Blues for Mali as Ali Farka Toure's music is banned

Ali Farka Toure pictured in Paris in 2005 Ali Farka Toure took the sound of the Malian desert to an international audience

After making northern Mali's "Blues" music famous around the world, Ali Farka Toure is a legend in his home town of Niafunke, where he was mayor until his death in 2006.

The memorial to him is still intact but his music is no longer heard in the town's streets.

"The town has gone silent," says 28-year-old farmer Ousmane Maiga (not his real name) over the phone. "It's way too quiet".

Islamist fighters have taken over Niafunke, which sits on the banks of the river Niger 100km (60 miles) south-west of Timbuktu.

They have introduced a strict social code: Women and girls must be covered, young men cannot wear loose trousers and all forms of music are banned.

Residents say two young men were whipped last month after they were caught smoking tobacco.

Toure was just one of a host of stars who have turned music into one of Mali's best known exports.

"Music is so much part of our culture," says Mr Maiga. "It's everywhere here, I miss listening to it over tea with my friends on the weekend. I miss attending wedding ceremonies and baptisms."

All time great

It was the music of northern Mali that Toure took to the world, its lilting, mournful tones reaching an international audience when he teamed up with his US soulmate, Ry Cooder, to produce the Grammy-winning album Talking Timbuktu in 1994.

He was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as among the 100 great guitarists of all time and starred in the Martin Scorsese documentary, Feel Like Going Home, which traced the roots of the blues back to West Africa.

But these roots are now threatened. Niafunke and other towns in northern Mali have been plunged into a cultural darkness.

Start Quote

Salif Keita

If there's no music, no Timbuktu, there is no more culture in Mali”

End Quote Salif Keita Singer

Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda have banned everything they deem to be against Sharia, or Islamic law.

"They are destroying our culture," says another of Mali's most famous singers, Salif Keita. He is currently back home in Mali, preparing for a world tour to accompany the release of his latest album.

"If there's no music, no Timbuktu, it means that there is no more culture in Mali," he adds, sitting in the grounds of his home on the small island he owns on the river Niger outside the capital, Bamako.

Keita is referring to the destruction in June of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu's mosques. The buildings were Unesco World Heritage Sites but considered by the Islamists to be idolatrous.

Dozens of musicians have fled south since the crisis began, among them Khaira Arby "the Voice of the North".

She cannot return to her home in Timbuktu because Islamists have threatened to cut out her tongue, according to members of her band who have also fled south.

She first stayed with a cousin but has resigned herself to renting a house in Bamako after she realised that she could be displaced for longer than she thought.

"Islamists have jammed radio airwaves," she tells me while her guitarists and percussionist adjust their instruments for an evening rehearsal in her small living-room.

The two guitars are plugged into one small amplifier producing a heavily distorted sound. The band's equipment was looted when rebels marched into Timbuktu.

Arby sits on the edge of her sofa. She looks sad, but soon her eyes close and her voice climbs and falls with the guitar riffs.

Listen to Khaira Arby's music

Ringtones banned

Song completed, she tries to make sense of what is happening to her country. "They're even confiscating mobile phones and replacing ringtones with Koranic verses," she laments.

From Timbuktu to Gao, telephones have become the only way to listen to music lately. Those who have risked turning a stereo on have immediately attracted the attention of the Islamist police. Their equipment would be either seized or smashed.

Mali's musical pantheon

  • Ali Farka Toure: Guitarist and singer
  • Salif Keita: Singer and guitarist
  • Amadou and Miriam: Blind singers and guitarist
  • Rokia Traore: Singer
  • Cheick Tidiane Seck: Singer and keyboards
  • Toumani Diabate: Kora player
  • Djelimady Tounkara: Guitarist
  • Oumou Sangare: Singer
  • Tinariwen: Tuareg former rebel singers and guitarists

Now mobile phones with memory cards are the main target for Islamist militants bent on banishing music.

In Bamako, a group of young artists got together after the military coup in March and formed the movement, Sofas de la Republique (Warriors of the Republic), in a tribute to the great warriors of the Mandingo Empire.

Their grass roots movement calls for a return of the whole country to constitutional democracy. Its clarion call is the song Ca Suffit (That's Enough) which immediately struck a chord with the Malian youth.

"We all have our responsibility in this crisis," 26-year-old singer Naba TT and co-founder of the movement tells me, "so we have to stick together".

Her song Mabilen So (In our country) is now played on state television. Naba, who is the younger sister of Rokia Traore, another Malian singer with an international profile, had hoped that her message would be listened to by politicians.

But the country's transitional authorities are divided and seemingly incapable of reclaiming the north of the country from the Islamists. Plans to dispatch a regional peacekeeping force have yet to be put into place.

All the while the threat to the culture of Mali mounts. The destruction of the shrines in Timbuktu and the silencing of the country's rich tradition of music highlight the threat posed by the Islamists.

"It's frightening because it feels like we are stuck," sighs Mr Maiga down the line from Niafunke.

"Our government keeps on repeating that the liberation of the north will come tomorrow but we now hear that we may have to wait another year before they launch operations against these extremists."

"How are we going to cope? We are not fleeing because this is our town, but we live in hell," he says.

"It's like a whole new life for us," he adds. "A life we haven't chosen under the constant watch of people who pretend to live according to Islam."

"Imagine that you are given some nice honey. But then someone comes and take it away from you and they give hot chilli instead".

Until the people of Mali get their culture back, they will be left with a burning sensation in their throat.

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