Music is vital to political struggle across Africa – not just in Mali

Published in The Observer (27th January, 2013)

At dinner last month after a concert by the Congolese rapper Baloji, I found myself sitting next to his drummer, Saidou Ilboudo. As we chatted over the chicken, he told me the remarkable story of how as a teenager growing up in Burkina Faso he had been recruited one day by Thomas Sankara, the country’s president, to play in a state band.

Sankara is an almost-forgotten figure these days in the west, but in the mid-80s he was one of the most charismatic leaders of his age, a revolutionary known as “Africa’s Che Guevara” who pushed public health, promoted feminism and faced down the global financial institutions causing such damage to the continent.

This was an amazing break for a boy just out of school. For a few years, he enjoyed the privileges and security that went with being part of the president’s circle, while playing in a band that had a dual purpose: to entertain young people while proselytising political messages. Then, in 1987, Sankara was murdered in a French-backed coup and life became trickier.

The idea of publicly funded pop groups might sound strange, but many leading figures of African music served time in such institutions. Given the continent’s oral tradition, there is a proud history of praise singers, and musicians were for centuries vital voices, used and abused by politicians and tribal leaders who understood their power. Think only of Franco, whose liquid guitar-playing made Congolese rumba the heartbeat of Africa while promoting the messages of Mobutu Sese Seke, his thieving president.

After the end of colonialism, musicians were used to fuse countries carved out of often disparate communities. Nowhere was this truer than Mali, a nation on the faultline between the African and Arab worlds in which music is more threaded into the fabric of cultural, social and political life than perhaps any other place on Earth.

Salif Keita, the honey-voiced albino singer, first achieved fame in a band set up by the minister of information to play a residency in a station hotel. He was then poached by the chief of police to join their rivals, whose guitarist was Amadou Bagayoko, now a global superstar with his gold guitar alongside his wife, Mariam. It is hard to envisage coalition ministers, let alone Met police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe, performing a similar role.

Mali stakes a claim as birthplace of the blues – the foundation stone of modern music – and many of its best-known artists have taken their songs around the world. They remain respected political voices at home. Oumou Sangaré, the country’s biggest female star, made her name in her early 20s with a breathtaking album tackling issues such as female circumcision and women’s roles in society. Now one of her former backing singers, Fatoumata Diawara, has pulled together 40 stars from all over the country to sing together in a symbol of unity.

The current tragedy of Mali is intensified by its tradition of tolerance. Its strand of gentle Sufism could not be further removed from the hate-fuelled Islamists of al-Qaida. So when an outspoken reggae singer called Tiken Jah Fakoly upset the rulers of his native Ivory Coast and was then declared “persona non grata” by Senegal’s president, he made his home in Bamako, where he can fill football stadiums.

But not these days. For music is banned in two-thirds of Mali following its collapse last year with first a coup, then the capture of the vast northern desert regions by Islamist militias, whose members come from as far afield as Pakistan. Even in the south of the country, despite the Franco-African intervention, there is such instability that these artists whose music provides pleasure around the world cannot perform in their home towns.

The banning of music is hideous anywhere, but in Mali of all places it seems somehow sacrilegious. This is a poor country; as one of its most famous artists says, music is its mineral wealth. And the mujahideen have not just banned it: they declared war on musicians, destroying their equipment and threatening to slice off their fingers. It underlines how at heart this is a cultural conflict, between those embracing the turbulent values of liberal democracy and those seeking the certainties of theocracy.

I first went there almost a decade ago for the fabulous Festival in the Desert, held on white sands a couple of hours from the fabled city of Timbuktu. Today, this area is at the heart of the fundamentalist badlands, but westerners could not have been made more welcome. At daytime, I sat in a tent chatting over tea and biscuits to celebrated guitarist Ali Farka Toure; at night, there was stunning music from an array of amazing artists such as Amadou & Mariam. Afterwards, I lay under the Saharan stars listening as members of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen strummed away beside a campfire until dawn.

It was an intoxicating experience. Mali and its music seeped into my soul. There in the desert I met Damon Albarn. Afterwards, we set up Africa Express, bringing together musicians from Africa and the west to embrace that unified spirit of music, joy and generosity found in the desert. Many of these Malian artists have been linchpins of the project.

Music is a powerful force, as true in the west as anywhere else. But somehow in Africa it has even more potency. Perhaps this is down to weak political institutions, often lamentable political leadership or the lack of strong literary tradition in some places. Or maybe it is just that the music is so damn good. But from Fela Kuti fighting a corrupt military dictatorship in Nigeria to Miriam Makeba challenging the evil of apartheid in South Africa, this genuine protest music has been a ray of hope through troubled times.

As the continent shakes off the shackles of the past and races into the future, musicians remain important voices. Look at Senegal, next door to Mali. Baaba Maal preached awareness about HIV/Aids, takings his songs from village to village and playing a key role in ensuring infection rates remained comparatively low. Last year, when a president in his 80s tried to cling on to power, it was a youth movement led by rappers that prevented him. Now Youssou N’Dour is a cabinet minister.

Perhaps the Islamists are right to fear music’s strength. But they can never contain its power in a place like Mali. As Fatoumata Diawara said last week, it remains a source of hope amid the nightmare that has engulfed her nation.

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