Mali: Please don’t stop the music

When world music super-group Tinariwen took the Barbican stage last November, typically dressed in traditional Sahara sand-shielding scarves and clutching electric guitars set to ‘blues’, the audience knew they were about to see something special. People shuffled forward on their seats, whooping and clapping. The lady in front of us leaned over to her friend’s ear, “you know, it really is amazing they’re here at all.” “Where else would they be?” came the reply, followed by a shared, knowing, eyebrow-raised half-laugh.

Of course, if you’re not into your world music, which to be fair most people probably aren’t, the name Tinariwen won’t mean much. I can’t say it meant too much to me at this point, even though Songlines had just announced them as their band of the year. What I had clocked however, which you might have too, is that just a few weeks before large parts of Tinariwen’s home nation, Mali, had fallen into mujahedeen control. The country’s new leaders enforced a strict form of Islamic law – which included a ban on music. Tinariwen, like the many other Malian musicians touring the world, were now in a kind of cultural exile.

For somewhere like Mali, it’s hard to imagine a more damaging law. This West African nation might be known for arid, desert landscapes and crippling poverty, but it’s also known for its music. Stalwarts like Armadou and Marium and Toumani Diabate have developed a global fanbase, while newcomer Rokia Traore was the first act announced at Glastonbury this year. Music is in Mali’s blood.

Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year's festival has been cancelled.
Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year’s festival has been cancelled.

So why ban music? It’s certainly true that in many authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, tight control on the arts – and on music in particular – seems to have been a common feature. During the cold war years for instance, live music performances were tightly licensed to the point of being banned across Eastern Europe; with popular musicians targetted by the secret police for being involved with something so ‘subversive’. In a recent – and brilliant – article on in Delayed Gratification magazine entitled “They feared us because in music you cannot cheat” – 70s Czech rock band Plastic People talk about the pressure to vet their lyrics, how fans were arrested on route to their gigs, of being tortured, imprisoned.

Indeed, it’s easy to see that if your goal is to control people and curtail freedom of expression, then music poses a genuine threat. There isn’t much that feels more freeing than singing a song or busting crazy moves in a packed dancefloor. And in Mali, the role of music seems to be as much about identity as it is about freedom. In a Time article this May by Aryn Baker, a Bamako-based music producer said, “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.”

That said, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going in here. Control and authoritarianism seem to have a place, yes, but there is a religious texture to this particular ban that doesn’t have the ring of a purely localised instrument of power.

Should we be worried? Should we do more to fight for and support local, traditional music – the kind you hear wafting from courtyards and dance to at weddings? And at the other end of the scale, should we think twice about the commodised globalised autotuned sameness that plays from so many radio stations, inspiring people to sing not for the joy of singing, but in the hope of one day ‘getting famous’?

In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. Music is one of those things we take for granted; it’s only when it is banned that we perhaps realise just how important it is. As the beautiful Malian singer and musician Fatou Diawara said recently in an interview with NPR, “music, it’ a kind of hope for us. Even if we are not musicians, people need music.”

Photo credit: Flickr, The Queen’s Hall

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