Islamic groups are imposing sharia law in northern Mali. Secular music is banned along with performances by griots, the traditional African singers and storytellers, who in earlier times, used to act as mediators.
A wedding without a griot? That would be almost unthinkable in Mali. At births, circumcisions or funerals, a singer is always present. The sound of the djembe and kora, West Africa's well-known drums and harps, is always heard at these ceremonies.
The griots also perform chants and songs at such festive occasions and never miss these ceremonies.
A griot knows more about the history of individual families than anybody else. At a wedding, he will tell of the exploits of the bridegroom's grandfather. He could, if asked, also recall the deeds of the grandfather's grandfather.
At the end of the performance, there is a financial reward for the griot. A bundle of notes changes hands and is quickly tucked away.
Storyteller and musician
The griots are more than poets or musicians. They are a repository of oral history, they recount legends, and comment on current events as well as singing songs. Being a griot is like being a member of a caste, it is passed on from generation to the next.
Mamadou Diawara is a professor of Ethnology at the Goethe University in Franfurt. He comes from Mali and explained that griots are also referred to as "jeli".
“They are storytellers and come from the area of the Mande people. They are found not only in Mali but also in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Northern Ivory Coast," he said.
This once lively tradition is now under threat. Islamist groups seized power after a military coup destabilized Mali earlier in the year. Initially, the Islamists joined forces with the Taureg separatist rebels, but the alliance lasted only a short time and ended in conflict. The Tuaregs were defeated by the Islamists who are now imposing their radical interpretation of Islamic sharia law on the population of northern Mali.
“The griots cannot, of course, work under these conditions, they cannot sing any more,” says Diawara.
A culture is threatened
The Islamists have banned secular music, dance and other practices they consider unislamic. Even the mosques and mausoleums in the tradition of Islamic mysticism have been ruthlessly destroyed. A historical and cultural legacy stretching back centuries is under attack in northern Mali.
The tradition of the griots dates back to the 13th century. Baye Tounkara was born into an old family of Malian griots.
“We are very proud of that, we are proud of what we are doing,” said Tounkara in an interview with DW.
From an early age, Tounkara had heard his mother sing and watched his father play a musical instrument. “That's how I learnt to be a griot,” he said.
Each ethnic group in Mali has its own griots. They do not only play for local families and villages, some have even achieved prominence nationwide.
“We griots also have a social role,” Tounkara says.
They mediate in conflicts, reconcile feuding families and help to solve community problems. “And even problems of national importance,” he adds.
Tounkara was referring to the current conflict, which has been tearing the country apart for the past six months. Diplomats and politicians around the world are hunting for the solution to the crisis. The UN Security Council recently paved the way for a military intervention in northern Mali.
Griots as peacemakers?
In earlier times, every monarch, chief or warlord employed his own griots. The singers used their art form to involve themselves in questions about war and peace, says Ben Sherif Diabaté, who also comes from an ancient Malian griot family.
“The jeli was like a chief of protocol. He organised all the meetings and conferences,” Diabaté explained in an interview with DW.
Although not officially allowed to participate in debate, a griot, or jeli, would raise objections when he believed a particular decision would harm the interests of the monarch or his dynasty. His knowledge of regal matters and customs would enable him to approach the monarch directly.
But what of the present day? Many Malians believe their government has failed them. For months on end the government felt unable to ask for military assistance from abroad. It was helplessly divided and terrified of another coup. So the griots approached the president of Mali and told him of their concern for the country's welfare. He was, however, not particularly impressed. Perhaps if the griots enjoyed the prestige and influence of an earlier era, Mali would not now be in the midst of the present crisis. Perhaps the griots would have long since organized a peace conference, at which, Diabaté suggests, their music might have helped to inspire some form of reconciliation.