A chilling message is being sent to the musicians and music lovers of Northern Mali by Islamic extremists, that their only choices are to forgo music, be imprisoned, or leave the area under Islamist control.
Today, in the city of Gao, 39-year-old singer Bintu Aljuma Yatare no longer listens to music on her phone. The Islamists will confiscate it, she said. Five musicians in her band have fled to neighboring Niger; two others are in Bamako. She cannot leave because she has to take care of her aging parents.
Every evening, she risks being sent to prison: She shuts the windows and doors of her house and sings in her native Songhai language. ‘Sometimes I lie in my bed and hum my songs softly,’ she said. ‘The only way for me to survive this nightmare is through music.’
The other day, she wrote a song about the drivers who take people out of northern Mali to safer pastures.
For reggae musician Alwakilo Toure, his home in Gao was not a sanctuary. He was strumming his guitar when six armed militants barged into his compound. With guns pointed at his head, one Islamist grabbed the guitar and smashed it to bits with his foot. ‘The guitar was my life,’ Toure recalled. ‘I had nothing else to do.’
Two weeks later, he fled to Bamako.
In a telephone interview, one of the Islamists’ top commanders declared that his fighters would continue to target musicians.
‘Music is against Islam,’ said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three extremist groups controlling the north. ‘Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran? Why don’t they subject themselves to God and pray? We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.’
This is in a place where music once thrived, where Robert Plant and Bono have performed at music festivals. Where local artists generated new musical fusions from local traditional rhythms and instruments being combined with modern day musical styles. Now a large part of it is controlled by a man who says he is in a struggle against all the musicians and music of the world.
All that remains in Northern Mali is an ever growing silence.