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Mali Art School Battles Country's Brain Drain

  • Katarina Hoije

As the semester at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Bamako, Mali, comes to an end, the students are busy preparing for their final exams. (K. Höije/VOA)

As the semester at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Bamako, Mali, comes to an end, the students are busy preparing for their final exams. (K. Höije/VOA)

It's graduation time at the Balla Fasseke Koyate Conservatory in Mali.

The country has produced its fair share of world-famous artists and musicians, and the conservatory in the country's capital is trying to leverage that rich cultural heritage to fight the high rate of youth unemployment and to deter migration.

So in between preparing for their exams, students gathers outside in the school yard. Jonathan Dembele sits cross-legged with a guitar on his lap. The young musician graduated from the school last year.

"It's not easy,” Dembele said. “I repeat, it's not easy to live off the music here in Mali, unless you have some branches outside Mali, because here musicians are really not well paid. You work to survive."

Artist Jonathan Dembele studied classical music at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Mali. He says he still prefers the folk music of his Malian ethnic group. (K. Höije/VOA)

Artist Jonathan Dembele studied classical music at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Mali. He says he still prefers the folk music of his Malian ethnic group. (K. Höije/VOA)

But the school opened doors for him. He was selected for an exchange program to study for a year in Denmark. A year later, he got another chance to go abroad, this time to Finland.

"I was the only student selected, the first student in Mali selected to study at the Sibelius Academy in Finland,” he said. “With all these trips, it gave me a chance to meet much people — interesting people — within the world of music, and to create contacts."

But Dembele has returned to Mali. Like other graduates, he gets work playing at weddings and events. He has a regular gig at a hotel.

At the conservatory, Dembele studied classical guitar with Cuban instructors. It made him versatile, but he says he prefers to play the folk music inspired by his Bobo roots.

Graduates like Dembele are just what world-renowned Malian textile artist, Abdoulaye Konate, had in mind when he founded the conservatory in 2004.

“I wanted to offer the students the chance to get a higher education without having to leave Mali and hopefully counter the brain drain that many sub-Saharan African countries face when the youth is forced to go abroad for study or employment,” Konate said.

Abdoulaye Konate is one of Mali’s most famous contemporary artists. He combines traditional materials and techniques in his textiles, which have been exhibited at Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Arken Museum outside of Copenhagen. (K. Höije/VOA)

Abdoulaye Konate is one of Mali’s most famous contemporary artists. He combines traditional materials and techniques in his textiles, which have been exhibited at Washington’s Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Arken Museum outside of Copenhagen. (K. Höije/VOA)

One strategy has been to bring the world to them. In addition to the school's 80 teachers, instructors from other countries regularly give classes at the school.

Some graduates find jobs at media agencies, or as teachers. Others have set up businesses. The school did a study last year and found that 60 percent of its graduates have found work.

Habib Ballo teaches in the multimedia department.

Habib Ballo is the head of the multimedia department at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Bamako, Mali. (K. Höije/VOA)

Habib Ballo is the head of the multimedia department at the Balla Fasseke Kouyate Conservatory in Bamako, Mali. (K. Höije/VOA)

When students graduate, Ballo says, they have the technical skills within multimedia and, most importantly, a portfolio. While this is an art school, he says, the school is not here to make artists, because that's hard to do.

Malian culture and heritage is an integral part of the curriculum. Grammy award-winning kora player Toumani Diabate has taught at the school.

And earlier this year, the conservatory hosted the Bamako Acoustik Festival. It was the first international music festival to take place here since 2012.

Mali was plunged into conflict in 2012, and is still trying to recover. Konate says the arts are a key weapon for peace.

A new generation that enters the workforce in media, arts, music and culture can help transform the country, reconcile people and re-launch the economy, Konate says.

Back in the school's courtyard, Dembele attracted a crowd. And next week, he heads to Europe on tour with Malian singer Rokia Traore.

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