The Social Life of Music -- in Mali

05/21/2013 03:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013
  • Paul Stoller Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University; Author, Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

The recent silencing of music in Mali, once a wondrous place of musical vibrancy and creativity, carries social and political implications far beyond the borders of that remote country in West Africa. It appears the music scene in Northern Mali, the birthplace of Ali Farka Toure's "African Blues," has been effectively shut down.

When Islamic militants took over large swaths of northern Mali they forced the local inhabitants, who tend to follow moderate Sufi approaches to Islam, to accept a reactionary Taliban version of The Prophet's religion. When they occupied Timbuktu, they destroyed the shrines of Sufi saints and attempted with partial success to destroy the priceless medieval manuscripts of Timbuktu's famed libraries.

Morality patrols enforced proper dress codes and monitored what people ate. Spies reported "seditious" or "sacrilegious comments. The militants also banned music.

The armed militants sent death threats to local musicians; many were forced into exile. Live music venues were shut down, and militants set fire to guitars and drum kits. The world famous Festival in the Desert was moved to Burkina Faso, and then postponed because of the security threat.

While French and Malian forces largely swept the militants from Timbuktu and other northern towns earlier this year, the region is a still a battleground. Cultural venues remain shuttered. Even more musicians in the north are leaving the country because they fear vengeful acts by the Malian Army, whom they accuse of discriminating against northern peoples. The music has not returned to what it once was.

As an anthropologist who has spent more than 30 years living among and thinking about the peoples and cultures of Sahelian West Africa, the death of music in Mali is a terrible cultural loss. As Fernandes suggests, music is the force that establishes and reinforces social relations among Sahelian peoples. Aside from playing musical instruments, usually the kora (the African harp) or the ngoni or mollo (the Sahelian lute) the griot appears at rituals like weddings to chant family genealogies or sing the versus of long cultural epics that recount the heroic glories of the past. As such, griots and their music not only link past to present, but also build bridges to the future, for their most fundamental charge is to make sure that cultural memories are not forgotten.

In the same New York Times piece, Fernandes made a powerful point:

One thing that the events in Mali have taught us is that music matters. And the potential loss of music as a means of social bonding, as a voice of conscience and as a mode of storytelling is not just a threat in an African country where Islamic militants made music a punishable offense. We would do well to appreciate music's power, wherever we live.

Music is a pulse, an energy that wordlessly transports us back to the past, makes us sensuously aware of the present and compels us to think about the future. As in other art forms -- literature, sculpture, painting, and performance -- music slips into the deep recesses of our being. Sometimes it moves us. Wherever it is performed, music enhances our humanity and enriches our social lives

Why would anyone want to ban music, literature, sculpture, painting or performance? The power of the arts has always been a threat to powerful elites. Plato sought to expel the artist from his Republic, for the artist threatened to steer people toward the emotions of the heart rather than the logic of the head. In the 13th century, conservative Muslim clerics, who followed a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, condemned Konya's whirling dervishes whose spiritual approach to Islam challenged the reigning Islamic orthodoxies of the time. The same scenario, of course, is being played out in Mali and other Sahelian West African nations.

The conflict between narrow-minded orthodoxy and open-minded creativity, of course, is ever-present in the politically charged cultural discourse of U.S. politics. In the name of religious or market orthodoxy, conservative politicians have cut funding for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. In their view artists and scholars often produce works that are wasteful, morally questionable, or downright offensive. Such work in the arts also raises questions that powerfully challenge a political orthodoxy that is based upon fictive principles. Republican Governors are attempting to dumb-down their public universities -- by cutting the social sciences and humanities -- to create what amounts to technical training centers that will supply local industry with skilled "follow-the-rules" workers. Congressional Republicans now want to second-guess the funding decisions of the National Science Foundation on projects about which they have little or no expertise.

When orthodoxy is used to declare war on music, the arts, the humanities and the social sciences, we undermine the foundation of our society and diminish our humanity.

In the absence of provocative art, music, and science, we deplete our souls and are forced to live in a place, like contemporary Mali, in which platitudes have sapped our imaginations, a place in which hope dissipates into the dry air.

The power of orthodoxy is great, but so is the force of the arts to contest it with new thoughts and innovations. The results of this fundamental conflict will shape the quality of our lives in the future.