On the 22 August this year, Osama Ould Abdel Kader, an Islamist spokesperson for MUJAO announced in Gao that ‘We the mujahedeen of Gao, of Timbuktu and Kidal, henceforward forbid the broadcasting of any Western music on all radios in this Islamic territory. This ban takes effect from today. We do not want Satan’s music. In its place there will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done’.
So what has led to this drastic measure that has meant scores of Malian musicians are fleeing the country, to avoid prosecution and the destruction of their livelihoods?
Mali has long been a country famed for its wealth and breadth of musical traditions. Not only has Malian music long made its presence felt on the world stage, but it has also attracted many tourists to the country, such as for the Festival in the Desert, which has been running for over ten years.
Now, however, the new ruling in Northern Mali has meant that not only in ‘Western’ music not allowed, but almost all forms of non-Quranic musics are being banned. Even people’s phones are being confiscated, if they are heard to ring with a musical ring tone. Musicians travelling with instruments are being stopped and having their equipment burned by the roadside, ruining their livelihoods. Even the most traditional of Malian musics are banned – for example groups of women playing the tindédrums are being dispersed, despite the fact that this traditional Tuareg music has been performed and used by Malian women for many decades, and thus has an essential role in female society.
Following a military coup in March, the Tuareg rebellion in the North has been taken over by Al-Qa’ida linked Islamic groups, the wahhabiya,who have imposed a strict and violent rule over the Malians of this area. The take-over happened slowly at first, but has now reached new and violent extremes.
Director of the Festival in the Desert, Manny Ansar, has a hopeful outlook on an otherwise bleak situation: ‘They don’t understand... everything is transmitted in Mali through music, through poetry. So instead of making me panic, at least that declaration told me that we’re dealing with people who don’t know what they’re doing and who won’t win. They don’t understand the culture that they’re operating in and they don’t try to understand it either. Mali without music is impossible. Life would have no meaning for the people, because music is their daily reality. It’s the only thing that many have to distract and amuse themselves. They have no television. They have no Internet. They don’t play chess. They don’t gamble. Music is the only thing that makes live worth living.’
Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, has said ‘Culture is our petrol, music is our mineral wealth’. One can only hope that this regime will not entirely drive Mali’s remaining music and musicians to flee.