Text & Photos: Adam Sjöborg
They survived and endured the ruling of terrorists, only to be restricted by their own government. Still, Mali’s musicians keep on playing – but how long can they endure? And can you really keep the population safe by forbidding live music?
~ Part 1 of 4 ~
In November 2015 armed jihadist stormed the Radisson Blue Hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako and took guest from all over the world hostage. Soon over twenty people had been killed, both kidnappers and hotel guests. Once again a State of Emergency was declared for ten days. By New Year’s Eve it was prolonged by three months, and now it has been prolonged for three months more.
With the State of Emergency came strict rules concerning safety. For example has it become much harder to arrange cultural events, such as concerts. Even gigs at nightclubs are –at least on paper – forbidden.
For Oumar Konta the beginning of 2012 was a strange time indeed. Not only did the war erupt, but it was also during this time that he got his international breakthrough as a musician. Four years has passed when I meet Oumar Konta at the house where I am staying at the moment, not far from the nightclub where he will be playing later tonight.
We do not speak the same languages. So while we wait for my translator he pick up his guitar and starts playing. John Fabrice Dilligent, a professional pianist and a friend of Oumar, walks by and stops when he hears the music. He watches Oumar’s fingers closely as they jump from chord to chord. It does not take long before John picks up another guitar and joins Oumar who starts to sing:
The song is called Wango Maben, from the album Maya Maya.
Nowadays we only hear about Mali because of the ongoing war, but Mali is and has always been, a land with deep musical roots. Their culture, history and daily lives are all closely connected to music.
Here on the porch, by ourselves, is it still legal to play. But at the night clubs and bars, it is not. The difference is the crowd. By eliminating the possibility for people to come together the government hope to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.
“Because we have a State of Emergency it has become really hard for musicians to support themselves and their families. For many musicians music is their only source of income. If things continue as they are now, things will turn out bad,” says Oumar Konta.
But he consider himself fortunate, compared to most of his colleagues.
“I met an American producer at Festival au Désert in January 2012. He invited me to the United States and offered me to record an album and preform there. But then the war started and I barely managed to leave the country because of the security situation,” says Oumar and puts down the guitar before he continues. “I have managed alright because I have had the opportunity to play outside of Mali. But everyone struggles. Nowadays you have to play live to survive as a musician.”
Bamako, Songhoy night club
Every musician I speak to tells me the same. This is no time for shy musicians, who mainly wants to record albums. You have to play live. And by that they mean every day of the week.
Oumar Konta has a day job as a musical teacher, but still performs live several times each week. Still, he feels nothing but love for music.
“I play because I love music and have no political motive behind my songs. If I could I would play day and night. When I grew up my dad had to tell me to stop playing so I would not wake up our neighbors. So then I switched to my air guitar” he says and burst out laughing.
After the interview I walk over to Songhoy, the small nightclub where he will perform tonight. During the show I hear him play several songs from the album he recorded during in the US and the first year of the war. It is named Addoh, which means tears in English, and contains the song Our country is destroyed and Leave Us Alone.
It is a Tuesday evening but Songhoy is already getting crowded. It does not take long before the border between where the musicians play and where people dance is blurred out. It’s not only the dance floor that is getting crowded, but the stage too, as more and more musician’s walks in. Many of them have performed on other clubs and are now joining the other musicians on stage for a second gig. There is no official band, everyone plays with everyone while the lead singer steer the group into the same musical direction.
Lines of exhaustion can be seen on the musician’s faces, but they are far from beat down. They give each other room for improvised solos as they play on everything from classical West African instruments, such as Koras or Talking drums, to modern instruments like Oumar Konta’s electric guitar. The second guitarist on stage has a smile that could end wars and sways back and forth while a cigarette is passed along like a peace pipe. During moments like this, is it hard to remember that there is not yet peace in Mali and that this gig is actually illegal.
A man, who has been sitting at the table closest to the stage all night, must feel it too. He walks up to Oumar Konta, who is preforming a guitar solo, and brings up a pile of banknotes of highest value. One by one he rubs them to Oumar’s forehead. They stick for a couple of seconds before they the start to dangle down and the man brings up another banknote. Oumar laughs and continues his solo until you can barely see the stage for all the money.
Musicians generally has two sources of income: one is contributions from the audience, the other from the owners of the places where they play. The next day John Fabrice Dilligent, who also played that night, tells me that Songhoy’s owner refused to pay the musicians. He could not afford it, he told them. How the money they received from the audience is distributed among the band members I do not know.
~ Part 2 of 4 ~
“Something the government seems to be missing is the amount of people that is negatively affected by this prohibition. It does not only affect the musicians, but everyone that works at bars and nightclubs. Bartenders, guards – even the taxi drivers are affected. The politicians keep getting their salary, but what’s going to happen to the rest of us?” asks Lylly Alio, manager at Songhoy (not to be confused with the owner).
Lylly is a well-spoken, young man that has been in the business for many years. He speaks about the State of Emergency with contempt.
“If terrorists wants to hurt people then the only thing they have to do is to set off a bomb at a market place. Some politicians in the cultural department does not even care about their job. They just got it because they are friends with the right people, or belongs to an influential family. Still, people around the world knows the name of Malian musicians, but they do not know the name of our president.”
He has a point. The Malians musician Ali Farka Touré is considered to be one of the greatest guitarists of all time, according to the Roling Stone magazine. Singer and songwriter Rokia Traoré just released a new album and is touring Europe while I write this, Salif Keitha – who was born albino in a noble family – refused to follow his family traditions and became one of the world’s most celebrated singers instead.
All of these musicians are stars and award winners in the world music scene and several of them have won popularity among a more general audience with their music.
“Democracy starts after you have a full stomach, but people need something more – something for the heart. Mali is nothing without its culture. Culture has the ability to rise and become a bearing power in a nation. For example when politics have failed,” says Lylly.
Before one tries to answer if the politicians has failed Mali’s musicians, it might be a good idea to first ask how music became so important in Mali. And to do this one ought to take a look at Mali’s history – especially the role of the griot, also called the West African bard.
The Mali Empire was founded in 1235. Its borders stretched from the Atlantic sea in the west to the desert city of Gao in the east. The empire prospered for over 150 years but, as with all empires, it crumbled eventually.
By the 17th century the Malian empire had collapsed into several independent states. The decline coincided with the arrival of Portuguese traders, who established trading posts at the coast of West Africa, outside Senegal and The Gambia in 1440. The French did not arrive until a century later. And it took them another three hundred years before they started to colonize the mainland, away from the safety of their ports and ships. The French appointed a governor of the territory they called Soudan Français in 1983.
Today French is the official language in Mali, but you still here people converse and sing just as much in their original language, Bambara. As Mali got its independence from the French in 1960, the creation of a new national identity became a top priority. In this, music was recognize as a very important tool.
Mali contains of a vast number of different ethnical groups whose historical ties are both diverse and complex. And the first Malian governments worked hard to unify these groups under the banner of nationalism combined with some historic nostalgia.
The messengers and bearers of this new cultural identity were – for natural reasons – the griot. The griot is a cast who throughout history has been the cultural and historical bearer in Mali and West Africa in general.
The origin of the griot is explained in many tales and legends that dates back as far as to the early days of the Malian empire, and even further back. As long as Mali has existed has its history been collected, told and sung by griots and griottes.
But the griots working description is much more complex. Traditionally they have been tied to a specific family or person that they serve and praise in exchange for gifts. In addition to being “living libraries” do they also play the role of diplomats and mediator for the family they serve. Today that relationship has changed and many griots has changed their allegiances to businessmen and politicians. A shift that has not been unproblematic and many see griots today as nothing more thatn opportunists.
To be generous to a griot in public is a way to display your wealth and increase your social status. Giving away huge amounts of money on prime time television has become first class entertainment in one of the poorest countries in the world.
But the times are changing, not only for the griots, but for every musician in Mali. The time when the government aimed to form a new national identity through music has ended. And with it died almost all the financial support from the government to the musicians.
The time when the government supplied every musician in national orchestras might be over, but the interest in music has of course survived. The traditional styles lives on and flourish but hip-hop is also quickly growing in popularity. Especially among the young.
Lylly is not a big fan of Hip-hop himself.
“Blues, on the other hand, is something I´m trying to learn more about,” he says and continues to point out that it does not mean that he would not support a hip-hop artist.
“We have so many musically talented youngsters in Mali. As long as we can give them the support they need, then there is every reason to be optimistic!”
We say goodbye and I promise to bring Lylly’s and the musician’s questions to The Ministry of culture.
~ Part 3 of 4 ~
In the most central parts of Bamako, by the shore of the Niger River, do you find four tall buildings surrounded by fences and armed guards. Here works almost every one of Mali’s ministers. But not the vice cultural minister Tidane Sangaré. To meet him we have to a find a small unguarded villa a few kilometers away.
Tidane Snagaré is a thin man who seems to partially disappear behind his large desk. He greets us with a curious smile and welcomes us to sit down. I explain that we would like to hear his opinion about the current state of emergency and its efficiency.
“When a concert is arranged, promoters will advertise when and where the event is taking place. This greatly increases the vulnerability of the visitors. And there’s an important difference between a marketplace and a nightclub: everyone needs to visit the market, the same cannot be said about a nightclub or a bar.”
But is it not up to each and every one to decide if they want to take the risk and enjoy live music, I ask. He looks at me a bit troubled, if only for a moment.
“By removing the possibility to arrange concerts and other cultural events, do we also remove the possibility for people to go there. We cannot do the same with markets,” says Tidane Snagaré and becomes silent for a moment before he continues: “The reality is that we now have implemented a state of emergency and we have to respect that.”
Tidane Snagaré speaks openly about his political colleagues and argues that they tend to vision Mali as a great cultural nation, like in the old days, but do not want to invest accordingly. 0, 4 percent of Mali’s budget goes to culture. For Sweden that number is 0, 8, to put things in perspective.
“It exists a contradiction between what politicians wants and how much they are willing to spend on culture. My colleges do not see culture as a way to educate people. But culture is the most important tool to reach peace in Mali, Africa – in the world! Mali’s solidarity and hospitality comes from culture. We need culture to both reach and maintain peace.”
He lights up as he speaks and it is obvious that he truly believes this. Still, this does not change the fact that Musicians in Mali is getting increasingly poor. I have heard several stories about musicians who had to sell their instruments to afford food.
Tidane Sangaré points out that the whole cultural industry has suffered because of the ongoing war. But he do not believe that an increasingly rougher financial situation for musicians will force them to commit criminal acts or join extremists to survive, an argument I have heard from several people in the music industry.
“No, the Malian hospitality will make sure that someone will be there for you when things gets rough. If you would choose to commit crimes, or join extremists, then that would be your own decision. At least that is my opinion!”
Our time is up. Before we say goodbye he points out that the cultural ministry, to some degree, depends on financial aid from abroad. Most of this aid comes from different embassies, bilateral collaborations and donations. By showing his political colleagues what can be done with culture, he hope to change their minds so that a larger proportion of the Malian budget will go to culture.
“Our goal is one percent”, he says and smiles like he is up to some mischief.
Alphonse and I continue our journey. We have heard about a musical school for children outside of Bamako that is financed through international donations. Better still, its founder and principal is a griot. How are musicians coping with the state of emergency there, outside of Bamako? And do they also feel that they get no support from the government? We fill the tank of the moped and prepare for the journey.
~ Part 4 of 4 ~
About 50 kilometers southwest of Bamako do you find the village Kirina. It looks like a typical village in Mali, consisting mainly of clay huts and with more cattle than cars using the streets. But it is much more to this village than meets the eye. Some historians argue that this is village is the birthplace of Mali. Sundiata Keita – the “The Lion King” – defeated his nemesis here and founded the Mali Empire. But Kirina is also a village with strong musical tradition. The majority of the population of Kirina are griots. So it come as no surprise that a music school lies just across the road from the village.
The school is part of the Playing for Change Foundation – an international non-profit organization that help people build and run music schools around the world. The organizations main source of income comes from donations. These donations are then shared among the schools around the world. With the money the school in Kirina receives it is able to stay open two days a week. It does not cost anything to study here and they also supply the kids with instruments.
“Our school is open on Thursdays and Saturdays. The ordinary school is open Monday and Thursdays. We would like to be open every day that there is no ordinary school, but this is what we can do with the money we get,” says Seydou Dembele who works as an administrator at the school.
He is surrounded by both children and teachers who are sitting in the shade while they are tuning their instruments. The school building with its two classrooms is in need of renovation. The dance class takes place inside, but the drumming and kora classes takes place in the open.
It is obvious that the kids enjoy studying here, but it is not only fun and games. The teachers are strict and demands nothing less than total focus from every child. Seydou tells me that around 180 children comes to the school from around the area. Today about 40 children has showed up.”
“Through the internet could these kids video chat with students from a Playing for change school in Nepal. It was the first time they got in contact with the world outside. They asked each other questions and talked about music. Through music can we make them become open-minded to other cultures,” says Seydou and the principal of the school, Mahamadou Diabaté, continues:
“Music is a universal language. We might have different taste, but we all like music. A cultural exchange might indirectly lead to peace.”
It should be mentioned that Mahamadou Diabaté is not only the school’s principal, he is also its founder. He borrowed money for a plane ticket, went to the United States and made the contacts he needed to start building this school. It has literally been dragged out from the river that runs nearby, as every brick is made from the clay that has been dug up from the Niger River.
Mahamadou tells me that the number of children who comes here is shrinking. Poverty forces parents to send their children to the gold mines instead of to school. The mining work is illegal since they mine without a license, and dangerous because they risk being exposed to mercury that is used to separate the gold that they might find from the gold. Read more about that here.
“I wish that we could show the parents that music is a better way to bring in money to the family,” says Mahamadou Diabaté. Weddings are generally considered to generate most money for the musicians who are hired to play there. Especially for griots, since the bride and groom are more or less forced by tradition to give them some money after the griot have praised the newly weed through songs and speeches.
Back in the village a griot shows me how to make a drum. But he does not play that much on it anymore. Nowadays he spends more time digging mud from the river than he does playing. Digging mud is more lucrative and he has to provide for his family. But he is still going to teach his children how to make their own instruments and how to play them – in other words: how to be a griot.
What about the State of Emergency? How does that affect him and the other in the village?
“The laws of Bamako does not reach us here,” he tells me. Here you fear starvation much more than you fear bombs.
Did you enjoy reading this?
Then please consider contributing by clicking the Paypal button below. Every penny goes to future stories (and maybe a cup of coffee or two) and you will be supporting independent journalism at the same time.
Have a great day!