The Day (they wished) the Music Died

I'm pretty sure that if past lives are really a thing, I lived one as a Malian. Taste in music is probably not the proper way to make such sweeping declarations, but if it were...

As I begin to write this, I'm sitting in a bagel shop with one browser opened to YouTube, listening to the music in this video of Rokia Traore:

Go ahead, click on it and listen. Take a little journey with me.

Or try this one. You will have no idea what she is singing about. You may cry anyway:

I was first exposed to Rokia Traore about 10 years ago, when I was looking for some new music in the way that people USED to look for new music, the days before YouTube and Pandora and so many other wonderful means. I just grabbed a few CDs (CDs, hah!) from the world music section at the library and took them home to have a listen.

A few months before or after that, I was exploring new music in the OTHER way that people used to do so: the listening stations at Borders. It was there that I came across, and took home with me, a CD of the album Moffou by Salif Keita. No, I don't know what he's singing about, but just listen to this. I can scarcely think of a song I've found more beautiful or touching.

Or this one:

A couple of years ago, my brother shared with me and album called Amassakoul by the
Tuareg (nomadic people of northern Africa) group Tinariwen. Somebody somewhere along the way plugged these guys in, and the resulting, rough amp sound makes my soul sing:

All of these artists are from Mali, which makes me think I need to go there. In fact, I'd planned on it. The annual Festival au Desert, in the southern Sahara, which you have to travel by caravan to attend and where these and other similar artists play, has long been on my bucket list.

Except for this...

A few weeks back I was listening to a radio program called The World, when I heard a disheartening story.  In case you've more pressing things to do than follow that link, the headline of the story is "Music in Northern Mali is Silenced by Islamic Extremists."

It's what it sounds like. Extremists from a group called Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MOJWA) working to enforce Sharia law in Northern Mali have imprisoned local musicians, breaking instruments and punishing by force those caught listening to or creating music. That festival in the desert? Canceled.

Typing those last words while listening to Salif Keita's song "Yamore" has brought tears to my eyes.

Mali's musical contributions have not been quietly coasting under the radar. Mali is recognized by many as having an especially rich musical legacy (especially when considering the number of artists whose reach has spanned the world, relative to its population). That any single person--let alone an entire group of people--would want to silence that haunting and wonderful sound is almost beyond comprehension.

The story I heard on the radio mentioned that under MOJWA's interpretation of Sharia law, only the singing of Quranic verses is permitted. I referred to what appears to be the go-to internet source for answering all Islamic questions WikiIslam (yes, it's a thing, and it looks uncannily similar to Wikipedia, undoubtedly regarded as evil by virtue of its Western-ness, according to Sharia law. But I digress), to find out whether that was true. According to WikiIslam,
Music, and some other forms of art (including Tattooing),[81] under Islamic law are forbidden. Western music[82] and movies In particular, have been declared as corruptive influences by Islamic clerics. The vast majority[83] of Islamic scholars and all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence[84] are in agreement that listening to, or playing musical instruments, and singing is forbidden
Take heart, though. There is good news. Again, from WikiIslam:
The only exception to this rule which can be extracted from the hadith is the permissibility of singing acapella accompanied by a duff (a hand-held one-sided drum) on special occasions (i.e. on weddings, Eid, during jihad etc.)[85] This form of song is referred to as a Nasheed (نشيد), and the striking of the duff is permitted for women only[86] and must not be done in the presense of men
Nothing says musical celebration like the twice-yearly striking of a one-sided drum.

You know what? Sarcasm aside, the striking of a one-sided drum by women singing A capella is a beautiful thing. I've been witness to it at a couple of Mendhi ceremonies.

It is a beautiful tradition, but it is not enough.

During the month I spent in Pakistan back in 2006, I wondered at the lack of music in the country. 

Music, dancing, are releases, outlets for joy. And while some people were privately listening to music on their computers at home, secretly engaging in guilty pleasure of watching Bollywood movies (replete with high-energy, highly sexualized musical dance numbers), there was definitely a sense that the public appreciation of music was a big, big no-no. And Pakistan isn't even under Sharia law. Not most of it anyway.
Ali Farka Toure

How can the people of a country like Mali, formerly able to dance freely to the likes of Ali Farka Toure, be expected to sit still now? How can anybody believe they will be the better for it?

Simply, I think.

Religions, no matter what book they have been founded upon, are owned and operated by their believers. Their believers are humans. Humans crave and enjoy power. Power is maintained through population control. Population control and art do not belong in the same sentence except as a means to point out the deep contrast between them. (That is, unless the art is being mass-produced and fed to people by their controllers.)

Music is an art that represents unbridled possibility. Untold potential loss of control. Of course it does. I've felt it myself while dancing. When the music slowly, unrelentingly seeps into my soul and drives my movement, when my hair becomes damp with sweat and I have finally forgotten, or ceased to care that anybody else is present, when for those suspended moments I begin to believe that truly anything is within reach, or will be soon--those moments are the best kind of scary.

Unless you're trying to control a population. Unless the thought of a woman bringing men to tears (for example) using nothing more than her voice is so threatening, you are willing to devote all your resources and risk your life to put an end to it. Unless you feel the relevance of your religion's most conservative interpretations, of your bully tactics, of your facade of wisdom and power beginning to slip away. Unless you are a young man in a world whose women are finally, finally beginning to know and understand and use their power--then it's the worst kind of scary. And like something out of your worst nightmares, your cowardice begins to show.

But this is only partially about women. The news story mentioned only one woman artist who has been forced to live exiled in a small room so the extremists can ensure she is not secretly enjoying life through music. Many men have lost out as well through this silencing. But these are men who surely, through the force and provocation of music alone, must have by now become aware that the world is changing.

These men and these women understand that you can force people to stop listening to and making music, but you can't make them forget its existence. You can silence people's radios, their instruments and their voices, but you can't make silent their desire for what music brings them: the joy, even the sorrow.

The people of Mali will always remember that there are multitudes of things, of concepts, of people, of states of mind in this lifetime worthy of praise, apart from God. And there are bodily expressions, apart from prostration, to show the full gamut of human emotions.

To the members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad, I say good luck. Perhaps if you'd really been listening, you'd know that the music of Mali holds more power than you could ever dream of containing.


  1. your writing is beautiful and powerful. i am so sad hearing this story, but i know that the human desire for joy and love is greater than any bully's desire for power. and the funny thing, too, is that music and art have always been described, even by "non-religious" folks, as a channel that connects directly to a higher power.

  2. Oh,mama, I can't believe this is actually happening in the world. Music is spirit filled and it IS powerful. It moves and motivates people and some find that threatening. Just soul crushing.

    My favorite Kora player Toumani Diabate who's music inspires many creative endeavors in my life is also from Mali. The Kora is such an amazing instrument. I'm down for an African adventure, once I raise these boys up a little more, getting there.

    thanks for this,


  3. Loved this for your heart, your writing. Hated it for the controlling, oppressive force that is trying to shut down the human heart. May it NEVER be.