Below follows an insightful, personal and reflective commentary on Mali, its music and its politics from Sam Garbett, a fellow graduate from the Humanitarianism & Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester.

After a stupendous night of Malian Music in London falling amidst a French intervention going staggeringly well, Sam Garbett wonders if there is yet a cause for celebration.

Saturday evening I was a very privileged member of a sell-out crowd at London’s Barbican Centre. The cause for our avid assembly was an epic line-up of Malian artists: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba, Tamikrest and Sidi Touré. Music is one of Mali’s most famous exports and that night we were subject to some of its most flamboyant and capable big-hitters. The evening, dubbed Sahara Soul, was conceived to recognize Mali’s continued struggles, pay tribute to its rich musical traditions, and “the power of music to unify people.” Exploring and explaining the potential of this sentiment is the purpose of this article.

Andy Morgan is a freelance writer and journalist. He provided an apt preamble to the concert. It revealed to the audience that there was a power to the music of this land. Morgan was noticeably emotional as he described it. This was to transform the nature of the event. His speech seemed to steel the resolve of the musicians that were about to perform – they came on stage very aware of the heightened significance of the night. This evening there were not merely here to entertain but also to educate; a sentiment echoed by Morgan.  As attendees arrived they found a print out on their seat of an article Morgan wrote emphasizing the importance of the evening. It stated that the concert provided an “opportunity for some of the county’s most celebrated musicians to join together to express their collective defiance of oppression”.  It informed the audience that on the 22nd August 2012:

“…a heavily bearded spokesperson for the MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) – a motley militia of radical Islamists and big-time drug barons who, at time of writing, currently control Gao – issued a decree banning all Western music in northern Mali. ‘We don’t want Satan’s music,’ the spokeman declared. ‘Sharia demands it. It is the will of God and we must obey”.

The decree in effect outlawed all music and thus the musicians we were treated to that evening were performing in exile. Some of them had retreated to Bamako to escape oppression at the price of embracing poverty. To remain behind would be equally brutal. Use of the radio, television and playing music on mobile phones in the North would all risk a whipping. And though these musicians escaped, their instruments, or those of their comrades, were impounded or burnt. As you can imagine, these words were not quite the traditional crowd warm-up spiel.

A curtain fell around the evening. The atmosphere was charged. I sensed that collectively we had realized our proximity to the war that had clung to the headlines all week. We were emotionally engaged. Partisans. We all loved Mali and its musical excellence, but this concert was a political act. We were there to witness and participate in it. During the concert our humanity was provoked via the empathetic explanation that is nurtured through music. Perhaps it is a sign of hope that at the Mali Interest Hub stall in the foyer after the concert people still had time to queue up to get on the mailing list. This was despite final tubes home being only minutes away.  

In the coup d’etat of March 2012 the Mali’s army cited the lame response by the government they replaced to the invasion from the militias in the north as their reason for their drastic action. Like many militaries of developing countries, they are always in a better position to have their demands realized. When their calls for better equipment and resources to combat the militias to the North were not realized they took matters into their own hands. The conflict has rumbled on since and it has so far killed hundreds and has generated 150,000 refugees, with a total of 400,000 displaced as of December. A Malian Minister at the UN Security Council graphically detailed the rape and destruction of his country. Early this year the government sent an official plea for help. The organisers of this event were obviously attuned to the political realities of Malian life and the violence the country has been subject to since February last year.  However, it is unlikely that the event organisers had foreseen that it would coincide within a matter of days of Mali’s government’s appeal to the world for urgent assistance. This was a call which France responded to by deploying 2,900 troops, with more assistance to follow. Other countries, notably Britain and the United States have since joined in various auxiliary capacities to support France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s aim of aiding the stricken Malian government in “total reconquest”.

Can we trust these nations? When Sidi Toure came on stage he bellowed into the microphone “Thank You France!” it was met w
ith rapturous applause. My immediate reaction was not to join in. It remained that way. I have since mulled over as to why.  Had I got something wrong? Perhaps it stems from my knowledge of the Rwandan case that made me hesitate. There, the neo-colonial intervention ‘Operation Turquoise’ was anything but “humanitarian”.  Their invasion over the western border in 1994 provided safe passage for thousands of genocidaires and members of the murderous government smuggling cases of money from Rwanda’s treasury into Zaire.  We also have to remember that the Malian government itself has no democratic legitimacy drawn from its people. We shouldn’t assume that its agenda is drawn from the popular will of the people.

Has has US military learnt its lessons? The death of the American ambassador in Benghazi still resonates in the Pentagon – they seem far more courteous to the hostility that comes with invasions and air strikes. However, you won’t find many betting that this approach will last that long. Perhaps my reaction was simply as a result of me being someone who struggles to celebrate military action of any kind. And it’s not as if I wasn’t up for cheering at all; when Sidi Toure, and his co-stars, began rousing the crowd by yelling out messages of religious tolerance I whooped and hollered with the rest.   

The most likely cause of my suspicions was Seumas Milne’s excellent piece for The Guardian. If they were not suspicions it has at least persuaded me to postpone the liberation party to well after the dust has settled. This video shows the ghostly and chilling scenes typical of air-power dependent Western military interventions. The strikes killed the rebels. But it has also been reported that the strikes have also killed local civilians and have caused many to flee. Further to this Milne articulates that:

“You’d think the war on terror had been a huge success, the way the western powers keep at it, Groundhog Day-style. In reality, it has been a disastrous failure, even in its own terms – which is why the Obama administration felt it had to change its name to “overseas contingency operations”…Instead of fighting terror, it has fuelled it everywhere it’s been unleashed: from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Iraq to Yemen, spreading it from Osama bin Laden’s Afghan lairs eastwards to central Asia and westwards to North Africa – as US, British and other western forces have invaded, bombed, tortured and kidnapped their way across the Arab and Muslim world for over a decade”.

The Algerian hostage crisis is possibly the most overt act of retaliation in the history of the war on terror. The 5 day turn-around of French troops on the ground to the first shots being fired in Ain Amenas was all it took for the world to see how striking knives into wounds rarely cause them to heal any quicker. Milne points that the warning lights were flashing far longer. He states that in the “ensuing maelstrom” after the collapse of the Libyan dictatorship “Tuareg people who had fought for Gaddafi went home to Mali and weapons caches flooded over the border. Within a couple of months this had tipped longstanding demands for self-determination into armed rebellion”.

One question that remains is: what alternatives do we have to military involvement? Always a difficult question. In the cause for peace, religious tolerance, and prosperity can an intervention from a foreign power ever be a solution? French-Malian military advances could have arrived just in time  to protect some of the most precious manuscripts and treasures of Timbuktu and help the terrified archivists secure their precious library. We mourn the treasures and lives lost, but in the jubilant crowds of Malian’s that greet their liberators can I really dismiss the actions of France as a terrible thing? Unlike my celebrations, responses to pleas for help cannot be postponed ‘till the dust settles’. These decisions will inevitably feel the wrath of hindsight too. The Rwandan case taught the world that….

Mali’s music can provide some answers though. As Bassekou Kouyate announced, philosophically, during the evening “We Malians are condemned to live together.” This along with is jovial and gracious character hints at an upbeat pragmatism: the differences between West Africans are here to stay, they can be difficult but we have to find a way to live together. For Kouyate the solution could not be more obvious. The wisdom of creating a musical collage to symbolize unity against oppression is a natural instinct. As I sat and danced in the audience and lapped up the joy in this sentiment my mind whirred away – does Mali’s music behold a path out of the current madness that grips its country? I was provided with much visual and auditory evidence that night. The stage was awash with musicians and of different creeds, religions, tribes singing in different languages, playing instruments of diverse origins – all together. On their shoulders, feet and heads they proudly displayed a mixture of vibrancy and practicality, a salient feature of Saharan clothing. Some had religious significance and it all looked fantastic.

During the performance I did wonder heavily whether the West, and perhaps in Br
itain especially, demands a traditional image of Africa. The audience was composed entirely of white middle-class Britons. I did wonder whether this had any significance, for the tickets weren’t prohibitively expensive. With incredible likeness to my mix-feelings towards the intervention of the French in Mali, was the enthusiasm and fervour of the crowd a nostalgic manifestation of colonial romanticism? Or was it something less complex? Were we simply relishing in the refreshing sound of a country that has preserved its ancestry with such joyous devotion? That is fighting to keep this spirit alive? In this evening of excellence these musicians, ambassadors of an oppressed land, laid the emotions of Mali’s threatened ancestry and future out to bear. They appealed for our support and sent out a plea.

It would have feared for my own sense of humanity if I failed to raise my voice in solidarity. I cheered and clapped till I could no more.

By Sam Garbett

One thought on “Can the music of this majestic land be Mali’s true savior?

  1. Pingback: Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week | Mali Interest Hub

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