Mali musicians are refusing to be silenced by the threat of brutal repression in their home country, writes Sue wilson.


When Celtic Connections first began expanding its world music content under Donald Shaw's directorship since 2007, his stated rationale was that traditional musicians even from seemingly disparate backgrounds – a Hebridean Gaelic singer and a Senegalese griot, for instance – share many similar core experiences and cultural roles, ancient and modern, which make them natural bedfellows within the line-up.

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This has been borne out by several of the festival's celebrated international collaborations, such as that in 2012 between Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and Manchester-Irish multi-instrumentalist Michael McGoldrick.

Twelve months on, and with their homeland in desperate crisis, four more Malian acts feature on this year's bill, foregrounding another fundamental connection with Celtic and other folk traditions via the music's integral political dimension, as a grassroots vehicle for expression, solidarity, protest and resistance – the very same dimension which was highlighted as a theme of the 2012 festival.

"Musicians always agree on looking for peace," says Bassekou Kouyate, a Grammy-nominated innovator on the n'goni – the banjo's African forebear – who performs in Glasgow tonight as part of the Sahara Soul line-up, aimed at demonstrating unity among Mali's different cultures. "We all want people to be happy, live in peace and enjoy democracy. In Mali, we always sing to persuade people to get out of problems. Our traditional role is to sensitize the community to change their attitudes, and we have always been in the front in discussing wars and social problems. I feel it is my role to continue in this way. For instance, after the military putsch in Mali in March 2012, a delegation of griots went to see the leader, Captain Sanogo, to tell him he ought to leave power because the population does not agree with him. We are not afraid of anyone."

As a national asset, Mali's culture and particularly its music is often described by its artists as the country's nearest equivalent to gold, oil or other mineral wealth. Since "world music" was invented as a marketing term, Malian musicians have been in the forefront of it. Another of this year's Celtic Connections performers, Salif Keita, was among its earliest stars, as was the late Ali Farka Touré, while numerous others, including Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangare, Amadou & Mariam, Rokia Traoré and Tinariwen have subsequently followed them onto the world stage. Among the economic benefits of this success has been a significant increase in cultural tourism to Mali, encouraged by events like the celebrated Festival In The Desert.

Hence the profound shock, both inside and outside Mali, at the Islamist insurgents in the north imposing a blanket interdict on all music, under their brutal version of Sharia law – a ban enforced by threats of punishment just as extreme as the amputation of thieves' hands and stoning of adulterers. Many northern musicians have joined the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. In the face of such suppression, however, Kouyate believes that Mali's reputation for cultural richness has been a key impetus behind outside responses to the crisis. "As a country made up of poor farmers," he says, "we are really impressed by the international support that is being given to Mali, and it must be partly because of our music for which we're famous."

Also at an international level, the silencing of the north has, with a somewhat cheering irony, given Malian music greater prominence than ever before. The Glastonbury Festival last week announced Rokia Traoré as the first named act on their 2013 bill, with other Malian artists to open the Pyramid Stage each day. After all, as Traoré chillingly cautioned: "If it can happen in Mali, it can happen anywhere."

After his Celtic Connections appearance, and another Sahara Soul show in London, Kouyate heads home to perform at further peace concerts in southern Mali, while Burkina Faso is the setting for this year's Festival In The Desert In Exile, the culmination of a two-pronged Caravan Of Peace And Unity, also organised by festival director Manny Ansar, after it tours elsewhere in west Africa, visiting refugee camps en route.

Earlier this month, Fatoumata Diawara gathered over 40 of her leading musical compatriots – Kouyate among them – under the banner of Voices United For Mali, to a record a song simply titled Mali-ko (Peace). "The Malian people look to us," Fatoumata said, echoing Kouyate's earlier comments. "They have lost hope in politics. But music has always brought hope in Mali. Music has always been strong and spiritual, and has had a very important role in the country, so when it comes to the current situation, people are looking to musicians for a sense of direction."

Another recent release seeking to raise both support and money is the compilation album Songs For Desert Refugees, comprising an array of desert-blues sounds from northern Mali, and aimed at assuaging the plight of those displaced from the region.

Among those featured on it is the young Kel Tamsashek band Tamikrest. Kel Tamashek is the term the people the west knows as Tuaregs prefer to be known by, and they are widely tipped as successors to the now world-famous Tinariwen – who are also on the Sahara Soul bill alongside Kouyate and Sidi Touré, a singer from Mali's north-eastern Songhai tradition. With Kouyate hailing from Ségou in the south, the collaboration is intended to celebrate both the diversity and the mutual tolerance that's always been fundamental to the country's musical culture – and to its religious life.

"The jihadis who have been controlling northern Mali are generally not Malians, and their ideas are nothing to do with Mali," says Kouyate. "They claim that their beliefs are based on the Koran, but so are ours, and they are different! Because the majority of the population of the north and the rest of Mali feel like us, we are sure the jihadis will be unable to stay in power in any part of Mali."

Tamikrest's inclusion is perhaps especially telling and important. Kel Tamashek separatists' original uprising early last year – rekindled out of decades-old grievances against the government in Bamako – was rapidly hijacked by Ansar Dine and other fudamentalist militias.

The serparatists are now being blamed in some quarters for subsequent events, an attitude fomented not least by factions of the humiliated Malian army. Despite the desert rebels' main representative body, the MNLA, having recently offered to join international forces in repelling the Islamist occupation, under a UN mandate, disturbing reports began surfacing late last week of revenge attacks against Tamasheks as the counter-advance moved northward.

At the same time, members of Tamikrest described recently how, despite holding Malian passports, they still feel far less than full citizens. Even as they won increasing praise from the international music media, the band was forced to cancel a European tour late last year, with a statement on its website pointing directly to government obstruction as the cause:

"Three of us need new visas. Mali refuses to give us visas because of the critical situation [war] between Tuaregs and Mali. Algeria refuses also to provide visas, because they don't want to get in trouble with Mali by supporting Tuaregs."

Happily, these obstacles have been circumvented in time for the Sahara Soul shows, at which, even if the performers' thoughts will never be far from home, they can at least rest assured that their shared country's proud musical traditions have been invaluable in rallying the world behind them.


Sahara Soul is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, tonight, 7.30pm. Salif Keita plays the Old Fruitmarket on February 1, 9.30pm