In 2012, a coup kicked off a diaspora of Malians from which the country has not yet recovered. Malians fled by the hundreds of thousands and ended up in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania.
After a Tuareg rebellion, a coup in Bamako, and then a jihadist takeover of the north, religious extremists held sway and did the unthinkable — they banned music, something Malians cannot imagine.
Music to unite
But some refugee musicians hope they can use music to encourage Malians to return, unite and shun the extremist groups that briefly controlled the country’s north.
Malians call them jeli — storytellers — whose work is to conserve history and make social commentary. Their existence is absolutely central to Malian identity.
This music comes from a tradition that goes back 800 years. It has been kept alive by families, in this case the Kouyatés and Diabatés.
When the Malians fled, some arrived in the remote Mbera Camp in eastern Mauritania, where they remain.
'Partied for two nights'
Manny Ansar, the director of the celebrated Festival in the Desert, recounts how he arrived at the camp with a group of artists from all corners of Mali. He did not quite know how the welcome would be.
“If you’re a minister or another politician,” he said, “and you show up at the camp, the refugees will throw stones at you.”
But in the end, the reception was warm and overwhelming.
“That’s the power of culture,” Ansar said.
In Mbera Camp, an unlikely setting for a concert, people pulled together to build a stage using sandbags as support material. For 50,000 people living so far from home, this was the first time they could reconnect with their country and its music.
“We just partied for two nights,” Ansar told VOA.
Concerts on three continents
The concert in Mauritania is one of a series of concerts on three continents. It’s called the Cultural Caravan for Peace, and Ansar has been the driving force behind it.
The caravan has two main aims, he said. One is to contribute to reconciliation in Mali. And nothing can carry this message more effectively than music. Seeing singers and musicians from the northern, central and southern parts of Mali on a stage together sends a powerful message of peace and understanding.
The other purpose of the caravan is to offer a different voice to the seductive sound of jihadist extremism, the ideology that sent so many of Mali’s musicians into exile.
This call for unity and against extremism is traveling around the world. There are stops in Morocco, where the caravan joins with the Taragalt Festival on the edge of the Sahara Desert; Ségou, on the Niger River, Burkina Faso. And next year, Malian music will dazzle crowds in Europe and the United States.
The Cultural Caravan for Peace will be in the United States, May 1 to June 7, 2017.