A Voice Raised in Joy

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll

How singer Fatoumata Diawara fought back against the Islamists overrunning Mali.

swaddled in a tendril of vivid scarves, like fireworks about her face, Fatoumata Diawara nurses an espresso in a corner banquette, all infectious triumph. Outside this cozy cafe near the Malian singer's Paris home, gray figures hunch against an afternoon drizzle. Today in Mali, just over 2,000 miles due south, French forces are pursuing a campaign against al Qaeda-linked jihadists. And at long last, the storied desert city of Timbuktu is free. A cultural capital forever steeped in sound--where zealots had dared ban music itself--can sing again. But Diawara's vanquishing verve isn't strictly about the war, or not entirely.

As Islamist fighters flee northern Mali's cities and dig into hideouts deep in the Sahel Desert, Diawara knows the war has yet to be won. (She once lets slip the word "victory," only to reel it back quickly.) But that won't stop her from savoring success today in more personal battles.

On a December visit to Bamako, Mali's capital, after long months touring Europe and North America to support her critically acclaimed debut album, the 30-year-old chanteuse issued a battle cry of her own. "I no longer recognized my country," Diawara says. Inspired, she wrote a jangly guitar melody and called together an unprecedented musical supergroup. Forty of Mali's top stars signed on. The blind husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam, venerated songstress Oumou Sangare, legendary kora player Toumani Diabate, master ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, and major Malian rappers joined in, with Ivory Coast's Tiken Jah Fakoly adding his star power.

The result is "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)," a seven-minute song and video that blasts the fundamentalist conquest of the north and urges unity to quell resentment against the Tuareg minority whom some blame for abetting the incursion. "Our weapons were the only things we had: our guitars, our koras, our ngonis, to rap at the door," Diawara says.

Of the jihadists then poised to descend on the capital, she says, "I didn't know that France was going to intervene. The African Union wasn't reacting, and those people were arriving with such force." She had felt better informed living in Europe than while visiting Bamako, where news was scarce. "I needed to scream with this song, 'Wake up! We are losing Mali! We are losing our culture, our tradition, our origins, our roots!' " Diawara says. "It was so strong in my heart and my soul. So when France intervened--I put out the record [just] days later--it was as if God had heard us."

Mali, a landlocked West African nation that ranks among the world's poorest, is home to some of the richest musical traditions in the world. The moral authority of music is difficult to overstate socially, culturally, or politically in a nation where, for centuries, the hereditary caste of griots, or traditional praise singers, has been charged with relaying oral history, resolving disputes, and performing at ceremonies. "Music is at the heart of everything," Diawara explains. "When a couple is divorcing, to calm it one must call a griot to intervene with song to say don't separate for the children," she says. "With beautiful voices, people have heard messages better than with talk."

A precious soft-power asset, Mali's musicians are cultural ambassadors. The annual Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu, enjoys cult status with Western tourists and has featured guest performances by Robert Plant and Bono. Indeed, Mali, a wellspring of African-American blues (and, as such, currents of rock, jazz, and soul), is arguably a sort of ground zero for a wide swath of popular music.

"Without music, Mali is no longer Mali," Diawara says. "And that power was in danger with the Islamists who wanted to stop the music." Under the strict application of Sharia in the northern two thirds of the country under fundamentalist control, offenders are said to have been punished with public floggings, stonings, and amputations. …