They could be called a coalition, even though not a warring one. Many West African singers and musicians took their stand on the conflict in Mali, and chose to ask for peace and unity.
In January, Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara gathered some of the country’s best-known music artists, including Vieux Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, Oumou Sangare, and Toumani Diabaté, the renowned kora harp player. The ‘Voices United for Mali’, as they chose to call themselves, recorded a song in a mix of French, Bambara, and other Malian languages: it is called Mali-ko, a title that roughly translates to ‘Peace’.
“We are killing each other, betraying one another, and dividing ourselves. Let us not forget we have the same blood,” they sing in Mali-ko. And: “Let's stand stronger together, people of Mali! Men and Women of Mali, let us unite to be stronger. Let me tell our children that we will not let our country fall into ruin.” Despite the fact that at first glance the ‘Voices United for Mali’ project can look a bit like an African, anti-war We are the World, these musicians do not hesitate to deal with relevant political themes, such as the rise of Islamist groups in the northern regions of the country.
“I have never seen such a desolate and catastrophic situation. They want to impose Sharia on us. Go tell them that our Mali is undividable and unchangeable,” sings Soumalia Kanouté. Other lyrics reveal a deeper concern: “In a moment where the people of Mali think of their stability, others try to destabilize us. In the North, people are starving, our women become merchandise, they are beaten and raped,” says Kisto Dem, and Master Soumi likens the country to a “political cigarette butt.”
This all-star music team is not unique in the war-torn country. As in other parts of Africa, Mali’s musicians often played a symbolic role, also involving a certain share of political commitment. On this issue, Oumou Sangare recently told the press: “We sing about what the politicians will not say. We must sing for people who have no voice.” Both she and Ivorian-born reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, currently living in Bamako, have already recorded two other songs about the political crisis in the country: Paix au Mali (‘Peace in Mali’) was Oumou’s, and An ka wili (‘Mobilization and galvanization’) Tiken Jah’s.
Music has also been used, in the past, to highlight the Tuareg’s desire for freedom. They played a great role in Mali’s history and at the beginning of the crisis. This is quite a paradox, because with the Islamists’ takeover most music – including that of Malian Tuareg groups such as Tinariwen and Tamikrest – was outlawed due to the strict interpretation of the Sharia law imposed by the radical movements.
Both Tinariwen and Tamikrest supported the political struggle of Kel Tamashek (as most members of this people prefer to be called) and the former even took part in the fighting of the 90s. However, none of them wants Tuareg to be confused with al-Qaeda linked Islamists – which they never supported – and they clearly favour peace. Nevertheless, peace is seen as a step towards independence by Tamikrest’s leader Ousmane ag Mossa. "We have never seen Mali as one country. Our movement is for our independence,” he said to journalists in January before a concert in London. “The musicians of the south are only finding out now what has been going on,” added the singer, who lost his parents during the 1990s Tuareg uprising and the consequent operations of Malian soldiers.
As one can easily imagine, neither Tinariwen nor Tamikrest are part of the ‘Voices United for Mali’, but in the country there has been – in past years – at least one music event in which musicians from every part of Mali, and from other regions of Africa and Europe, took part. It was the Festival au Désert (‘Desert Festival’) usually held in Essakane or Timbuktu. Since they both are in the war-torn North, the government of Mali asked for this year’s festival to be postponed. Is this another signal that the current conflict has emphasized the existing differences in the country, turning “musicians into frontline soldiers”?
These are the words of Andy Morgan, a former music manager for many bands (including Tinariwen), now turned journalist. According to what he wrote in January on the CNN website, the Malian crisis has to be regarded as a “cultural conflict” inside the Muslim world. A risky thesis, because it highlights just one of the many factors which characterise the current war. Moreover, Morgan describes music – because of the Islamists’ ban – as a divisive issue, which appears to be only marginally true. As all Malian musicians – both Tuareg and black African – have shown, music can truly replace arms as an instrument in the political arena. This means that it is more correctly considered a tool of peace than a weapon for war. (D.M.)