Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods, and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes with the threat of torture, prison, or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there’s no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing by could hear.
Sounds pretty far fetched doesn’t it? There’s no way it could happen. Well, that’s exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation’s history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.
So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple – Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadists who imposed their version of Muslim religious law – and incredibly complicated – there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don’t change.
Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you’re not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you’ll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people’s experiences during these events; he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened, and the historical, political, and social context which made it possible to begin with.
Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning religion has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don’t adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol, or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn’t sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.
Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere that history has shown us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course, its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody’s freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign – advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody’s ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they’ve been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006, which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrow of the Malian government.
Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek’s goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.
Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general population’s support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they’re just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.
Morgan’s connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, give him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad, and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.
While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek, it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there’s no saying we won’t see a resurgence of terror activity.