/ 2 November 2012

Musicians in sharia battle for Mali’s cultural soul

Caught in the crossfire: Rokia Traoré.
Caught in the crossfire: Rokia Traoré.

The pick-up halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the home of a local musician. He was not in, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him tell him that, if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang removed guitars, amplifiers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol and set them alight.

In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music. When the rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April, there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist — not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” said Toumani Diabate, the kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Bjork, among many others. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” said Cheick Tidiane Seck, a prolific musician and producer, “from the cradle to the grave, from ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No! I mean, give me another one!”

But that is the reality dawning on this once joy-filled land. International observers claim the leaders of the three armed Islamist groups that now control the northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao are after money and power rather than fulfilling the dream of a caliphate in the Sahel. There are strong ties between these groups and the less-than-holy interests of major drug traffickers and arms smugglers.

But many of the mujahideen who have joined the conflict from all over the Muslim world are fired up by an unquestionable religious zeal. The same goes for Iyad Ag Ghaly, a Touareg strongman and born-again Salafist who founded the Ansar-ud-Deen movement at the end of last year.

“He believes in what he’s doing and that’s what frightens me,” said Manny Ansar, director of the Festival in the Desert, which has been taking place in and around Timbuktu and Kidal every January since 2001. “I’m not convinced that he wants to kill everyone who is not a Muslim, like the people in al-Qaeda do, but I’ve seen him giving up the fruits of this life for God.”

Back in the 1990s, Ghaly smoked and liked to hang out with musicians from Tinariwen. He even composed songs and poems. Now music, and with it, a major source of communal cohesion, has either disappeared or gone underground throughout the territory under his control.

Menace of al-Qaeda
An official decree banning all Western music was issued on August 22 by a bearded Islamist spokesperson in Gao. “We don’t want the music of Satan. Qur’anic verses must take its place. Sharia demands it,” the decree says. The ban comes with the literal application of sharia law in all aspects of daily life. Militiamen are cutting off the hands and feet of thieves and stoning adulterers. Smokers, alcohol drinkers and women “not properly attired” are publicly whipped.

Ansar said: “The menace of al-Qaeda started to have an effect on us in 2007. That’s when al-Qaeda people started to appear in the desert. They came to the nomad camps near Essakane [west of Timbuktu where the festival used to be held] and at first they were pleasant and said: ‘Don’t worry, we’re Muslims like you.’ Then they began to say: ‘We have a common enemy, which is the West.’ That’s when I understood things were going to get difficult.”

Remarkably, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) never targeted the festival or the thousands of Westerners who attended it. According to Ansar, some people believe it is because the tribe, the Kel Ansar, is said to be descended directly from Muhammad.

Not all music events were so blessed. Returning from the Tamadacht festival near the eastern town of Anderamboukane in January 2009, a British tourist, Edwin Dyer, was kidnapped and sold to Aqim, who beheaded him four months later because the British government refused to pay a ransom. His death forced the Festival in the Desert to move to within Timbuktu’s city limits in 2010.

This January, the festival took place in an atmosphere of high alert after recent kidnappings and al-Qaeda’s murder of a German tourist. The event was attended by Tinariwen, other Touareg and Malian musicians and Bono.

“I was impressed by Bono’s courage and that of his team,” Ansar said. “He asked the soldiers assigned to protect him to leave him be and let him roam around freely or go and drink tea out on the dunes. But I wondered if I wasn’t a bit mad myself to let him do that. I mean, Bono ­kidnapped! Imagine.”

The hotel in Timbuktu where Bono stayed is now the headquarters of the city’s Islamic tribunal.

Down south, music is also in crisis for related reasons. The military coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 23 has left the capital, Bamako, afraid and economically depressed. But in West Africa, when the going gets tough, the rappers get going.

“I don’t give a fuck what they say,” was Malian rapper Amkoullel’s terse answer to a question about the Islamist music ban.

“We won’t let them get away with it. We don’t need them to teach us how to be Muslims. We’re a secular, tolerant country where everyone declares their religion according to their feeling. And, in any case, they know that a Mali without music is an impossibility.”

Amkoullel set up his own pressure group, Plus Jamais Ça (Never Again). So far he has released several videos, including SOS, which has become a YouTube hit. It has also been censored by the state broadcaster, which is still under the heavy hand of the military.

Despite the threat to the culture they have made world famous all the musicians agree it remains at the core of their identity. “I’m a Muslim, but sharia isn’t my thing,” said Rokia Traoré, one of Mali’s most famous international stars. “If I couldn’t go up on stage any more I would cease to exist. And without music Mali will cease to exist.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012