“They told my neighbors that if they ever caught me, they would cut my tongue out,” said Arby, sadness etched on her broad face.
Northern Mali, one of the richest reservoirs of music on the continent, is now an artistic wasteland. Hundreds of musicians have fled south to Bamako, the capital, and to other towns and neighboring countries, driven out by hard-liners who have decreed any form of music — save for the tunes set to Koranic verses — as being against their religion.
The exiles describe a shattering of their culture, in which playing music brings lashes with whips, even prison time, and MP3 and cassette players are seized and destroyed.
“We can no longer live like we used to live,” lamented Aminata Wassidie Traore, 36, a singer who fled her village of Dire, near Timbuktu. “The Islamists do not want anyone to sing anymore.”
In Malian society, music anchors every ceremony, from births and circumcisions to weddings and prayers for rains. Village bards known as griots sang traditional songs and poems of the desert, passing down centuries-old tales of empires, heroes and battles, as well as their community’s history. In this manner, memories were preserved from generation to generation, along with ancient African traditions and ways of life.
In current times, lyrics serve as a source of inspiration and learning, a way to pass down morals and values to youths. They have also been used to expose corruption and human rights abuses, and have helped eradicate stigmas and given a voice to the poor.
“In northern Mali, music is like oxygen,” said Baba Salah, one of northern Mali’s most-respected musicians. “Now, we cannot breathe.”
In March, amid a military coup that left the government in disarray, Tuareg rebels who once fought for Libyan autocrat Moammar Gaddafi joined forces with secessionists and Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. They swept through northern Mali, seizing major towns within weeks and effectively splitting this impoverished nation into two. Soon afterward, the Islamists and al-Qaeda militants took control.
They have installed an ultraconservative brand of Islamic law in this moderate Muslim country, reminiscent of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Somalia’s al-Shabab movements. Now, women must wear head-to-toe garments. Smoking, alcohol, videos and any suggestions of Western culture are banned. The new decrees are enforced by public amputations, whippings and executions, prompting more than 400,000 people to flee. The extremists also destroyed tombs and other cultural treasures, saying they were against Islamic principles.
The death of music was inevitable. It is, perhaps, Mali’s strongest link to the West. Musicians such as the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure, the Tuareg-Berber band Tinariwen and singers such as Salif Keita exported their music to the United States and Europe. They often collaborated with Western musicians.