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Timbuktu’s ‘Festival in the Desert’ may Bring Peace

Last year I met Malian musician Mamadou Diabate, the 2009 Grammy Award winner of the “Best Traditional World Music” for his album ‘Douga Mansa.’ Mamadou had also composed the song ‘Bogna’ meaning “Respect is the healing medicine of peace. Peace is the healing medicine of love. Love is the healing medicine of life. Life is the healing medicine of hope.” Mamadou came from a family of musicians in Mali who have used music to preserve the Manika language and people’s consciousness of the past dating back to the 13th century, when Timbuktu was considered the intellectual capital of the Muslim world. He came from Kita, a town long known as a center for art and culture, where he learned to play the ‘kora’ (the 21-string harp) at an early age.

In mid-2012 Islamist extremists took control of a large area of northern Mali, and muzzled its long standing history of music culture. Musicians were attacked and many instruments were destroyed. Hundreds of musicians fled fearing the wrath of these radical hard-liners. The music tradition of story-telling has served to record history and unite cultures–a language that transcends time. Today Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and other Islamist affiliates still have a presence in the Sahel, even though French and UN troops drove the Islamists from northern Mali in 2013. They continue to move throughout the region including, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, and Libya. The vast Sahara desert provides a safe-haven for these insurgents. The BBC News reported on August 10, that French forces bombed Islamist militants embedded in the Esssakane region west of Timbuktu. Earlier in July there was a report of an Islamist rocket attack at the Timbuktu airport.

The Islamists had stated in 2012 that music was against Islam: “Instead of singing why don’t they read the Koran…subject themselves to God and pray…We are not only against the musicians in Mali, [but] we are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”

The Islamists went door-to-door destroying musical instruments and cassette players. Playing of music brought whip lashes and in some cases prison time–singing came with the threat of having their tongues cut out. Brutal atrocities against the Malian people drove almost 500,000 to neighboring countries. In addition to destroying the music culture they destroyed artifacts, rare historic manuscripts, 15th century mausoleums; severely damaged the famous Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu.

Since the 2013 French military incursion into northern Mali, the artistic music culture has slowly been revived. The county’s rich cultural history is filled with stories that have been carried down from one generation to another by griots (story-tellers). Each village retains information on births, deaths, marriages and other family matters. On my visit to Mali in September 2012, I met with Mamadou Ben Cherif Diabate, a leading Griot. He noted that when the Islamists took control of the northern region, the griots remained in the villages–at great risk–to continue the important role of recording family events and also to serve as peacemakers.

I returned to Mali in March 2013, again meeting with griots in several villages near Timbuktu. The French troops had barely driven out the Islamists, and people were still distraught over their relatives living in refugee camps. Music the lifeblood of Malians was still absent outside the home. However in an alleyway there were young boys huddled around a raspy sounding cassette player, listening to music. Most people did not venture out of their homes, other than for necessities, believing the Islamists would return. In fact several Islamists did return a day after my arrival, attacking a military checkpoint a few miles from the hotel. In visiting several mosques, monuments and the library that housed early manuscripts, you could see the Islamist’s destruction everywhere. I met with a well-known musician who told me how the Islamists had destroyed her group’s instruments, and threatened to cut-out their tongues and amputate limbs, if caught singing or playing any instruments.

The Brookings Institution co-sponsored the U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar in June 2014, where the Timbuktu Renaissance Action Group was launched. On August 4, during the U.S.—Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC, I attended a Timbuktu Renaissance event where Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and the minister of culture, Mrs. N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, were hosted by Brookings. President Keita remarked on the importance of bringing back the music festival to Timbuktu—to bring economic recovery to the region and promote peace and reconciliation.

The Tuareg separatist movement had sought independence of the Azawad region—a territory that covers almost half of Mali. Negotiations that started in May could lead to unifying the country. Mrs. Daillo in her remarks noted “culture [is] at the heart of socio-economic development.” Mohamed Ali (Manny) Ansar, the Tuareg director of the Festival in the Desert, had fled to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso when the Islamists took control of Timbuktu. His recent visit with the Brookings team was the first since leaving in 2012. Manny’s visit there was seen as the music festival’s revival—once again bringing people from around the world to this desert event.

Robert Plant had performed at the Festival in the Desert in 2003, and noted his fascination with the ‘blues’ sound tracing its history to the deserts of Western Africa. Plant further surmised that slaves from Mali “could have been a link to the blues that later emerged in the Mississippi Delta.” Bono of U2 fame noted it evolved into “all the music we love.” Blues music often tells stories of the destitute– the poor–and of social and political wrongs. “The blues is about hard times…” as Buddy Guy reflected in his music. The Festival in the Desert was held from 2001 until 2012; with Bono jamming with several musical groups at the last concert.

When the civil war broke out between the Tuareg separatists supported by Islamists, and the Malian government the desert event was cancelled. Instead several Malian musicians toured North America in 2013 as the Festival in Exile. Ten thousand people had been regular visitors to Timbuktu each year, traveling two hours further to reach Essakane, a tranquil spot 40 miles into the desert. The festival organizers want to return to Timbuktu in 2015, assuming the Islamists do not infiltrate the region again and create havoc. The trip across the 120 mile rugged terrain to reach Timbuktu from the town of Douentza is arduous, and also needs to be more secure. Safe commercial air service from Bamako will need to be re-established, and the airport terminal refurbished. In addition the ferry service across the Niger River will need to be expanded.

Mali’s music culture may have been saved by Brookings initiative to help revive the Festival in the Desert, under the leadership of former U.S. Ambassador Cynthia Schneider and Christopher Shields, and with the dedication of Manny Ansar the festival’s director, and Salif Romano Niang a Malian entrepreneur. The U.S. ambassador to Mali, Mary Beth Leonard has also been instrumental in the country’s reconciliation efforts—unifying the northern Tuareg’s and the more dominant Mande population in the south—to join hands in peace. With similar ethnic cultures in the neighboring countries, the revival of the desert music gathering could lead to a more peaceful environment in the Sahel–a region in which the Islamists have destroyed many lives.