Friday, November 1, 2013

One more time, with feeling: Musical culture in Mali rebuilds

By: Julia Norris 
Produced & edited by: Holly Moody

Culture takes generations to build, mere seconds to destroy.

 The musicians of Mali know this all too well, as they pick up the pieces left behind after the 2012 conflict that shook their country and their art form.

 For many years, Mali was a cultural epicenter for musical expression in West Africa. Musicians such as the late Ali Farka Touré captivated a global audience and, events like the Festival au Désert brought tourists and musicians from all over the world to experience Malian music--ever vibrant and ever full of life.

 All of that changed in 2012.

Islamists Ban on Music in Mali

 That year, the amount of foreigners who made their way to Timbuktu for the Festival au Désert had drastically decreased from over 800 to about 150. Among the locals, there was a sense of tension in the air just waiting to break. That was in January. By the end of March, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré had been ousted in a coup d’état, and the constitution suspended. By summer, an Islamist group connected with Al-Quaida had filled the power vacuum by taking complete control of the northern region of Mali. Democracy was the first to go. Music was next.

JeConte & the Mali Allstars (Provided for academic use)
 “In the north, there was a complete moratorium on music as we know it,” said Joe Conte, harmonica player and vocalist for JeConte & the Mali Allstars, who was in Mali recording when the conflict began.

 The Islamists in the North banned all forms of musical expression, Joe explained, right down to the ring tone of a cell phone. The only exception was the singing of the Qu’ran. Musicians’ homes were ransacked, their gear confiscated and destroyed.

 “Some artists were beaten, jailed,” said Amkoullel, a Malian hip-hop artist. “I heard stories about torture on artists in the North.” 

 Many fled south for their safety and freedom to practice their art, in search of the old Mali, but they found that things had changed there as well.

 Amkoullel himself received three death threats to his mobile phone though he was in Bamako, the southern capital.

 Politically unstable Bamako with its plummeting economy was not the hoped for refuge, even for those who escaped direct threats. 

“For West African people life is music,” said Ben Zabbo, an afrobeat musician from Bamako. “It is a piece of our daily life, a piece of everything in our daily life. “All of our celebrations are with music.” 

Economy Impacts lives of Musicians

 However, with the declining economy, there was no money to hold these celebrations let alone to hire musicians to play them. Every facet of everyday life was interrupted. 

“It was hell for us,” said Zabbo. “That was our only way to survive.” “Clubs shut down, people stopped going out and there was a huge shift in the way that people made a living,” said Conte. “Life that was hard got even harder.” 

According to Abdallah Ag Amano, sound engineer and manager for Tadalat from Timbuktu, at the heart of the northern conflict Malian authorities declared a state of emergency in the South in response to the northern conflict. They prohibited any kind of community gathering. 
Tadalat performs at Festival Au Desert 2012 (Provided for academic use)

 “So, the musicians found themselves banned from practicing together, perspective festivals for artists to make music were canceled,” said Ag Amano. 

 Everything came to a halt. For many musicians, this meant that each day was a struggle to put food on the table. This has been a focus of Paul Chandler, co-founder of the NGO Instruments4Africa, who has lived and worked in Mali for the past decade, integrating himself into the musical culture of the region. 

 “We’ve been in triage mode to some extent in terms of how we are helping artists,” said Chandler. “Musicians waking up and figuring out how they are going to take care of their family that day--that’s been a focus of ours.”

Artists come together to rebuild Music in Mali

 After so much destruction, musicians and their supporters all over the country are starting to rebuild. 

 “I am really happy to tell you that it was one year ago since the crisis and music is not dead in Mali,” said Zabbo. “Music is alive once again.”

 Malian musicians everywhere are coming together to act as a voice for peace and reconstruction. 

 In January of 2013, a super group of Malian musicians, calling themselves “Voices United for Mali,” released a song for peace and Amkoullel with, 12 other artists, recorded the single “Tous un pour le Mali”/”Everyone for Mali.” This single is available on iTunes and all proceeds fromt it as well as his last album, Afrique Soleil Nouveau/Africa Shine Again, go to benefit the Malian Red Cross as it assists people in Northern Mali. In July, JeConte & the Mali Allstars released Mali Blues for peace. Both Sidi Toure (Alafia/ “peace”) and Rokia Traoré (Beautiful Africa) released albums in September. Ben Zabbo is in the recording process. 

“Music, art in general, is fed by any kind of situation, good or bad” said Amkoullel. “As long as a situation generates strong emotion, it inspires. So, I’m sure this trauma will inspire musicians in Mali. I wish it were inspired by something positive but, like we say, life goes on and show must go on.” 

 “The rebuilding process will take time. Lots of things have been destroyed, not just material but people’s trust,” said Amkoullel. “People are waiting for answers and for justice.” Ag Amano sees musicians as key players in the peace building process.

 “People do not necessarily have the same confidence in political leaders while a message through music can be listened to by all, said Amano. 

 Like Amkoullel, he urged Malians to come together for forgiveness, solidarity and, above all else, justice. Ben Zabbo echoed this thought. 

 “No one can stop music in Mali, that is clear,” said Zabbo. “But Mali will never know peace without justice.”

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