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All the musicians I spoke to agreed; Mali without music would be like Egypt without cotton, a bird without wings, a man without a soul. “I’m a Muslim, but Sharia isn’t my thing,” says Rokia Traore, one of Mali’s most famous international stars. “If I couldn’t go up on stage anymore, I would cease to exist. And without music, Mali will cease to exist.”
What’s more extraordinary however is Bombino’s fame at home. He’s become a bona fide head-turning airtime-hogging star in his own country, not just amongst the Touareg, who mainly live in Niger’s northern deserts, but amongst the youth of the entire nation. That’s something that no other Touareg artists has ever managed to do, not even Tinariwen.
Ibrahim battles through the show, smiling only once. His grave immobile presence is like a challenge to the hip bubbling New York crowd. To do what? To imagine a simplicity and a silence that their city will never know. It almost feels as if, for just a few minutes, Ibrahim’s challenge has been accepted, and endless silence of the desert has descended on us all.
Last year, the Festival on the Niger had been cancelled at the last minute. French transport planes full of soldiers and hardware had landed in Bamako only two weeks before the festival was due to start. Now peace was back. So was music. The jihadists tried to ban all music except Quranic chanting in the north of Mali. But it just came back like Whack-a-mole. How could it not?