Mali

A massacre in Bamako, echoing Paris. Alas, this is far from the first time in recent years that Mali has had a run in with blood mad extremists…just a couple years ago, you’ll remember, fanatics ran riot over the northern half of the country, declaring their own Islamic state, Azawad, killing and brutalizing non-believers and apostates and the unlucky, and notoriously destroying the Islamic treasures of Timbuktu. They looted the ancient university, blew up tombs, and ransacked the Islamic libraries, burning manuscripts the way conquistadores had set fire to the codices of the Aztec and Maya. They even banned music. A Mali without music seemed an impossibility, but they were quite serious about it. They said they’d cut out my tongue, a singer said after the town was freed again by Malian and French forces. The insurgents fled into the desert, haunting the mountains and the shifting dunes, moving by night, glowering, remembering, planning revenge.

I read much of this in the newspapers, but also in press releases from various record labels and publicists for Malian music acts and the Festival of the Desert, which did not happen that year. Too dangerous. Some people with guns do not like music. Music, though, is probably Mali’s most important product, perhaps even its leading export. Mali is now what Jamaica was a generation or so ago….a small, third world country, very poor, absolutely bursting with profoundly transformational music that is having a huge impact across the globe. It’s certainly had a huge impact on me, and I while away many a night to the desert blues, and dream of the Sahel. A dry wind comes off the Mojave and blows Los Angeles clean again, the city blinks on as darkness sets, and sounds carry far into the hills. It’s an oddly perfect soundtrack. Glittering Hollywood and the flood plain of the Niger intertwine in the dark as Ali Farka Touré chants over a thrumming bass pulse, guitars weaving in and out of the melody, and hollowed gourds stutter syncopation. The breeze, dry as a bone, shifts the curtains. A match flare reflects in the window pane. You can’t understand a word of Songhay, not that it matters.

Turning on the TV is a mistake, with breaking news and bodies under blankets and Mali in the news again for the wrong reasons. More dead, more soldiers, more panic and despair. Medieval slaughter with automatic weapons. (Or maybe it’s not so medieval–the Nazis also saw killing the unclean as a sacred duty, though they were much better at it.) I turn down the television volume but leave the picture on and the mute pictures of Malians in anguish are jarring against the music filling the room, like watching a movie to the wrong soundtrack. Perhaps they go together, though. It’s tragic, even heart wrenching, to see all this violence and mayhem, but then again Jamaica too was torn by political violence and a stunning homicide rate (Bob Marley was nearly assassinated, Peter Tosh and King Tubby murdered) as its musicians made their greatest music. And reggae was brand new then, with roots a couple decades old, one of the newer sounds fused from the stew of new sounds born of the African disapora. But in Mali the form goes back centuries, and fifty generations of griots have seen and sung of all this over and over again, empires rising and falling, invasions, battles, collapse, famine, slavery, liberation. And now this latest massacre. Doubtless music is being written, verses composed. People listen, sing along, dance, ululate. Who knows, perhaps they go together, music and madness, melody and mayhem, one clashing and inspiring the other, loping and skittering and roiling the surface like a desert wind across a wide river.

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