Can you imagine a place without music? In the north of Mali, in West Africa, Islamist extremists have taken control of vast swathes of the country and set about imposing a restrictive social code which includes the banning of all forms of music. It’s a cruel irony that this is happening in a place known all over the world for the richness and beauty of its musical culture. Among the areas that have now fallen silent are Timbuktu, near the site of the famous Tuareg ‘Festival Au Désert’, and Niafunke, the hometown of the legendary triple-Grammy-winning guitarist Ali Farka Toure.
Glastonbury Festival last week declared their solidarity with Mali’s silenced musicians by announcing Rokia Traore as the first act on this year’s line-up. They also pledged that every day a singer from the country will open the Pyramid Stage. If you’re not already a fan of Traore then you should know she comes highly endorsed: at this summer’s Africa Express concert in London she was joined onstage for a gorgeous performance of ‘Dounia’ by both Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin’s John-Paul Jones.
The banning of music is not without precedent, but recent history shows that somehow songs finds a way to survive. In Afghanistan until 2001, music, dancing and television were all banned under the Taliban’s rule. However, as Havana Marking’s 2010 documentary ‘Afghan Star’ showed, by the end of the decade the unlikely saviour of the ‘Pop Idol’ format was helping a culture find its voice. The remarkable documentary illustrates that even under the Taliban music continued to live on out of earshot of the authorities. The film opens with young boy, blind in both eyes, singing his heart out straight to camera. He can’t be more than six or seven, but when he finishes he says that without music, human beings would be unhappy. A reality his parents’ generation lived through. In another incredible scene, unearthed footage from the early ’80s shows an Afghan electro-pop band who look and sound as if they’ve just walked off the set of Top of the Pops. It’s evidence that pop music wasn’t as alien to Afghan culture as the Taliban tried to make it seem.
Hopefully the people of northern Mali will not have to live without music for as long as the Afghan people did, with international attention now being drawn to the country. Meanwhile, Fatoumata Diawara recently gathered over 40 of the country’s most renowned musicians to record a song called ‘Mali-ko’ (Peace / La Paix). The group, collectively called ‘Voices United for Mali’, includes local legends like Amadou and Mariam, Toumani Diabate and the late Ali Farka Toure’s son Vieux. With any luck, by the time Glastonbury arrives the song will be able to be heard not just in Pilton but on the streets of Timbuktu and Niafunke too.