Timbuktu is sort of like the New Orleans of Mali. It is not the capitol or the commercial center, but it is the seat of the nation’s musical soul. Generations of musicians have lived there amid the storied city’s distinctive architecture, until armed Islamist terrorists forcibly occupied the city. Sharia law was proclaimed, shrines were razed, music was forbidden, and musicians were forced into exile within their own homeland. Although the occupation is over, the risk of Islamist violence remains for residents the regions musicians, many of whom remain in Bamako. Four prominent Malian musicians do their best to take stock and carry on in Lutz Gregor’s documentary, Mali Blues (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Remember Timbuktu and neighboring Kidal and Gao next time someone claims Sharia Law is really quite benign and it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. In accordance with Sharia, Taureg guitarist Ahmed ag Kaedi’s gear was burned by the terrorists, who then promised his parents they would break all his fingers when they caught him. Obviously, the oppression of Timbuktu was a profoundly dangerous turn of events for singer-songwriter-actress Fatoumata Diawara (simply called “Sia” by thousands of fans, in reference to her best-known film role), considering her use of music to protest female genital mutilation and to process her own history as refugee fleeing an arranged marriage.
Bassekou Kouyaté represents both the veneration of custom and the spirit of innovation, neither of which were acceptable to the Islamists, who prefer stagnation. He modernized his sound on the ngoni, an ancient ancestor of the banjo, with pick-ups and a wah-wah pedal. Kouyaté also happens to be a griot, so by silencing him, the Islamists silence a tradition that dates back centuries.
However, the most “Western” influenced is also the most outspokenly defiant. In his visceral protest rap, Master Soumy explicitly challenges the Islamists: “Torture, rape, thrashings, explain your Islam! Abuse and killings, explain your Islam! Kalashnikovs and bombs, explain your Islam!” That song takes some serious guts. Musicians have been killed for far milder lyrics—in Mali.