MUSIC, CULTURE & CONFLICT IN MALI (extract) – “We don’t want Satan’s music!”


[pp 23-26] Scenes of musical life under Shari’a law

On Wednesday 22nd August 2012, the following announcement was made by Osama Ould Abdel Kader, a spokesperson for MUJAO based in the city of Gao: “We, the mujahedeen of Gao, of Timbuktu and Kidal, henceforward forbid the broadcasting of any Western music on all radios in this Islamic territory. This ban takes effect from today, Wednesday. We do not want Satan’s music. In its place, there will be Quranic verses. Shari’a demands this. What God commands must be done.”

In Gao, a group of teenagers sat around a ghetto blaster listening to Bob Marley. A Landcruiser pick-up loaded with tooled-up Islamic police came by and seeing the reggae fans, stopped and accosted them. “This music is haram!” – forbidden by Islamic law – said one of the MUJAO men as he yanked the cassette out of the blaster and crushed it under his feet. “Listen to this instead,” he barked, handing the startled reggae fans a tape of Cheikh Abderrahmane Soudais, the highly revered Quranic chanter from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

In Timbuktu, a young teenager received a call on his mobile phone while he was standing on a street corner in the town centre. As the tinny ringtone sent out a looping riff lifted from a song by local singer Seckou Maiga, it was overheard by a group of Ansar ud-Dine soldiers who were standing nearby. One of them, not much older than the teenager with the phone, broke off from the group and strode over. “Hey! Give me that here!” he ordered. The youth handed over his phone slowly, his face blank and grim. Giving his shoulders an impatient shrug to better seat his AK47, the Ansar ud- Dine fighter opened the back of the phone, picked out the SIM card, and ground it into the dust with his feet. He then gave the phone back in pieces. “None of that Godless music, understand?!”

In Kidal, a group of women gathered on the dirt airstrip to the east of the town. They sat close, at least thirty of them, in a large huddle of shimmering indigo robes. One woman started to beat the tindé drum, while another sprinkled water on its goatskin to keep it taut and resonant. Their chanting ululating rose up to the hazy skies and sent old poetry out to the flat horizons; calling, responding, propelling, forward, me, you, us, all, together. The tindé is the mitochondrial DNA of all Touareg music. Its horizontal trance-beat powers the communal joy of major feasts and gatherings in Touareg lands. Like so much traditional Touareg music, it is played by women and only women. The tindé is an essential ingredient in the glue that binds female society together and gives it power and confidence. But as the men gathered around to watch, as they had been used to doing for as long as they could remember, Ansar ud-Dine militiamen with black headbands and AK47s strapped to their chests sliced into the crowd and shattered it into angry fragments, shouting at the men to keep away from the women and go home. Then they ordered the women to stop what they’re doing and go back to their homes as well. The mood burst, and the joy leaked away to be replaced by surliness and frustration.

On the outskirts of Gao, a local takamba musician was stopped at a checkpoint on one of the major roads out of town. Takamba is the sound of Gao. With its loping rhythms, sensual dance, skyward vocals and raw cranked-up teherdents (lute) and guitars, it has long been the preferred style of musical entertainment at weddings, baptisms and Tabeski feasts in the town and the surrounding country. It is a style that also unifies the Touareg and Songhai people, often at odds with each other, as it is performed and enjoyed by people from both ethnic groups. Gao without takamba would be like Rio without samba; hard to imagine.

Our musician was on his way to a wedding in a village outside Gao, his car laden with instruments and equipment. At the checkpoint he was ordered to step down from his car by a MUJAO militiaman who then proceeded to search it. All the instruments are taken out and piled up by the side of the road; guitars, teherdent, amps, speakers, calabashes. The pile was doused in petrol and set alight. The musician was too scared to shout out, or cry, or flee. There were guns everywhere. He just stood and watched as his livelihood went up in flames. If he made a scene or showed any emotion, he knew that his own life would be in danger.

All these incidents were reported to me either by the people involved or by third parties living in Mali. I have deliberately not used anyone’s real name to protect the subjects and their families.

In Timbuktu a posse of local Islamist militiamen turned up at a radio station and took out four large hessian rice bags. They proceeded to fill them up with music cassettes, hundreds and hundreds of them, an entire archive of local musical culture, painstakingly collected over a decade or more. The station manager stood by, distraught, knowing that all this music, that has been a gift to the world and an ember of pride in local hearts, will be lost forever.

In Gao a family watched a programme called ‘Mini Star’ on television. It is a Malian adaptation of the X-factor idea, in which young up-and-coming singers and musicians imitate the greats of Malian music; Salif Keïta, Ali Farka Touré, Mangala Camara, Sekouba Bambino and others. The performances are judged by a panel and each week a group is eliminated by popular vote. TV is an important means for broadcasting new music in Mali. TV is the family’s window onto the world. The weather was hot in Gao and all the windows of the family home were open. A patrol of Islamic policemen heard the sound of music coming from the TV as they passed by the house. They doubled back and entered the premises, grabbing the TV and smashing it out on cracked paving stones of the yard with the butts of their rifles. The family were warned that next time they would get the whip.

In Gao and Timbuktu the dusty streets rang with the synthetic sound of babies laughing, a strangely joyless sound. Forbidden to use musical ringtones on their mobiles, the local population adopted this ironic alternative. The effect was often eerie.

These are just a few snapshots of musical life in what was the most literal and brutal Shari’a jurisdiction in the world.

The MUJAO declaration of August 22nd 2012, was disingenuous for several reasons. First, music had been effectively banned in the north for several months already. The declaration only gave that ban a rubber stamp. Secondly, when the declaration spoke of ‘Western’ music, Satan’s music, it did in fact mean most forms of music; modern, traditional, electrified, acoustic, foreign and local. Only Sheikh Abderrahmane Soudais and his ilk were deemed entirely halal.


Taken from the book Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan (Freemuse Publications)

(c) Andy Morgan / Freemuse Publications 2013

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