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Mali's Star Musicians Unite Against Islamists

  • Henry Ridgwell

Sheltering from the rain in his London hotel room, Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate is a long way from his Bamako home. Casually plucking the strings of his ngoni – a West African ancestor of the banjo – his thoughts turn to his desert homeland.

"When you put on a concert now in Mali, al Qaida could plant bombs among lots of people... they could plant bombs there to cause an explosion," he says, explaining why Malian authorities subsequently banned all such events for three months.

Determined to offer the world a glimpse of the place beyond daily headlines of atrocity and unrest, though, Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba, recently held two performances in Britain as part of a broader European tour. Entitled "Sahara Soul," the shows saw Ngoni Ba perform alongside fellow Malian Touareg band "Tamikrest," from the country's Islamist-held north, and Sidi Toure, who hails from the recently, militarily liberated city of Gao.

"We're not here just to sing and play guitar and dance," says Tamikrest Percussionist Aghaly ag Mohamadim. "We are here to make sure people understand the suffering facing the Touareg people back home.”

Explaining that the Islamists who are battling to retain control of Mali’s north are not true Muslims, Kouyate articulates a sentiment shared by those with whom he shares the spotlight.

“[The Prophet] Muhammad himself invited an orchestra to his house to perform at a festival for his wife," he says. "But the jihadists have stopped all music. They are trying to ban television, to ban telephones, to ban diaries, cigarettes, liquor.”

Their collective artistic mission – to show the world that Mali is a diverse and tolerant place – is one in which Gao native and solo musician Sidi Toure maintains a personal stake.

“The instruments belonging to the orchestra of Gao were burned," says Toure, reflecting on recent events that have transformed his hometown. "There are no more instruments. There is no orchestra. There is nothing.”

But despite efforts to silence the sounds of Mali – whether by torching musical instruments or threatening concert goers – Kouyate says rebels are faced with a losing battle.

“If someone wants to stop Malian music, that’s like he wants to stop the heart of Mali," he says. "It’s not possible. You can’t stop Malian music. Music has an effect. It’s like a medicine.”

“Long live France, long live Francois Hollande,” he says, expressing gratitude for the military intervention and optimism that, after the tour, he will return to perform in the safety of the diverse, culturally vibrant Mali from which the inspiration for his music draws.

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