Mali: The day the music stopped

Posted on 23 October 2012. Updated on 7 January 2013

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“We do not want Satan’s music,” said an Islamist spokesman as he banned the broadcasting of all western music from his stronghold in Gao, a city that finds itself within the most literal and brutal Sharia jurisdiction in the world today; the ‘red zone’ in northern Mali.  The region is also home to the world-renowned ‘Festival in the Desert’ whose director Manny Ansar remains confident that no one can kill Malian music. “We’re dealing with people who don’t know what they’re doing and who won’t win,” he told journalist Andy Morgan.




On Wednesday 22 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.  Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done.”


In Gao, a group of teenagers sits around a ghetto blaster listening to Bob Marley. A Landcruiser pick-up loaded with tooled-up Islamic police comes by and seeing the reggae fans, stops and accosts them.

“This music is haram [1],” says one of the MUJAO men as he yanks the cassette out of the blaster and crushes it under his feet. “Listen to this instead,” he barks, 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 receives a call on his mobile phone while he’s standing on a street corner in the town centre. As the tinny ringtone sends out a looping riff lifted from a song by local singer Seckou Maiga, it’s overheard by a group of Ansar ud-Dine soldiers who are standing nearby. One of them, not much older than the teenager with the phone, breaks off from the group and strides over. “Hey! Give me that here!” he orders. The youth hands 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 opens the back of the phone, picks out the SIM card, and grinds it into the dust with his feet. He then gives the phone back in pieces. “None of that Godless music, understand?!!”


In Kidal, a group of women gather on the dirt airstrip to the east of the town. They sit close, at least thirty of them, in a large huddle of shimmering indigo robes. One women starts to beat the tindé drum, whilst another sprinkles water on its goatskin to keep it taut and resonant. Their chanting ululating rise up to the hazy skies and send 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 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 gather around to watch, as they’ve been used to doing for as long as they can remember, Ansar ud-Dine militiamen with black headbands and AK47s strapped to their chests slice into the crowd and shatter it into angry fragments, shouting at the men to keep away from the women and go home. Then they order the women to stop what they’re doing and go back to their homes as well. The mood bursts, and the joy ekes away to be replaced by surliness and frustration.


On the outskirts of Gao, a local takamba musician is 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’s a style that also unifies the Touareg and Songhai people, often at odds with each other, as it is performed and consumed by people from both ethnic groups. Gao without takamba would be like Rio without samba; hard to imagine. Our musician is on his way to a wedding in a village outside Gao, his car laden with instruments and equipment. At the checkpoint he is ordered to step down from his car by a MUJAO militiaman who then proceeds 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 is doused in petrol and set alight. The musician is too scared to shout out, or cry, or flee. There are guns everywhere. He just stands and watches as his livelihood goes up in flames. If he makes a scene or shows any emotion, he knows that his own life would be in danger.[2]


In Timbuktu a posse of local Islamist militiamen turns up at a radio station and takes out four large hessian rice bags. They proceed to fill them up with music cassettes, hundred and hundreds of them, an entire archive of local musical culture, painstakingly collected over a decade or more. The station manager stands 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 watches a programme called ‘Mini Star’ on television. It’s a Malian adaptation of the X-factor idea, in which young up and coming singers and musicians imitate the greats of Malian music; Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, 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 on the world. The weather is hot in Gao and all the windows of the family home are open. A patrol of Islamic policemen hear the sound of music coming from the TV as they pass by the house.  They double back and enter the premises, grabbing the TV and smashing it out on cracked paving stones of the yard with the butts of their rifles.  The family are warned that next time they’ll get the whip.



These are just a few snapshots of musical life in the most literal and brutal Sharia jurisdiction in the world today.

The MUJAO declaration of 22 August 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 all most form of music; modern, traditional, electrified, acoustic, foreign and local. Only Sheikh Abderrahmane Soudais and his ilk were deemed entirely halal.



The festival in the desert
“The first time I heard the word wahhabiya,” remembers Manny Ansar, director of the Festival in the Desert, “was when I was a child in the 1970s. People talked about them as if they were some kind of scary sect. I remember that adults would say to us ‘Hey, children, be careful. Those people give children money to lead them astray. Don’t take it and don’t listen to them.’”

A scary sect. If only it had stayed that way. Before the mid 1990s, political Islam and violent religious extremism hardly blipped the cultural radar of northern Mali. There was conflict in the north of course, but it all related either to the nationalist ambitions of the Touareg, or Kel Tamashek, as they prefer to be known, or to inter-ethnic strife between Touareg and Songhoi, Touareg and Arab or even between certain Touareg tribes clans, often stoked by manipulative politicians and leaders.

If there was a political philosophy that guided Iyad Ag Ghali and the Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad (MPA) when they fought the great rebellion of 1990 it was a kind of Berber version of Nasserist Arab nationalism which had been nurtured in Libyan training camps during the 1980s. Mainly, it was just a deep desire for autonomy and the right to defend Tamashek culture, the Tamashek language, Tamashek rights and the freedom that the nomad will always carry in his heart. It was a fight for earth, history, family and identity. Islam was part of all these but not the overriding part, not the defining part.

After the Tamanrasset accords of 6 January 1991 which put an end to the rebellion, many Touareg musicians began to ‘resurface’ and reintegrate into normal civilian life. Members of Tinariwen who had taken part in the rebellion found themselves in Bamako or Kidal, playing music, hanging out, doing what they could to earn a living and survive. Manny Ansar was Tinariwen’s manager at the time. He remembers a whole group of Touareg musicians, ex-rebel leaders and ishumar [3] who spent time together, in each other’s houses, out in the bush or, if they were in Bamako, out along the banks of the Niger, where it was quiet and the nature and solitude reminded them of home.  Life was convivial. There was music. Women felt free to come and go. Some people smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol. The bonds between them, their music and their culture seemed strong and unbreakable.


No one quite knows why some senior Touareg figures from the northeast, including Iyad Ag Ghali, began to succumb to the message of Pakistani preachers belonging to Tablighi Jama’at. Perhaps it was due to a general disillusion with the nationalist cause, fuelled by the bitter in fighting and recrimination between different Tamashek tribes and clans that followed the Tamanrasset Accords and the National Pact of 1994. Perhaps they were sick of petty politics and yearned for something loftier, purer, holier. Perhaps the very notion of dividing up Muslims into nation states seemed suddenly ungodly. The Wahhabi have always preached that national boundaries are a Western imposition, designed to divide and weaken the Islamic umma, which should by rights exist in one borderless and divinely ruled polity.

“The Pakistani Salafists came through Bamako,” Manny remembers. “People saw them with their beards and their white robes. They were nice people. Then they went up to Kidal and that’s where certain Touareg leaders came into contact with them.”

It’s hard to establish the precise date when all this happened, perhaps sometime in 1995 or just afterwards. Manny remembers that everything happened very slowly and gradually.

“There was a kind of psychological preparation, done in a really friendly way,” he says. “Then certain friends started to distance themselves bit by bit from our circle, people who had liked partying and beautiful women. They were still friends and we would still meet and talk about the situation of the country and the Touareg, but one felt that they were drifting away. They started to disapprove of my lifestyle, the travelling, my friendships with westerners, the festivals, musicians, alcohol, the life of pleasure. They still had respect, esteem, even friendship towards me but my lifestyle didn’t suit them any more. They left very gently.”

When they came back from their trips to Pakistan and Mecca, the dedication of these daw’ah devotees deepened. “They were really like monks,” Manny remembers, “dressed in white, very simple, eating the minimum, praying all the time, unconcerned about life’s problems except spreading messages of peace, togetherness and, of course, God. The first thing that shocked us is that they asked their wives not to shake hands with men any more. Suddenly you would stop seeing their women at all. They would stay in another room where they entertained their women friends.”


Meanwhile, Manny had helped to launch the Festival in the Desert in January 2001 at Tin Essako, a tiny little village to the east of Kidal. The festival came about thanks to an immense team effort involving Manny and his EFES association, Tinariwen, the French group Lo’Jo and various other French and Malian funders and supporters. The only threat felt during that first edition was that of petty criminality and banditry.

The year before some Dutch tourists had been attacked and murdered up near Tessalit, north of Kidal. On the way up to the festival itself, the truck transporting a small PA system that had been flown in from France was stopped by armed bandits. It took the verbal skill and courage of Kheddou Ag Ossade, one of the core members of Tinariwen who later went on to form the group Terakaft, to dissuade the muggers from taking the equipment and thereby ruining the festival.

A smaller event took place a year later in Tessalit, but it was the third Festival in the Desert in January 2003, and the first in the silky white dunes of Essakane which were to become the festival’s permanent home, that really established the event’s worldwide reputation. The number of visitors, both local and international, had tripled or even quadrupled. Well-known names like Robert Plant were present. The stage looked like a proper stage. The sound was of the same professional standard as a festival in Europe. The festival had ‘arrived’.

And still no sign of any Islamists.


A month after the festival, the GSPC kidnapped 32 European hostages in the Tassili region of southern Algeria, between Illizi and Djanet. It was the first major crisis involving the kidnapping of western tourists that the Sahara had ever known. Fifteen of the hostages were sent down into Mali, where they were held prisoner while the chief of the GSPC katiba or cell, Amari Saïfi aka Abderrazak El Para, negotiated a ransom with the Malian, Swiss and German governments. A team of northern ‘notables’, including Iyad Ag Ghali and Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, were sent to speak to El Para and his men. Links were forged and promises were made then that lead eventually through many a twist and turn to the unholy Islamist takeover of 2012.

But it wasn’t until four years later that The Festival in the Desert began to really feel the Islamist presence in the north.

“2007… that’s when the red lines were first drawn,” Manny remembers, “and the Foreign ministries in Europe and America began to issue all kinds of warnings against travelling to the north of Mali.” It was also the year when the GSPC changed its name to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Their presence in the Malian Sahara began to be more overt. “The Al Qaida people were wandering around the desert at that time,” Manny continues. “But they weren’t aggressive. They visited the camps near Essakane and said, ‘don’t worry, we’re Muslims like you.’  But then later, their argument began to change. The first alert was when they said, ‘we’ve got nothing against you. We just have the same enemy, which is the West, the non-believers.’ That’s when I understood that things were going to get difficult, because our festival was based on people coming from all over the world, without distinction.”


And then, in 2008 the kidnapping started again with the capture of two Austrian tourists in southern Tunisia. In January 2009, four more tourists were seized on their way back from another music festival called Tamadacht, that took place just after the Festival in the Desert in Anderamboukane, a small town up against Mali’s eastern frontier with Niger. A Swiss couple and an elderly German women were eventually freed after many hellish months spent in a makeshift Al Qaida desert camp. The fourth hostage however wasn’t so lucky. Edwin Dyer had lived in Austria for over three decades, but had retained his British passport out of loyalty to his the land of his fathers and to the royal family. It was to be his death warrant. The British government flatly refused to negotiate with Al Qaida or pay any kind of ransom. They also rejected Al Qaida’s demand to free the Jordanian preacher and jurist Abu Qatada, who was then imprisoned in a British jail. The Al Qaida emir Abou Zeid had Edwin Dyer beheaded on 31 May 2009.

“Things got much worse after the assassination of Edwin Dyer,” Manny tells me. “I remember it well. Plenty of people got Tamadacht and the Festival in the Desert mixed up, and thought that Dyer had been to our festival.”

“I never received any direct threats from Al Qaida,” Manny asserts. “But through third parties, we learnt some people, Touareg and Arabs who were sympathetic to their way of thinking, were beginning to have an aggressive attitude towards us. ‘What you’re trying to do is haram,’ they told people I knew. ‘In the middle of Islamic lands you invite non-believers who come and drink alcohol and commit sins on our dunes.’

Once there were even some who came to the Festival site to express their opinion in one of the conferences, or just walk around. But people told me to take no notice. ‘They’re just trying to make themselves important. Let them talk and they’ll go away,’ I was told.”

Other objectors went up to senior figures in the Kel Antessar, the Touareg tribe that Manny belongs to and said, “Your children are going too far.” The Kel Antessar are a revered clan in the Timbuktu / Essakane region, who can trace their lineage back to the Prophet and who have provided the southern Sahara with many of its marabouts and holy men. “Our clan are considered to be the defenders of Islam,” Manny tells me. “They brought Islam to this part of the world. I remember one of the clan leaders saying to me, ‘You know people are complaining about you. They’re saying that you’re spreading debauchery, that you’ve created some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah in Essakane. Just be careful. I know what you’re doing is beneficial to for the Sahara. But take care of our image.’

But it was just about morality and good behaviour, not really about jihad or any anti-western sentiment.”


Manny had to increase security measures year on year. More soldiers would encircle the Essakane site, camping out beyond the dunes. And each year, Manny called people he knew in the Touareg rebel movement to ask if it was safe to stage the Festival. They were people with wide connections, who knew the currents and pressure points of Saharan politics. Their answer was always affirmative.

All this was taking place amidst in a zeitgeist of fear and antagonism between the West and the Muslim world. The Festival in the Desert was right on the front line. “Everything was connected,” Manny says. “The international community, the warnings, Afghanistan, Al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria. It was getting worse and worse internationally, and one also felt that the pressure was increasing locally. Al Qaida was getting closer to Essakane. Old friends in Kidal were distancing themselves and becoming radicalised. Mali was getting worried. There was trafficking. Slowly, the screws were tightening.”

Then, in the summer of 2009, Manny received a phone call from President Amadou Toumani Toure himself, asking him to move the festival within Timbuktu city limits for safety reasons. The foreign ministry warnings were getting ever more strident. In 2010, Hilary Clinton issued a signed document advising all Americans against travelling to Timbuktu and especially, Manny quotes, “‘not to the world-renowned Festival in the Desert.’  I kept it because it’s such a good piece of publicity,” he says with a chuckle.

And yet, no one involved with the Festival was kidnapped or murdered. “That was strange,” says Manny. “The Festival existed in the same red zone as all the trafficking, and all the other stuff. But they left us alone. I think that Al Qaida didn’t want to affront the locals. This festival was considered to be a Touareg festival so to attack it meant attacking the tribes that lived in the area. They knew that the organisers belonged to a very respected tribe and it was a bad idea to attack their guests. But there was never any kind of agreement between us, never even any word from the Islamists along the lines of ‘don’t worry, we won’t attack you.’ There were even those who said that, as we’re a family of marabouts, we made prayers and benedictions to block off the road to the festival and keep the Islamists away.”

In January 2012, at the last Festival in Desert that will probably grace the city of Timbuktu for a while, Bono asked Manny to call off the soldiers who were protecting him. “I said to the military, ‘Look, if he wants to go off like that, just let him do it.’  He used to wander off in the dunes; we would take tea there. People think I had some kind of divine force to protect my visitors. And finally, I almost ask myself if it isn’t true. Imagine, Bono kidnapped!”


On 30 March 2012, Timbuktu was overtaken by Ansar ud-Dine, AQIM and some units from the MNLA. The takeover effectively evicted The Festival in the Desert from its desert home. At first Manny was very pessimistic, and wondered if it wasn’t time to lay the whole enterprise to rest. Then, as musicians from the north started to turn up in Bamako, often with their entire families, begging Manny to find them work, and after talking to his team of co-workers, his friends and his international backers and supporters, he realised that this wasn’t the time to give up. Quite the opposite:

“As I’m a pacifist through and through, against all arms and violence, which I wouldn’t even use against my greatest enemy, I understood that my only way to resist was to continue to be involved in music, to continue promoting festivals. It was my way of fighting back and showing that you can’t kill music just because Timbuktu has been occupied, that Touareg and Malian music will be heard even more and even further afield. 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[4] in Rio de Janeiro, we’ll sound the tindé drum in Dubai and dance the takamba in Toronto, right up until the day we return to Timbuktu. That’s our message. To say that, no, you want us to stop… well, on the contrary. Before our music was heard in Essakane, at the Tamadacht Festival or in Essouk. Today it’ll be heard in all the big festivals in the world. So it’s the opposite of what you, the Islamists, want. It’s our victory and your defeat.”

I ask Manny for his reaction to the MUJAO declaration banning music.
“The MUJAO can exist,” he answers, “but not among this people. Everything is transmitted in Mali through music, through poetry. So instead of making me panic, at least that declaration told me that we’re dealing with people who don’t know what they’re doing and who won’t win. They don’t understand the culture that they’re operating in and they don’t try to understand it either. Mali without music is impossible. Life would have no meaning for the people, because music is their daily reality. It’s the only thing that many have to distract and amuse themselves. They have no television. They have no Internet. They don’t play chess. They don’t gamble. Music is the only thing that makes live worth living.”




Andy Morgan is a British freelance writer and journalist.

This piece is an extract of a an extended feature on the impact of the crisis in Mali on the country’s musicians, writers, actors, dancers, fashion designers and cultural activists.  The feature will be published online in two parts before the beginning of December 2012.




More on Mali

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Conference session about music in Mali


Session recording from the first World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression, held in Oslo, Norway, in October 2012

Speaker: Manny Ansar, Festival Director (Mali)
Moderator: Daniel Brown, Journalist (France)
Performance: Terakaft (Mali)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mail & Guardian – 13 December 2013:
Music ban beaten by desert blues
A guitarist fleeing from a civil war is determined to keep playing, despite restrictions in his country. By Andy Morgan

NPR – 15 September 2013:
Honoring A Duty To Make Music In Silent Mali
The songwriter and guitarist Sidi Touré is a superstar in his native Mali. But in the last 18 months, it hasn’t been easy for Malian artists.

Freemuse – 21 May 2013:
New book: Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali
Freemuse are pleased to announce the publication of our first book, ‘Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali’, which is launched in a digital and on-demand paperback edition on 21 May 2013.

New York Times, The Opinion Pages – 19 May 2013:
The Day the Music Died in Mali
Everyone has heard of censored songs, (…) but banning music in its entirety? It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Mali announced that they were effectively banning all music. By Sujatha Fernandes

National Public Radio, USA – 21 March 2013:
Baba Salah: A Malian Musician Speaks To His Nation’s Displaced (radio, 5 min 48 sec)
“When we heard and witnessed musical instruments being burned in Gao, we realized the threats against us were dead serious,” Salah says. “So all the musicians vamoosed. It’s as if part of our own culture was taken hostage.” By Ofeibea Quist-Arcton

Channel Four News / John Snow – 17 January 2013:
The band from Mali I hugged in Shepherds Bush
About the fabulous Malian group Tinariwen: “They had the audience on their feet that warm early May evening of 2012. Today, no audience, and one of their number is in the hands of the grim Ansar Dine. This is the al-Qaeda linked group that has ravaged the religious places of Timbuktu, screaming “idolatry” as they did so.” By John Snow

The Guardian – 15 January 2013:
Mali music ban by Islamists ‘crushing culture to impose rule’
Rebels’ clampdown on live performances, from Amadou and Mariam to Tinariwen, is driving music underground. By Robin Denselow

NPR, All Things Considered – 8 January 2013:
Despite Censorship, Mali’s Musicians Play On5 minutes radio report

The Washington Post / Sydney Morning Herald – 8 December 2012:
Day the music died: Islamist extremists steal the voice of Mali musicians
A once-rich music region has become an artistic wasteland. Interviews with Khaira Arby and Baba Salah. By Sudarsan Raghavan.

BBC News – 6 December 2012:
Blues for Mali as Ali Farka Toure’s music is banned
After making northern Mali’s “Blues” music famous around the world, Ali Farka Toure is a legend in his home town of Niafunke, where he was mayor until his death in 2006. By Thomas Fessy

PRI’s The World – 2 November 2012:
Next generation of Mali musicians face a country that won’t let them perform
(Radio report, 4:39 minutes)
Mali is in the throes of an uprising between the country’s Islamic fundamentalists and its nomadic, indigenous Tuareg people. The Islamists are on top and have banned all “non-devotional” music. And that’s totally upended what was once a vibrant music scene.

Deutche Welle – 25 October 2012:
Islamists ban traditional storytellers in Mali
Islamic groups are imposing sharia law in northern Mali. Secular music is banned along with performances by griots, the traditional African singers and storytellers, who in earlier times, used to act as mediators.

The Guardian – 23 October 2012:
Mali: no rhythm or reason as militants declare war on music
Islamist militants are banning music in northern Mali, a chilling proposition for a country where music is akin to mineral wealth. By Andy Morgan – 31 August 2012:
Report from Bamako: Can musical Mali play on?
Islamism is on the march and threatening to wipe out the country’s cultural heritage, wrote freelance journalist Rose Skelton in the British newspaper The Independent on 18 August 2012.





[1] Forbidden by Islamic law.

[2] 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.

[3] A Tamashek adaptation of the French word ‘chomeur’.  Ishumar was the collective noun for the young Touareg men who left their homes in Mali and Niger in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to drought and lack of opportunity to find work in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and beyond. It was these men who became the footsoldiers of the rebellions of 1990.

[4] A form of traditional Touareg music from the Timbuktu region



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