Music silenced in north Mali as Islamists drive out artists ?

BAMAKO, Mali — Khaira Arby, one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians, has performed all over the world, but there is one place she cannot visit: her native city of Timbuktu, a place steeped in history and culture but now ruled by religious extremists.

One day, they broke into Arby’s house and destroyed her instruments. Her voice was a threat to Islam, they said, even though one of her most popular songs praised Allah.

“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.

Since 2001, Western artists such as Robert Plant have performed at the Festival of the Desert, outside Timbuktu, transforming Mali into an international artistic and tourist destination. In January, U2 frontman Bono performed with Tinariwen. This February, though, the festival will be held in neighboring Burkina Faso.

The international recognition helped spark a new generation of young artists in the north. Some fused songs in their native Songhai and Tamashek languages with Arabic and French. Others melded traditional rhythms of the desert with rap, hip-hop, reggae, funk and blues. Bands weaved traditional Malian lute and fiddles with electric guitars.

In recent times, the lyrics have addressed social and political issues. In “Waidio,” Arby sings about the plight of women trapped by war. She has also sung about Fulani cattle herders and the hard labor endured by salt miners.

‘Music is against Islam’

Today, in the city of Gao, 39-year-old singer Bintu Aljuma Yatare no longer listens to music on her phone. The Islamists will confiscate it, she said. Five musicians in her band have fled to neighboring Niger; two others are in Bamako. She cannot leave because she has to take care of her aging parents.

Every evening, she risks being sent to prison: She shuts the windows and doors of her house and sings in her native Songhai language. “Sometimes I lie in my bed and hum my songs softly,” she said. “The only way for me to survive this nightmare is through music.”

The other day, she wrote a song about the drivers who take people out of northern Mali to safer pastures.

For reggae musician Alwakilo Toure, his home in Gao was not a sanctuary. He was strumming his guitar when six armed militants barged into his compound. With guns pointed at his head, one Islamist grabbed the guitar and smashed it to bits with his foot. “The guitar was my life,” Toure recalled. “I had nothing else to do.”

Two weeks later, he fled to Bamako.

In a telephone interview, one of the Islamists’ top commanders declared that his fighters would continue to target musicians.

“Music is against Islam,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

Artists without a home

In a cramped apartment in Bamako, about a dozen young artists were recording a song, a fusion of rap and traditional melodies. In one corner, there was a microphone and a computer to mix the tracks. Next to that was a synthesizer.

All the artists were from northern Mali, and none were playing with their own instruments because they had either been burned or shattered by the Islamists. The group included Toure, who was coaching a singer.

But their escape to Bamako is bittersweet.

It has been difficult for the musicians to earn money in the capital. They sing in the lan­guages of the north, but most people in Bamako speak only the southern Bambara language.

“In Bamako, people don’t understand what we sing,” Toure said. “It really hurts us that we can’t perform. Most of us don’t have jobs. Many of us now rely on our relatives for money.”

But even in exile, they have found a way to take a stand against the Islamists.

“We feel like soldiers,” said Kiss Diouara, a 24-year-old rapper. “This is our way to fight our war.”

A few minutes later, he played his group’s most recent creation. The video included a collage of news clips and photos of Islamists destroying ancient mosques and asserting their power. In the video, Diourra raps:

Free the North

We want peace in our land

We want to go back to our homes

Arby understands. For the past eight months, she has lived out of a suitcase.

Arby knows she could easily travel outside Mali for work. Her 2010 album, “Timbuktu Tarab,” was widely acclaimed in the West. She had opportunities to settle in the United States, she said.

But Mali is where she is most inspired, specifically in Timbuktu, she said.

“When I think of Timbuktu, I am lost,” said Arby, wiping a sudden tear that trickled down her cheek. “When I dream of Timbuktu, I wake up. When I think of Timbuktu when I am speaking, I stop speaking. My heart is broken. Timbuktu is everything to me.”

Washington Post

Top photo: In Mali, musicians flee south: Radical Islamists have driven artists from northern Mali, where playing music can bring beatings, and even prison time.

  • Constantin7

    “Music is against Islam”: This is the real Islam my friends. In Islam MUsic is HARAM. God who gave us our brain to use it in every possible way in the world, Mohammad comes and tells his followers that the beautiful creative gift of music that humans have exercised since the beginning of time, is HARAM. A mother sings to her baby in order for the baby to sleep, and when she stops before the baby sleeps, the baby spontaneously objects by crying, he/she wants the mother to continue singing….and Mohammad comes and says singing, dancing and music is HARAM. Luckily most Arab muslims exercise their humanity much more than their alleged religion, most Arabs love music, dancing and singing. Poor are those people that apply Islam strictly, because they are missing so much out of life. Islam stole their basic human creativity and need to be happy. Music is one of the pleasures of this life that makes us happy but it is HARAM for muslims. Imagine not being able to listen to Fairouz, Sabah, Wardah, for some Oum Koulthoum (not a fan), Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid el Atrash, missing the joy to listen and watch Haifa, feeling the romance in Ragheb Alameh’s songs, dream and fly with Majida, etc….

    I am happy with what the Islamists are doing in Egypt right now, they are showing the Egyptians the real Islam and sooner or later the creative, the artistic, the life loving Egyptians are going to revolt against all the restrictions being imposed on them in the name of GOD. The reason is going to win at the end and not the lies and deceptions of the Kuran and his messenger.

    How could this evil, liar, murderer, fornicator, thief, etc…. be a messenger from GOD. HOW ???? Can’t you see my muslim friends ?

    Strangely, the Khulafa’ Alrashidin adopted the crescent as the symbol of Islam, because of the lunar calendar that the Islamic year follows. However, they did not notice that they chose the symbol when the earth is at its darkest moment, when the moon is barely starting to show as a crescent, in other words the crescent is the symbol of darkness, and it really is.They wanted (unwillingly) the muslims to remain in the darkness and not SEE the LIGHT.

    • Hannibal

      You’d better wear your body armor my friend…

    • Mahdi Kenaani

      i looooooooooove haifa!!! my iphone is filled with haifa songs….  currently i am obsessed with yalla ma’ ba’ad

      • 5thDrawer

        Don’t go to Gaza.

  • Constantin7

    “Music is against Islam”: This is the real Islam my friends. In Islam MUsic is HARAM. God who gave us our brain to use it in every possible way in the world, Mohammad comes and tells his followers that the beautiful creative gift of music that humans have exercised since the beginning of time, is HARAM. A mother sings to her baby in order for the baby to sleep, and when she stops before the baby sleeps, the baby spontaneously objects by crying, he/she wants the mother to continue singing….and Mohammad comes and says singing, dancing and music is HARAM. Luckily most Arab muslims exercise their humanity much more than their alleged religion, most Arabs love music, dancing and singing. Poor are those people that apply Islam strictly, because they are missing so much out of life. Islam stole their basic human creativity and need to be happy. Music is one of the pleasures of this life that makes us happy but it is HARAM for muslims. Imagine not being able to listen to Fairouz, Sabah, Wardah, for some Oum Koulthoum (not a fan), Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid el Atrash, missing the joy to listen and watch Haifa, feeling the romance in Ragheb Alameh’s songs, dream and fly with Majida, etc….

    I am happy with what the Islamists are doing in Egypt right now, they are showing the Egyptians the real Islam and sooner or later the creative, the artistic, the life loving Egyptians are going to revolt against all the restrictions being imposed on them in the name of GOD. The reason is going to win at the end and not the lies and deceptions of the Kuran and his messenger.

    How could this evil, liar, murderer, fornicator, thief, etc…. be a messenger from GOD. HOW ???? Can’t you see my muslim friends ?

    Strangely, the Khulafa’ Alrashidin adopted the crescent as the symbol of Islam, because of the lunar calendar that the Islamic year follows. However, they did not notice that they chose the symbol when the earth is at its darkest moment, when the moon is barely starting to show as a crescent, in other words the crescent is the symbol of darkness, and it really is.They wanted (unwillingly) the muslims to remain in the darkness and not SEE the LIGHT.

    • Hannibal

      You’d better wear your body armor my friend…

    • Mahdi Kenaani

      i looooooooooove haifa!!! my iphone is filled with haifa songs…. 

    • Mahdi Kenaani

      i looooooooooove haifa!!! my iphone is filled with haifa songs…. 

      • 5thDrawer

        Don’t go to Gaza.

  • Fauzia45

    These ¨religious extremists¨,these ignorant fanatics ,are the real threat!!

  • Fauzia45

    These ¨religious extremists¨,these ignorant fanatics ,are the real threat!!

  • wishi_d

    Given what the Taliban did in Afghanistan—the destruction of historic treasures and art, as well as the oppression of artists, poets, and musicians—I live in terror of what such Islamic extremists will do to the legacies left to people throughout the world as their brand of religion spreads. They want a sterile world, devoid of history, diversity, art and culture, where the only reason for a future is to prepare for death and god. Why would anyone want that?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/QUHCMQH262LEGPZCMEGORVMP2I Preview

      Funny how you don’t mention how the yanks destroyed a country rich in “historic treasures and art”, which were either destroyed or looted. Nor do you mention how the yanks installed a puppet regime that imposes the “oppression of artists, poets and musicians”!
      Your biased view is so damn obvious it’s sickening!
      Btw just in case you couldn’t figure it out for your lonesome self, the country in question is IRAQ!!!

      • wishi_d

        Just for the record, I opposed our invasion of Iraq. It was based on false information and was just a way for us to get our hands on oil. Our entire presence there is BS.
        War destroys, and it makes me sick to think that we are as responsible for the destruction of an ancient heritage and a culture, as the religious extremists who wish to destroy anything that they feel is “haram.”
        I see a similar threat to diversity, history and culture from the Christian zealots out there who would see women’s rights rolled back, books banned, art works destroyed, science education crippled, history rewritten, and gays imprisoned.
        From where I sit, there is nothing much to recommend the Abrahamic faiths: They are inherently intolerant, vulnerable to extremism, and almost pathologically patriarchal. 

      • wishi_d

        Did US or UN soldiers purposely enter Iraqi museums and smash irreplaceable artifacts and artworks? Did they deliberately aim their cannon at ancient statues, temples and monuments for the sole purpose of obliterating Iraq’s ancient history? Is it policy for our troops to beat, imprison, disfigure, cripple, and kill Iraqi citizens simply because they produce art, music and writings that offend Western ideology?
        Sorry, but the looting and collateral damage from warfare is not the same as a cultural pogrom.
        Just let me add that my ancestors were the victims of such a cultural eradication effort at the hands of the Christian English (in almost identical fashion as was practiced against the Native Americans by settlers and their priests). Yes, it was centuries ago, but the result is the same: Loss of art, stories, language, religion, and life way. What remains are stereotypes and quaint tourist attractions. What richness have I and my children lost because of this loss of heritage?
        Imagine what might happen to a wonderous place like the Giza Plateau should Islamic extremists, guided by poisonous modern interpretations of the Koran, take over Egyptian politics? Imagine what will be lost if the Cairo Museum should fall to zealots?

  • wishi_d

    Given what the Taliban did in Afghanistan—the destruction of historic treasures and art, as well as the oppression of artists, poets, and musicians—I live in terror of what such Islamic extremists will do to the legacies left to people throughout the world as their brand of religion spreads. They want a sterile world, devoid of history, diversity, art and culture, where the only reason for a future is to prepare for death and god. Why would anyone want that?

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/QUHCMQH262LEGPZCMEGORVMP2I Preview

      Funny how you don’t mention how the yanks destroyed a country rich in “historic treasures and art”, which were either destroyed or looted. Nor do you mention how the yanks installed a puppet regime that imposes the “oppression of artists, poets and musicians”!
      Your biased view is so damn obvious it’s sickening!
      Btw just in case you couldn’t figure it out for your lonesome self, the country in question is IRAQ!!!

      • wishi_d

        Just for the record, I opposed our invasion of Iraq. It was based on false information and was just a way for us to get our hands on oil. Our entire presence there is BS.
        War destroys, and it makes me sick to think that we are as responsible for the destruction of an ancient heritage and a culture, as the religious extremists who wish to destroy anything that they feel is “haram.”
        I see a similar threat to diversity, history and culture from the Christian zealots out there who would see women’s rights rolled back, books banned, art works destroyed, science education crippled, history rewritten, and gays imprisoned.
        From where I sit, there is nothing much to recommend the Abrahamic faiths: They are inherently intolerant, vulnerable to extremism, and almost pathologically patriarchal. 

      • wishi_d

        Did US or UN soldiers purposely enter Iraqi museums and smash irreplaceable artifacts and artworks? Did they deliberately aim their cannon at ancient statues, temples and monuments for the sole purpose of obliterating Iraq’s ancient history? Is it policy for our troops to beat, imprison, disfigure, cripple, and kill Iraqi citizens simply because they produce art, music and writings that offend Western ideology?
        Sorry, but the looting and collateral damage from warfare is not the same as a cultural pogrom.Just let me add that my ancestors were the victims of such a cultural eradication effort at the hands of the Christian English (in almost identical fashion as was practiced against the Native Americans by settlers and their priests). Yes, it was centuries ago, but the result is the same: Loss of art, stories, language, religion, and life way. What remains are stereotypes and quaint tourist attractions. What richness have I and my children lost because of this loss of heritage?Imagine what might happen to a wonderous place like the Giza Plateau should Islamic extremists, guided by poisonous modern interpretations of the Koran, take over Egyptian politics? Imagine what will be lost if the Cairo Museum should fall to zealots?