Les Ambassadeurs du Mali

Timbuktu’s annual Festival in the Desert was ready to rock as a “Festival in Exile.” Now, with liberation, it is a festival in limbo. A listening guide to what should be heard outside Timbuktu when the fighting is over.

Victor Rubin, ‘Shark Skin’ jazz combo at Bondi Pavillion, 2004-2010. Courtesy the artist and Eva Breuer Art Dealer.

This is Mali’s “We Are the World” moment. 

Three weeks ago, dozens of the country’s best-known artists recorded the song “Maliko” (“Mali – Peace”) in a studio in Bamako, the capital city of this African nation at war. As they did so, French armed forces were launching airstrikes in the north, aiming to rout Islamist occupiers.

For decades, it seemed that the only people paying attention to Mali—a vast, multiethnic, multilingual, deeply traditional and deeply gifted nation—were, in fact, musicians. Mali’s music, like the gold and salt that once passed along its Saharan trade routes, was its “mineral wealth”—its single most valued 21st-century commodity.

But last year al Qaeda captured two-thirds of the country and the attention of foreign-policy wonks in the West. When French soldiers arrived in January to take back the desert on behalf of their former colony, Mali had the eyes and ears of every news desk in the world. Today the refrain of “Maliko”—“It’s time to speak up about Mali”—seems superfluous.

The liberation of Timbuktu last week from its sharia-loving occupiers is good news. But for the Festival in the Desert, a music event held annually since 2000 just outside the ancient city, the escalation from occupation to armed conflict is a bittersweet blessing.

For weeks, the festival’s organizers had vowed to stick to their Feb. 20 start date, declaring that the “brute sound of weapons and the cries of violence are not able to silence us.” They envisioned a “Festival in Exile heralded by an ambitious “Caravan of Peace” that would decamp across the Sahara for three days of music in a refugee camp in neighboring Burkina Faso. It was a bold plan, full of symbolism and spirit. But in the end the certainty of continued instability, the specter of kidnappings on the sidelines of the stage, and the immediate need to clear Mali’s roadways for military vehicles made the dream untenable. A note on the festival’s website cited a national emergency and declared the gathering “postponed most likely until next fall, after the rainy season.”

Still, Mali sings. For those who have been listening since before the crisis, the melodies are familiar. For those whose attention came only with the headlines, here’s a taste of what, God willing, will be heard outside Timbuktu when the fighting is over and it is safe, once again, to make music in the desert.


The Ishumar: Music of the Urban Nomad

The Festival in the Desert is a 21st-century update on an ancient Tuareg tradition—a cool-season gathering of nomadic clans to exchange music and news. As such, Tuareg bands from northern Mali are the logical front men of the festival. But another Tuareg tradition is armed pursuit of an independent “Azawad,” a nation uniting these clans across modern borders. This tradition makes the Tuareg role in a solidarity concert aiming to unite all Malians—Tuareg and non-Tuareg—complicated, to say the least. After all, it was the short-lived declaration of an independent Azawad that divided the country in 2012 and opened the door to occupation by non-Malian Islamists. Many Malians consider the Tamasheq (as the Tuareg are called in West Africa) to be the true instigators of a miserable year of hardship, displacement and oppression. On the other hand, Tamasheq “ishumar” guitar music—the music of the urban nomad—is an inspiration for a new generation of non-militant Tuaregs. As well as for Western ears deaf to its real-world undertones.


These are the guys that gave us the mythic image: a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a Stratocaster on the other. Formed in the refugee camps of Algeria where Tuaregs sheltered after the brutal suppression of a 1963 uprising, Tinariwen focused on exile and resistance in its early songs. After returning to Mali in the 1990s, some band members took part in another ill-fated insurrection. When they laid down their arms for good in 1996, their music took flight. Now a Grammy-award winning international darling, Tinariwen is doing its best to overcome the political liabilities of its history and the longstanding ethnic distrust aggravated by Tamasheq freedom fighting. All while maintaining its members’ international reputation as soul rebels, liberation poets, warrior rock stars.


More desert electric from some of the original members of Tinariwen. Since 2008 Terakaft has put out an album a year. They all rock. Some rock harder than others, and though I rather prefer the driven melodies, I also appreciate the dusky ones. Here is a track from Terakaft’s latest album, Kel Tamasheq (“Speakers of Tamasheq”). It’s trippy, it’s lovely, it’s Grateful Dead in the desert. (It’s not. It’s my Western derivative speaking—but just try not to holler “Jerry!” as the song kicks into its final jam.)


Ahmed Ag Kaedi is as much a teacher as he is front man for the band Amanar. His home hosts as many guitarists in training as it does family members, and his lyrics emphasize the need for education and development. His home is Kidal, a Saharan outback unknown to the West until Tinariwen put Tamasheq guitar on the world map. When global celebrity yanked both Tinariwen and Terakaft from Kidal, Amanar became the new hometown favorite. The lyrics of “Alghafiat” are both reactive and, given the numbers of people who fled the north in the past year, prescient: “I thought we shared the same vision but now I’m not sure... I see my brothers at every turn leaving town, leaving their country, leaving Kidal.”


Another group formed in exile, Tartit represents the unassailable side of contemporary Tuareg music. Mostly because it is a predominantly female band, and women can sing what they like without being labeled insurrectionists. A pair of men provide stringed accompaniment, but the strength and the beauty is unplugged and female.



The Griots: Mali’s Praise Singers

Traditionally, the role of musician in West Africa is passed down through families. It is a genealogically determined career path. In Mali, it was the role of the jeli—or, in French, griot—to compose and perform songs of praise for the noble caste (which, mind you, was noble only in that it was neither hunter, artist, blacksmith, nor slave; most nobles herded cows, not courtiers). Many of the country’s most renowned musicians—Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré and Rokia Traoré—rejected these strictures. In doing so, they brought Malian music to the world stage.

Bassekou Kouyate

Mali stakes a claim as the birthplace of the blues. Ali Farka Touré did that. Ry Cooder and Bela Fleck and Taj Mahal helped do that. The n’goni did that. Bassekou Kouyate, the leading champion of the n’goni, put a strap on a simple stringed instrument and gave it a rebirth as a soloist. He is also, like griots through history, a mediator whose job it is to forge relationships by passing messages of praise between disparate (sometimes warring) factions. Perfect for international jam sessions, he has said. And he’s been on plenty.


Toumani Diabaté

Toumani Diabaté counts himself as a “72nd-generation griot.” He is the most famous living player of the kora, a 21-string harp made from a calabash that looks like a giant Lincoln log banjo played on end like a bass. It can sound either like the background music of a day-spa or, when accompanying the great Farka Touré, like meditative blues.


Habib Koite

Koite is a griot ambassador for the Festival in the Desert and also for children’s rights. Last summer he went on an awareness campaign to draw attention to a crisis in Mali, affecting hundreds of thousands of mothers and children since before the current instability: a nutrition crisis, caused by drought and food insecurity, that still ravages the south. As Mali’s first-ever national ambassador for Unicef, Koite comes by his humanitarianism naturally. His song “N’ba” is a tribute to mothers: “In a room, the mother and her baby
received an echo of this sympathy. 
The mother has but one wish. Best intentions are a mother’s blessing.



The Divas: Defenders of Women

Even at peace, Mali is not an easy place to be female. Women and girls labor hard. They have minimal access to health services and are last in line for nourishment and education. Child marriage is ubiquitous. So, too, is female excision—a painful violation of young girls. Sexual violence in the home is tolerated far too often. And in the past year, that abuse expanded beyond the home. In the north, reports of abuse, oppression and rape by occupying forces were plentiful. But this does not mean that there aren’t plenty of forces countervailing the norm.

Khaira Arby

Khaira Arby is the original Malian feminist, using her magnificent skills to highlight women’s suffering in a patriarchal traditional culture. A resident of Timbuktu, Arby was hounded from her home by extremists who threatened to cut out her tongue. “Why, in a country of beautiful women do men go to war?” she asks in the song “Waidio.”


Oumou Sangaré

There are many Malian divas. Oumou Sangaré is the uncontested queen of them all. Sangaré is so lionized that she has her own griot to sing her praises. As with Arby, Sangaré’s music means to empower women and challenge the all-too-prevalent practices of female circumcision and early marriage. Listening to her songs is like listening to an impassioned musical polemic. When Sangaré sings, she gives you more than a single message. She gives you everything that is on her mind.


Rokia Traoré

Traoré, the daughter of a well-traveled diplomat, is Mali’s Sade. Though she was not slated to perform at the 2013 Festival in the Desert, its postponement might bring her to the stage. This is the irony of Mali’s crisis: Her most celebrated artists are all on world tour. Many chose not to break engagements for a Festival in Exile. It’s hard to know what they may contribute to a Festival in Limbo. The winners, in Traoré’s case, are the music lovers of England’s Glastonbury Festival, where this phenomenal siren is headlining in June.



The Mashups: Back at Ya, Mali

During the 10-month occupation of northern Mali, radios were banned and live music forbidden. A musical ringtone on your cellphone could get you flogged. Those phones were chock full of music, nonetheless. Saharan cellphone SIM cards are the desert’s mixed tapes; villagers swap tracks and musicians record their own. These obscure mp3s have found an international audience as well, thanks to a project by Portland-based musicologist Chris Kirkley, who in 2010 collected a sampling and then shared them with indie producers back in the U.S. The results are, to my mind, as perfect a manifestation of the Festival’s ideal of cultural exchange as you could ask for.






Three weeks into the offensive against the forces that declared it forbidden, music has returned to northern Mali. Perhaps the musicians now will, too. A Festival in the Desert may not be everyone’s priority just yet; there is still a long road to stability. But when it comes to music, there is plenty of “speaking up” about Mali. So listen. Share. Support.



TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem