Message from Mali: There is No Life Without Music

03/27/2015 09:50 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

"There is no life without music," says Khaira Arby in the recent documentary, They'll Have to Kill Us First. Seeking refuge from Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists who in 2012 sacked Timbuktu's libraries, razed its shrines and banned its music, Arby, the diva of the fabled city, fled to Bamako, Mali's capital, which is hundreds of kilometers from her home.

Safely ensconced in Bamako, Khaira Arby began to sing to assert her challenged cultural identity. Her story is not the exception among Mali's musicians from the north. In the wake of the Islamist assault, a new musically contoured cultural spirit has emerged. Although the Islamists in Northern Mali condemned moderate Sufism, destroyed UN cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu and banned the magnificently rhythmic sounds of Takamba music (Desert Blues), the musicians, who are guardians of a great cultural tradition, assert that the music, a link to the ancestors, will not die.

The story of the new music group, Songhoy Blues, is a case in point. Andy Morgan, a journalist, wrote an article about Songhoy Blues in a December 2013 edition of The Guardian. He quotes Garba Toure, a guitarist with Songhoy Blues.

"The first rebel group to arrive were the MNLA [Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad], but they weren't against music, so there was no bad feeling between them and the population," he tells me over the phone from Bamako, Mali's capital. "But then Ansar Dine [a local armed Islamist group, whose name translates as "followers of the faith"] came and chased them out. They ordered people to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and playing music. Even though I don't smoke or drink, I love the guitar, so I thought: 'This isn't the moment to hang around. I have to go south.'"

Like thousands of refugees, Garba grabbed a bag, his guitar and boarded a bus to Bamako. His father, Oumar Touré, a musician who had played congas for Mali's guitar legend, Ali Farka Touré, stayed behind with the family. The hardline Islamist gunmen drove music underground. The penalties for playing or even just listening to it on your mobile phone were a public whipping, a stint in an overcrowded jail or worse.

"When I arrived in Bamako the mood wasn't great," Garba remembers, "Different army factions were fighting each other. There were guns everywhere. All we heard was the scream of weapons. We weren't used to that."

Garba and some other musician friends from the north decided they couldn't succumb to the feeling that their lives had been shipwrecked by the crisis. They had to form a band, if for no other reason than to boost the morale of other refugees in the same situation. "We wanted to recreate that lost ambience of the north and make all the refugees relive those northern songs."

That's how Songhoy Blues was born...

The critics greeted the first album of Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile (February 2015) with rave reviews--a music inspired by forced dislocation. The music, which reminds me of the Takamba rhythms I heard forty years ago in dusty compounds near the Niger-Mali border, is mesmerizing. The lyrics of the Songhoy Blues tunes reflect the wisdom of the Songhay people, especially when the musicians sing of patience (soubour) and courage (faba). In difficult times, Songhay elders often say that "life is patience," which is a profound take on the processes of history. Times may be bad right now, but if you walk your path with patience and courage, you will arrive in a better place. These songs, then, are a tonic that nourishes cultural resilience in northern Mali.

In February 2015, Songhoy Blues, Khaira Arby, Vieux Farka Toure and Nick Zinner took this music in exile on the road. They traveled throughout the Sahelian region of West Africa--The Caravan of Peace. The aforementioned feature length film They Will Have to Kill Us First documents this exercise in social and cultural resilience.

The music will not die.

These Malian musicians come from villages and towns that are war-ravaged, culturally challenged and economically oppressed. These are places in which the average yearly income hovers around $300 a year. Even so the African peoples in the Sahel are not the hapless victims that our media describe in superficial African reports on famine, atrocities and disease. Like most of the African people I've come to know during almost 40 years of contact, my Sahelian friends may be poor, but they are incredibly resilient.

When men and women dance to Takamba music they don the boubou, a billowing robe that Sahelian peoples wear with pride. Dressed in boubous, the music compels the dancers to sway their extended arms as if they were about to fly. In this way they learn to take off, as they say in the Sahel, on the wings of the wind. "Flying" on the wings of the wind, they reconnect to the power of patience, courage and resilience.

We have much to learn from The Caravan of Peace and the likes of Khaira Arby and Songhoy Blues. As in Mali, there is no shortage of political and economic oppression in the United States. Considering the ever-growing celebration and extension of ignorance, intolerance, hate and social violence, the prospect for our future generates no small measure of fear.

In our quest for a more perfect union will we learn the wise lessons of patience, courage and resilience?

Will we learn how to fly on the wings of the wind?