The Cultured Activist: Malian music edition

In 2012, three groups of Islamist militia seized the northern two-thirds of Mali and imposed the most strict interpretation of Sharia Law and a destructively warped version of Islam. During the occupation, which lasted for over a year, the extremists waged war against the region’s moderate Islam and its rich cultural tradition. Mosques, mausoleums and other holy sites in the legendary city of Timbuktu were desecrated and brutal punishments were instated for ‘crimes’ such as adultery, drinking or smoking. In the context of this horror, a ban on music might seem insignificant. However, music is such a vital part of Malian society that the effects of a music ban were more profound there than they would be anywhere else in the world.

Mali’s centuries-old music history began with the griot tradition, which originated in the Malian Empire and continues today. Members of this class hold a revered hereditary role as musicians and storytellers in Mali and neighbouring countries. After independence from France in 1960, Mali has produced a rich bounty of genres and a stream of internationally-renowned artists, such as Ali Farka Touré and Amadou & Mariam. But everything changed in 2012, when many contemporary musicians had to go into exile.

Four years later, many of those artists who had been living and making music in exile, such as Fatoumata Diawara and Songhoy Blues, are returning to Mali. At the beginning of this year the Bamako acoustic festival took place in the capital for the first time since 2012, and we can only hope that other celebrations of Malian music, such as the famous Festival au Désert, will follow soon and bring joy and dancing back to Mali.

Essential listening/reading/viewing:

1. This 100-track playlist from NPR and Afropop is a great introduction to Malian music. Although it admits to “only scratching the surface” of Mali’s rich music culture, it’s a good place to start. This playlist will help you get your bearings both with the old classics and contemporary artists: listen to these songs and you’ll start to sound like you know what you’re talking about!

2. The feature-length documentary, Mali Blues (2016), is an exploration of the country’s evervibrant music culture in the wake of the fundamentalist occupation. Mali Blues focuses Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her first concert in her home country, which took place back in 2015. The film will have its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September this year, so for now we just have to look forward to its arrival in the UK.

3. Timbuktu (2014) is a touching and troubling portrait of life under the Jihadist occupation in Mali. The film centres around one family, who live in the hills outside of the city, and vignettes of everyday life in the city are mingled in with the family’s story. The film’s many strands come together to show how completely the occupation altered every aspect of life in Northern Mali.

However, with children miming a football game, without a ball, and musicians clandestinely playing in the night, the film shows us the ways in which people brought joy into their lives, despite the occupation.

4. Get tickets to see Songhoy Blues (amongst others) at the 2016 Songlines Music Awards 2016 Winners’s Concert at the Barbican this October. Their album, Music In Exile, is excellent and everyone should go and buy it, but nothing compares to Songhoy Blue’s live performances. Their set at the Roundhouse in May — which closed the day-long festival, ’Music in Exile: a celebration of music from Mali and Beyond’ — was amazing. Their energetic and playful style just cannot becontained in a CD!

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