I intended to write a run-of-the-mill preview of a show at Brighton Music Hall two weeks ago, featuring the Mali, West African band SMOD (and fellow West Africans Orchestra Poly-Rhthmo de Cotonou). My inability to pull this together has now dovetailed with the disturbing news of escalating violence and a massive humanitarian crisis in Mali, with the displaced Tuareg people being driven from their homes and systematically killed. A recent CNN special highlighted this part of the world and struggles that have until now escaped the notice of the West, absorbed as they are in what’s going on in Syria. But this is potentially a much larger tragedy, both in human scale and in the destruction of priceless historic artifacts and a noble culture. So now, as the world-renown Malian duo Amadou & Mariam are in town tonight at the Paradise, I find myself writing a very different sort of article.
My first discovery of the musicians from this part of the world was through the hypnotic and soulful sounds of Omara “Bombino” Moctar. A gifted Tuareg songwriter and guitarist, Bombino is also an activist, fighting for the rights and culture of his people, telling the world of their story and struggles through his music.
A brief history
The Toureg tribe in Northern Mali has been fighting for a free nation since 1960, when the country gained its independence from France. Since then, there have been several rebellions and fighting between the government and the Tuareg warriors. But what is happening now is far more serious in scope, rapidly becoming a devastating humanitarian crisis. The catalyst was Libya. Upon the death of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya fell into disarray, and in the chaotic aftermath, the Tuareg who fought for the old regime grabbed remaining weapons to help strengthen their position in their long-standing battle. During disagreements within Mali over the government’s handling of the Tuareg threat, the president left, leaving the country without a legitimate government and ripe for the picking by fundamentalist Islamic groups. Which is exactly what happened, with a variety of factions both internal and external seeing an opportunity to take control of the country, and quickly moving in. The struggle between the Tuareg and the Mali government had been going on for many years, but at least it was self-contained – an internal matter over a fight for sovereignty.
This new enemy (which some call al Qaeda, but who are locally known by their militia names such as Ansar Dine) was better equipped and able to violently drive the Tuareg out of the north, taking control of that area, and creating a steady stream of refugees. There are now an estimated 250,000 refugees within the borders of Mali, and another 250,000 in surrounding countries such as Burkina Faso. The situation is complicated, in that their leader was previously part of the Tuareg rebellion, and there are other groups now in Mali, vying for domination. Some are in it for money and power; others (like the Ansar Dine) wish to impose their ideology on the populace.
So what does this have to do with music?
A hell of a lot, actually. The Ansar Dine, in addition to driving people out of their homes in a hostile takeover, has imposed Sharia Law in northern Mali. For those of you not up on your Sharia Law, it’s the religious law and moral code of Islam that imposes many regulations that would seem to go directly against the sensibilities in what was once a vibrant, tolerant, and progressive culture. For one, it takes away the rights of women, turning them into second class citizens, which includes the mandatory wearing of veils. It also contains equally archaic rules for every aspect of personal conduct (just yesterday, an unmarried couple were stoned to death). In today’s interpretation of Sharia Law by the Ansar Dine, smoking, drinking, and yes, music of all forms, are completely prohibited. There are also reports of the destruction of sacred sites. And all this, while the world looks on… and does nothing.
The bitter irony of the ban of all music is the fact that Mali has a tremendously rich musical history. Ali Farka Toure is one of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians. What’s more, another globally well-known Malian band, Tinariwen, was founded by Tuareg rebels, and it is this band that has inspired many others, such as Omara Moctar and SMOD. It is through this music that dissent and discontent is voiced and carried forth among the people.
Among those who are fighting for the heart and soul of the Tuareg people are those who go into battle armed not with guns, but with heartfelt music and important messages. To ban music from everyday life is to rip out the heart of the Malian people.
A disturbing image
In that CNN special I mentioned earlier, there was one image I found so incredibly disturbing that it has stayed with me (and probably will for some time). It was a scene of Malian refugee children, who, trapped in a terror not of their making, having nothing to do and no toys to play with, were trapping small birds and dangling them by strings, cutting their wings so they could not fly away. It seemed to me that this is exactly how those young children must feel. And so the victims become the victimizers. Poetic.
What Can Be Done?
As this is a developing story, the first thing to do is to stay informed. If you want to donate to humanitarian relief, Save The Children has set up a special fund for the children of Mali, the most innocent of victims in this conflict. Additionally, on Amadou & Mariam’s site I discovered the World Food Programme, who are helping people in the Sahel with food assistance. This is a region in West Africa that not only has been experiencing extreme drought and diminishing food supplies, but has been taking in many Malian refugees.
If anyone knows of other aid organizations currently in Mali and surrounding areas, please let me know.share this: