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Book Review: Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan

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If you love music from Mali, there’s a good chance you are still scratching your head about what exactly has happened there over the past few years. How could one of Africa’s most stable democracies, with four consecutive “free and fair” elections to its credit, melt down in a sudden military coup? How could the much-celebrated peace in the north—the occasion for more than 10 fabulous years of the Festival in the Desert—dissolve into a secessionist fight leading to the declaration of a separate Tuareg homeland, Azawad? What about the non-Tuareg ethnic groups who have lived in the north of Mali for centuries? How did that Tuareg rebellion turn into an opportunity for hardline Islamists to seize control of the Malian north? And how could such a tolerant, Sufi-oriented Islamic country actually allow a huge portion of its territory to come under the control of rulers who would actually ban music—arguably Mali’s greatest export? And how could it be that France, the country that has done the most to resolve these problems, is also deeply implicated for its historical interference with life and leadership in this region?

Unraveling the intertwined answers to these and other questions is a blindingly complex undertaking. Afropop Worldwide is now planning a return trip to Mali—our first in nearly 10 years—to look for answers on the ground. And it was in beginning to plan for that trip that I finally read a book that offers by far the clearest and most thorough account of the situation in Mali I have seen. Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali (Freemuse) is writer Andy Morgan’s deeply researched and terrifically lucid account of the period from January 2012 through January 2013, when the French came in to reclaim the north. The book has been out for over a year, so this review is far from timely, but although history marches on in Mali, this book remains indispensable reading for anyone seeking to make sense of current events and musical developments in a country that has given the world so much, and is now suffering more than it has at any time since its independence in 1960. (You can download Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali as a .pdf for free, compliments of freemuse.org.)

Morgan has been writing about Mali for years. He reviewed the very first Festival in the Desert for afropop.org in 2001, and was an organizer of the festival in 2003, the year we first attended. Morgan went on to manage the world’s pioneering Tuareg rock band, Tinariwen, so his sensitivities regarding Tuareg aspirations and dynamics are well honed. For all that engagement, a strong sense of fair-mindedness pervades Morgan’s writing. One never senses an agenda or an axe to grind—other than a general contention that musicians are players of outsize importance in Mali: but we knew that. Morgan’s objective is to help us break the situation down into manageable pieces, separate narratives that each make sense on their own, and when combined, go a long way to explaining the incomprehensible.

Morgan begins with a helpful introduction to the players in the northern conflict, especially the various Tuareg and Islamist leaders and factions. We meet Muslim figures at various points on the spectrum of extremism, and Tuareg leaders who shift alliances and agendas in response to changing circumstances. One key question Morgan addresses is: What became of the supposed peace in the north that paved the way for the Festival in the Desert and other initiatives? It turns out that to get that peace, the Malian government had to promise a lot, and when it failed to deliver anything like the pledged levels of aid and development, people in the north lost confidence in the deal, and Tuareg leaders who had brokered it lost credibility and had to change course. This succession of events even led one prominent leader to support the Islamists.

As events spun out of control in 2012, Morgan was on the ground, conducting interviews with a number of players, especially musicians. It helps that Morgan has long-term relationships with many of these artists, ranging from popular singers to traditional icons like kora master Toumani Diabaté, and, perhaps most interestingly, rappers. Amkoullel, a rapper born in Timbuktu, had this to say about the banning of music in his northern homeland: “The aim of those Islamists is to destroy all reference, all memory and history.  That’s why they destroy culture and music.  Because when you destroy all the reference of a people, its memory, which is preserved in its museums, its monuments, its music and culture, well, then it’s like they don’t have a past any more, and you can replace it.”

But there is no erasing the history of this region. Andy Morgan writes, “If you strip the crisis of 2012 down to its essence you wind up with a perennial, quasi-archetypal, clash between nomadic cultures of northern Mali, principally Arab and Tuareg, and the sedentary agricultural cultures of the Niger River and lands further south.… The hunters of Dogon and Wassoulou complete the triptych.” This triptych—nomads, farmers and hunters—runs through all of Malian history, and this is just one way in which Morgan uses his knowledge of the past to help us understand that, for all the aberrations of 2012, there are also continuities in this story.

A central argument in Morgan’s book is that the prominence of Mali’s music—by far its best-known export—has both strengthened the solidarity of people there, and inspired a forceful response from the outside world. “After all,” writes Morgan, “without music and culture, Mali would merely be an object of pity rather than also one of respect and love.” Morgan gradually shifts focus from the issues of the north to what is arguably the more serious problem plaguing Mali: the too-long-overlooked failings of the government in Bamako. For all the hoopla, it turns out that Mali’s political leaders were far from the visionary transformative figures many took them to be. In fact, Morgan writes, this “much vaunted African democracy” had been “failing its people for years, brought low by corruption, nepotism, self-interest, incompetence, and weakness.”

The role of young rappers and hip-hop artists in Mali, before the crisis and since, is particularly interesting, and it’s the subject of an excellent new essay Morgan has written, “Mali Rap: Talking Rhymes with Presidents and Putschistas.” (This and many other fine essays and sources on Mali can be found on Morgan’s website Andy Morgan Writes.)

What is happening in Mali remains a puzzle. But with Morgan’s help, we can have a much better sense of its pieces, and continue to imagine how this puzzle might be reassembled in a better way in the future.

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