A musical cry for help from Mali
Mali is one of the wonders of the musical world. Not only has this strangely-shaped, landlocked West African country produced more international musicians than any other nation on the continent, but Malian music is incredibly diverse. Kora maestro Toumani Diabaté is from the tradition of hereditary court musicians often described as African classical music; blind couple Amadou & Mariam have conquered Western pop playlists with their sunny, bluesy songs; the late, great guitarist Ali Farka Touré’s desert blues influenced bluesmen in the States.
The development of Mali into a musical powerhouse has much to do with its cultural history. The Mande Empire, centred on Timbuktu in the north of the country, dominated the area for 400 years until the 1600s. In modern times, despite the country’s grinding poverty, Mali’s music scene has no doubt been helped by its political and social stability over the last 20 years. No longer. In less than a year, Mali’s political situation has collapsed.
Early in 2012, insurgents from the desert north, armed with weapons released during the Libyan war, overran the Malian army and declared an independent state, Azawad. The fall-out from the rebellion was complex: a military coup in the south of the country which has led to disarray in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and the presence in the north of Islamic extremists, who have attacked the sacred sites of Timbuktu. To outside eyes, Mali is beginning to look like Somalia and, as always, it is the local people who suffer.
The rebels from the north are Touaregs, nomads with a history of fighting for independence from Mali. The Touaregs have their own remarkable musical culture, most famously represented by Tinariwen, formed in a refugee camp in 1979. The band’s hypnotic guitar-led sound has made them international stars, but they are not the only artists from the region. Groups like Tamikrest, Tartit, and Etran Finatawa, and Bombino, a charismatic young guitarist from Niger, have made the music of the desert a real force on the world music scene.
It is songs – many previously unreleased – by these artists and more that make up a new compilation, Songs for Desert Refugees, the proceeds from which are going to NGOs working to help displaced people in northern Mali. With the Syrian conflict dominating the international news, the scale of suffering in this remote part of the world is being overlooked. Over 200,000 people have fled their homes and are living in poverty in cross-border refugee camps. As journalist Andy Morgan writes in the disc’s liner notes, “For them, life is on hold. Most of their animals and possessions have gone.”
Against this backdrop is the joyful music on Songs for Desert Refugees, all tracks of which have been given for free by the artists (together with the excellent cover art too). Among the 12 outstanding songs on the record, Tinariwen are on typically robust form with the alluring sway of opening track, Bombino contributes a stunning 13-minute live guitar work-out and Ibrahim Djo plays a mesmerizing blues. Buy this record, both for the music and to help the people of northern Mali.
Songs for Desert Refugees is out now on Glitterhouse RecordsTagged in: Mali, music
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