Exile on Jihad Street: Can Mali’s World-Famous Music Festival Ever Go Back Home?

Exile on Jihad Street: Can Mali’s World-Famous Music Festival Ever Go Back Home?

Not even Mali’s music-hating Islamists can the keep the country’s musicians from throwing a king-sized show.

Musicians in the country have been embattled since 2012, when a triumvirate of militant Islamist groups groups seized power of the country and launched an offensive against a range of popular entertainment, including dancing and music. While a French military intervention last year ousted the Islamists from power, concerns remain about openly performing music, especially in the north where the jihadists’ retain some influence and control. But Mali’s world-famous musicians are resisting the threats to their craft, most recently by taking their world-renowned music festival on the road. The Festival au Desert, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 9-11 in Timbuktu, was canceled at the last minute due to security concerns. The organizers of the show announced that it will resume abroad and on Wednesday, the festival began a three-day appearance in Berlin.

Music and musicians are central to Malian society. More than just storytellers or musicians, a class of griots are tasked with guarding generations of oral history and resolving local disputes. Traditional Malian music is also a well-known export. Scholars have traced early blues to traditional West African music, and the Festival au Desert has become so well-known during its 14 years of existence that Bono has even put in an an appearance. The Malian president has said the festival is the country’s premier tourist attraction, and it received the Freemuse award for freedom of musical expression in 2013 for "keeping music alive in the region" despite the efforts of extremists.

The concert and the rich musical culture in which it takes root came under fire when Islamists seized control of Mali in 2012, banning secular music and dance and forcing griots underground or out of the country. Music of all kinds became a target. In just one example, after Ansar al-Dine, one of the jihadist groups, took control of the Malian town Kidal, the local radio station started to broadcast only Quranic chants and Islamic messages. Amidst the crackdown, last year’s celebration was canceled entirely. Some speculated that the Festival au Desert was resigned to the same fate suffered by Pakistan’s Basant Kite Festival, a celebration banned since 2007 that faces continued opposition by Islamic extremists in the country.

The loosening of Islamists’ grip on power since 2012 had raised hopes that this year’s festival would return to its native Timbuktu. With jihadists beaten back by French troops in much of the country, the ban on music has become largely ineffectual and the beginnings of a reinvigorated music scene are slowly stirring. Still, the disruption of the tradition and widespread fear has made the musical rebirth less than robust. Many Malians remain apprehensive about what will happen after most French troops withdraw this month. And indeed, lingering concerns over security ultimately ruined the festival’s plans to return home.

The festival’s leap to Berlin is just the latest in the show’s increasing internationalization. After being canceled in Mali last year, the concert took to Chicago in September 2013 and stopped by New York, Scandinavia, and Morocco afterwards. The music festival continuing outside of Mali holds troubling implications for the future of music in the country, where the Islamist ban may have been the last straw in an industry already plagued by problems like drying sources of income and feeble intellectual property protection. But for the musicians who are performing in Berlin today, moving the performances beyond Malian borders is also the ultimate act of resistance.

"If they’ve closed the doors of Timbuktu we’ll open up the rest of the world. We’ll go and sing in Tokyo. We’ll play igbayen in Rio de Janeiro, we’ll sound the tindé drum in Dubai and dance the takamba in Toronto," Manny Ansar, the festival’s director, told Freemuse for a report published in February last year. "Today it’ll be heard in all the big festivals in the world … It’s our victory and your defeat."

The show will be in Berlin through Jan. 10 and is slated to culminate at the end of the month in Burkina Faso. In a recent press release announcing the appearance in Berlin, Ansar expressed hope that the festival might be able to return to Timbuktu one day.

See a performance by famous Malian musicians Ali Farka Touré (now deceased) and Toumani Diabaté for yourself below.  Diabaté reportedly comes from more than 70 generations of griots before him.