TOPICS > Arts > Culture at Risk

Bringing Mali’s music back from exile

March 9, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
Bassekou Kouyate is one of Mali’s greatest musicians and a master of the ngoni, a traditional West African lute. Bassekou – pictured here on the rooftop of a music school he’s building in Bamako - has toured around the world and shared the stage with global legends like Bono; the two played together at the famed Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu just weeks before the 2012 conflict began. Photo by Molly Raskin
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: terror and renewal in West Africa.

Just days ago: Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, raising fears the militants’ insurgency in Nigeria could become part of an international conflict.

This weekend saw a burst of violence in another closely watched African country, Mali. Yesterday, unknown attackers fired rockets at a U.N. base in Kidal in the far north, killing at least three. And, Saturday, gunmen killed five people, including two foreigners, at a restaurant in Bamako, the country’s capital city, that’s been largely free of such attacks. An Islamist group claimed responsibility.

Jeffrey Brown was just in Bamako and in the legendary city of Timbuktu.

Here’s the first of two reports, part of his series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was 2:00 a.m. on an outdoor stage in Bamako, capital of the West African country of Mali.

But the tireless Fatoumata Diawara was spinning like a top, singing up a storm and imploring the crowd with calls for peace.

Afterwards, she told me she felt compelled to speak out.

FATOUMATA DIAWARA: If we want the best for Africa, the only — the first thing to do is to know how to bring peace. Without peace, nothing, we cannot start any kind of government. Nothing, nothing’s possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Unity was the theme of this concert in a country so rich in its musical culture, but so troubled by conflict and division.

And even as the performers played on this night, the focus was many miles to the north, to the storied city of Timbuktu that has suffered so greatly in recent years. In fact, the concert in Bamako is a mere echo one of the most famous music festivals in the world, the Festival in the Desert, held here in Timbuktu every year, until war made it impossible.

That three-day festival was long a gathering of international sounds and stars, bringing together African musicians and Western rock legends like Bono, who spoke in 2012 of the importance of the festival.

BONO: It’s part of West Africa, as like the cradle of music. It’s like the Big Bang of all the music that we love.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that same year, the music stopped, when separatist rebels and Islamic groups tied to al-Qaida invaded Northern Mali and seized two-thirds of the country.

An Oscar-nominated new film titled “Timbuktu” is about the imposition of a brutal form of Sharia law imposed by the jihadists targeting women in particular and banning any expression of art.

Musician Fatoumata Diawara is also an actress. And she plays a woman who is whipped for singing.

FATOUMATA DIAWARA: In 2012 in Mali, for six months or more, we didn’t — we couldn’t play music in Mali. Can you imagine that?  I was suffering like in the movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: French and Malian military intervention drove the Islamists out of Timbuktu after 10 excruciating months.

But two years later, much of the north remains unsafe. And there are regular rebel attacks on U.N. peacekeeping forces. Timbuktu is difficult to visit. With no commercial flights, we reached the city on a U.N. humanitarian plane, landing on a heavily guarded airstrip.

The once thriving city is eerily quiet. More than half its 50,000 residents fled and have yet to return. Its economy has ground to a halt. The prices of staples like gas and grain have soared.

Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse told us of his traumatized neighbors.

MAYOR HALLE OUSMANE CISSE, Mayor of Timbuktu (through interpreter): They chased a woman into her house. Her husband was there, her kids were there. They beat her in front of her husband without any defense, without anything, just to humiliate her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, there are signs of life returning to normal. On this sandy square where Islamists once carried out public punishments, children now play.

Timbuktu’s grand imam had a terse response when I asked about the jihadists who brutalized his town in the name of religion.

IMAM ABDRAHAMANE BEN ESSAYOUTI (through interpreter): That’s their belief. They have their beliefs, and we have a different belief of our own.

JEFFREY BROWN: For all the despair, the poverty, the memories of what happened here, peace talks between the government and rebels are ongoing and there is great hope for the future. The concert in Bamako in fact was a big step in that direction.

Billed as the Festival of the Desert in Exile, its organizers and musicians are ready to return to Timbuktu once there’s peace.

FATOUMATA DIAWARA: We need — we need the desert. Then we can go to play again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until then, Fatoumata Diawara is singing for the cause.

FATOUMATA DIAWARA: I don’t want to talk the same way, when people talk about Africa crying. No. I will talk about my problems, singing my problems with a lot of hope, because that’s Africa.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, further hope from Timbuktu is coming from the restoration of its culture, its music, of course, but also its historic role as a center of scholarship and learning.

From the West African nation of Mali, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s a photo gallery from Jeff’s trip to Bamako and Timbuktu. You can see that on our home page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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