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Art in adversity

Tamasin Ford, Bamako / al
January 18, 2013

Islamic militants in northern Mali have banned most types of music and forced local musicians to flee for their lives. In exile in Bamako, they are keeping their music alive.

Amkoullel in Pili Pili club, Bamako
Image: DW / Tamasin Ford

A small crowd sits in awe as world famous musician Yacouba Sissoko takes to the stage of Pili Pili with his kora, a 21-stringed instrument related to a harp. The bar in the heart of Bamako, the capital, is not only known for its African food, but also for attracting some of the country's top musicians. At the moment though, with the militants occupying the north, music is being heavily censored.

Zouzou, a singer from Gao in the north of Mali, is one of many musicians who fled south to Bamako, after al Qaeda-linked militants took control of northern Mali last spring. The Islamists banned music of any kind there - even cell phone ringtones.

"I feel very bad because I am from the north. My parents are there and suffering, and the music is suffering too," Zouzou told DW.

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group (Photo: Adama Diarra)
Militiamen have set down new laws in northern MaliImage: Reuters

The militants have strong ties to criminal gangs, drugs and arms smugglers - but they are also fired by religious zeal. Extreme forms of sharia, or Islamic law, including stonings and amputations have taken place. Tombs, ancient traditional mud mosques and World Heritage sites have been destroyed; the militants have declared them forbidden according to Islam. They have issued official decrees banning all western music.

"It is like being in jail without any freedom. You need freedom to feel like a human being," Zouzou says. "It's not right."

'Festival in the desert' displaced

After the ban, musicians began receiving death threats. That put an end to the famous "Festival in the Desert," which had taken place every year since 2001 in the northern city of Timbuktu.

"This is why we are really sad," said festival organizer Manny Ansar, "because we started to build something very important for Timbuktu, for Mali. Having it stopped is really damaging."

Malian families arriving in the Bamako bus station waiting to receive their possessions after a long journey from Timbuktu (Photo: Tanya Bindra)
Many families are fleeing from Timbuktu to the southImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ansar is from Timbuktu. His family are nomadic herders who roam the vast dunes north of the city. He, too, has received death threats and can't go back home.

But he hasn't given up. He is still organizing the festival, just in a different place and with a different name: the "Festival in Exile." It will be a caravan of artists travelling and performing through West Africa, culminating in a three-day event in Burkino Faso.

"We can't fight with guns against them," Ansar says. "For me our only way to fight is by culture, by music."

Rapping for recognition

Back at Pili Pili, Amkoullel, one of the new generation of young Malian rappers who use traditional instruments like the kora and the djemb, a skin-covered drum, steps up to the microphone.

The 33-year old was the first rapper to perform at the "Festival in the Desert" in Timbuktu, two years ago. He sings about self-image, immigration and respect and has played all over the world alongside Malian legends Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate.

Zouzou sings into a microphone
Zouzou, too, fled from the northImage: DW / Tamasin Ford

It wasn't until he brought together rappers, activists and friends to form Plus Jamais Ca, ("never again" in French) to pressure the international community to intervene in Mali, and then recorded a song called "SOS" that he caught the attention of authorities.

Released eight months before the military coup last March, the music video shows footage of men with guns, women displaced from their homes and people marching.

Amkoullel says he wrote the song to grab attention and to stop what is now happening in Mali. But since then the tune has been banned by the government-controlled media, and Amkoullel has received death threats.

"I didn't say something wrong about the government and so I don't understand what they are afraid about," he told DW. "But I will keep on doing what I have to do, as an artist."

Like Ansar and other musicians at Pili Pili, Amkoullel is defiant against outsiders who say music in Mali is losing its voice. He admits it is being silenced in the north of the country, but says that music is actually too ingrained in Malian life to ever really disappear.

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