Mali’s ambassador to the world. His Grammy Award–wining 1994 album Talking Timbuktu reminded America of the debt its own great musical tradition owed to the country. The mournful narratives of the American blues can be traced back through the history of slavery to the banks of the Niger River, where traditional griots, or bards, still sing as if ancient history were but a few days old. The three-string n’goni, predecessor of the modern guitar, is still their instrument of choice.

In Mali, a patchwork nation of disparate cultures and ethnic groups, music is the social glue, uniting in melody what it divides in styles, from Touré’s desert laments to Salif Keita’s catchy southern Afro-pop. Nowhere was that more clear than in the northern city of Gao, a multiethnic confederation of nomadic Tuaregs, entrepreneurial Arabs, cattle-herding Fulani and farming Songhai. “Music is the blood of Gao, it’s what keeps our heart beating,” says Yehia Mballa Samake, the lead n’goni player of Super Onze, one of Gao’s best-known musical groups. But Gao’s beating musical heart has been stilled for over a year, silenced by the arrival of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebels who swept through Mali’s northern states in April 2012. Commanders in the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO by its French acronym) immediately implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic law in Gao. They banned smoking and drinking, forced women to cover their heads, stoned adulterers, cut off the hands of thieves and banned all kinds of music, even the ubiquitous musical ring on Nokia cell phones. “They smashed our guitars,” says Samake quietly. “They may as well have taken my arms.”

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As Samake recounts his story, he fingers his tiny, oblong n’goni — more ukulele than guitar — and absentmindedly picks out a hypnotic refrain. As he talks over the music he occasionally breaks into a percussive howl, the desert yodel that is the signature of northern Mali’s takamba style. Bandmate Aliou Saloum Yattara joins in, tapping out a rhythm on an overturned calabash bowl burnished by the decades. Super Onze, like many of Mali’s musical groups, is more club than band, founded in the early 1980s and passed down through the generations. Samake’s father, retired founding band member Asaalya Samake, sits nearby, swaying with his son’s wandering melodies and interjecting his views when the conversation gets heated. “When the MUJAO entered the city, their message was clear: anyone who played music would be slaughtered,” he says. “Well, it’s clear. The MUJAO were wrong. They don’t know about Islam.” Yattara ups the tempo for emphasis, dragging his thick rings across the calabash’s rippled skin in the musical equivalent of a snarl.

Super Onze (Onze is French for 11, reflecting the number of band members) has developed a rarefied following outside Mali. The band is celebrated for its complicated melodies and “devastating” riffs, in the words of Justin Adams, Robert Plant’s guitarist, who once remarked that their soaring musical rhetoric “[called] to mind Hendrix’s most trancey moments.” When all 11 play together it is a complicated and searing sound, punk-style distortion on an acoustic level. In Gao, they are the native musical sons, providing the soundtrack to almost every wedding and important event in the city. At least until the MUJAO arrived. “They denied our very existence,” Yehia Samake complains, pausing to slurp heavily sugared mint tea from a communal glass. “Music is life for us.” The band members, who used to earn some of the highest wages in the city, suddenly had no income. Now they live on donations from the community, in appreciation for remembered joy. Several members have fled, part of a national exodus that has seen nearly half a million Malians displaced or refugees in neighboring countries. “There are people who go crazy without music,” says Samake. “They had to leave.”

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To Paul Chandler, a Bamako-based music producer from Minnesota who has studied Malian music for years, MUJAO’s focus on eliminating music was part of a carefully scripted strategy to undermine social cohesion. “The way music functions in Mali is to empower people by reminding them who they are and where they come from. You eliminate that, and it becomes easier to control them.” Seventy-two percent of Mali’s population can’t read; the high illiteracy rate makes music a potent transmitter of information, Chandler says. “If you can shut up the musicians, you have a better chance of keeping the population in line.”

The MUJAO were defeated by French and Chadian forces in January, but Gao’s musicians have yet to pick up their instruments. Many are still in exile, frightened by the violence, and those musicians who are Arab and Tuareg — ethnic groups strongly associated with the Islamist rebels — are fearful of reprisals or collective punishment. A countrywide state of emergency, renewed last month, bans gatherings of more than 70, which had the effect of essentially outlawing live performances of music. Weddings, once boisterous affairs with hundreds of attendees, no longer include the traditional big bands. Chandler, like Samake, worries about setting a precedent. Bands like Super Onze are not cheap, and once people get used to the idea of a wedding without music, bridal couples and their families might choose to continue saving money by stinting on live performers once the state of emergency is lifted. “Weddings are the bread and butter for musicians in Mali. Once you stop doing something for a couple of months, there is always a chance you will never go back to the way it was,” says Chandler. “This could be the beginning of the end of Mali’s traditional music scene.”

It’s been more than a year since Super Onze played for an audience, and Samake says the absence of appreciation gnaws at his sense of self. As he continues with his story, twilight descends over his mud-walled compound. There is no electricity. The sound of his n’goni and Yattara’s drumming wafts through the open gate and into the street beyond, attracting a crowd magnetized by music they haven’t heard in months. Many peer in, seeking out the source of the music. A large, yellow-robed woman sashays through the gate, her face wreathed in smiles. She raises her hands, and starts to dance to the music. She laughs out loud, the sound of pure, unadulterated joy. “This is beautiful,” she calls out to no one in particular. “It feels good for the heart. When you hear this, it gives bounce to your walk. Music, meat and tea, that is all you need in life.” With one final shimmy, she ducks under the doorway and back into the street.

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Samake grins. “This reminds me of the past, when I would play music, and not one person, but the whole audience, would join in the dance. It makes me feel whole,” he says. Energized, he attacks his n’goni with a blistering riff. Yattara eggs him on, playing the calabash drum so hard it starts to vibrate. Samake launches a wordless howl colored by joy. His father leans in close, to make sure his words are heard over the music. “Maybe we will have peace,” he says. “Maybe the soldiers will bring security. But without music, the people will never be happy again.” Music can heal Mali, he adds. The country needs to be remembered for what it does best, not for what nearly took the music away.

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