Mali’s magical music

Published in The Guardian (January 18th, 2013)

This week, the world has finally focused on the tragedy that has befallen Mali. It took bombing raids from French aircraft to draw attention to the fact that Islamist extremists have captured two-thirds of this beautiful country, imposing a distorted and destructive interpretation of their faith on a people for whom it could not be more alien.

Unlike in most conflicts, musicians are on the frontline. For a start, music is now banned in the vast desert regions where once people – myself included – flocked to the famous Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu. Yet music is more entwined with the life of the nation in Mali than perhaps any other place in the world: a political, cultural and social force. There was the griot tradition dating back centuries, then in post-independence days musicians were used to bond together a nation that lies on the faultline between the Arab and African worlds. More recently, a succession of sublime artists have blazed a trail around the world, their easily accessible, blues-based sounds making the word Mali even more synonymous with magical music.

Some commentators talk about the situation in the Sahel as the African wing of the war on terror. This is far too simplistic given the complexities of events there, their deep roots in old grievances inflamed by newer issues such as feuds over the profits of drug-running and kidnapping. But at root this is now a cultural war – between modernity and the past, between tolerance and brutality, between unity and division. And this is why the music of Mali remains such a vital force in the fight for all our futures.

It was excellent to hear the organisers of the Glastonbury Festival announce yesterday that they would use Britain’s most important musical event to highlight Malian music. Rokia Traore, one of the most brilliant talents I have ever seen, will kick off the festivities; I advise you not to miss her. And to underline how artists from this nation have entranced so many of their fellow performers, we asked some artists from Africa and the west to tell us which tracks have most touched them.

This is the introduction to a large feature on Mali and music, which you can find here.

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